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A Local’s Dilemma

By News Creatives Authors , in Leadership , at September 27, 2021

By Sloan Storey, program supervisor 

In my mountainous small town of Hailey, Idaho – better known as Sun Valley, a ritzy ski town getaway for the upper class – being a local is the golden ticket. You’re believed to know the way our community is and how it should be moving forward. You get it and dislike the ones who want to change it. 

As of late, the question of who’s a “real local” has been debated in most conversations I’m a part of. Simply stating, “I’m a local, born and raised” gives me more respect and validity than any college degree or lived experience ever could, even if the topic in question could be better answered by a real expert, potentially by someone who has just recently moved here. This debate of entitlement and ego seems to be occurring across the nation as more are packing up their lives in hopes of finding a new community elsewhere with more to offer.

But, what does it really mean to be a local? Who defines it and why do we feel like we have to? Is it simply being born here or raising your kids here? Is it having a 100 days of skiing on your pass or working in the same restaurant for 20 plus years?

Do we really need more “locals” who want to waste energy on drawing those lines or do we actually need more engaged community members actively trying to make our community a better place to live for all people? When we start to draw lines that inevitably build walls of separation, we dismantle our entire sense of community – the thing we all need and aspire to find in our pursuit of happiness. 

So, the question we should really be asking is “what makes you a part of this community and what are you doing to make it better?” 

Growing up in my hometown I had always been involved in my community, but I was never one to take the time to understand the different parts of it or to see the hardship that my neighbors were going through. I had all the privileges one needed to be able to ignore these discrepancies and injustices. I didn’t see the ways in which some of the nation’s highest food costs, lowest wages, lack of affordable housing, and high mental health disparities kept many locals (nearly 1 in 4) in the weeds. Not to mention, the intentional efforts from our community to keep those dark currents hidden below our valley floor in fear of not seeming perfect. 

As a “local” I was missing so much of what made my community work and who was adding to the exact culture that so many are desperately trying to hold onto today. I didn’t start to see the entirety of my community until I began working at The Hunger Coalition (a local non-profit fighting food insecurity in Blaine County) as a Program Coordinator. I moved home with a Health Education degree with a few years of travel under my belt and high hopes of making a difference in my community. I never imagined that a place I thought I knew so well could change my entire perspective of what it means to be a local — what it meant to be a part of a community. I learned that by working together to build community through programming, collaboration, and good food, I could help to create a stronger community for everyone to live in. 

I was forced to look at food insecurity head on and watch my neighbors walk through our food bank’s doors, life’s hardships in tow. Teachers I had learned from, coaches I look up to, police officers, nurses, and firefighters that protect me, and childhood friends stuck in the cycle of multi-generational poverty – all here, all pillars of our community trying to find the same happiness we all strive for in this valley. I saw how many different types of people this community is built from and how many of us are struggling to make ends meet so that we can stay here. How much the constant struggle to keep food on the table and a roof overhead can affect one’s ability to be engaged, connected community members.

The programs at The Hunger Coalition provide food, but more importantly they provide opportunity for connection and understanding. When I sit down to help a participant through their online shopping experience or eat a sandwich next to one of the kids at our Summer Food Program, the same theme occurs when I ask “so, how are we doing today?” The struggles at home, losing employment, rent doubling, or a family member struggling with health issues are common responses, but then they tell me about their isolation and loneliness. Their lack of feeling like they belong or have a community they can rely on because of their stigmatized struggles — the real reason they feel so low. It’s the reason why so many who participate in our food distribution programs space their pickups out over the week so they can interact with us more often. 

We all want community, but do we understand just how bad we need it? How when we have community — a strong community that stands beside us — a lot of our hardships seem less daunting and we feel the strength to push forward.

At The Hunger Coalition, we recognize the power in a strong community and that it takes many hands from different lived experiences to create one. We offer programming to provide food to those who need it, but more importantly we focus on how the programs can build connections in the process. By providing space for our community to see one another and to learn from one another, we can create space for real change. 

Our new Bloom Community Food Center attempts to create that space for community building and understanding through food. Where volunteers, participants, donors, staff, and visitors work side by side to create a better, healthier community for each other and themselves. A place where we attempt to blur the lines of “us” and “them” so that we can focus on building a more resilient “we.”

When I participate in our programs and seek opportunities to be with my community, my range of understanding and empathy grows. Each day that I choose to understand the people in my community — all pursuing the same goal of happiness as me — the more connected I feel. The more I realize that being a local is so much more than the simple fact of being fortunate enough to be born here or grow up here, but about actively choosing to engage with my neighbors around me — to share our stories — in order to start the work of building a greater community for all of us. Because although change can seem scary, it presents a chance to create and improve together. 

The truth being that we are all here — living locally — but working, struggling, and thriving as a community. If we all take the time to see each other, resist drawing those lines, and reach out with curiosity instead of entitlement — would we have a more empathetic and just world, and in turn a more welcoming and thriving home for all of us?

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