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The Briar Patch— Life cycles of community

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As an unmarried person with no children, I bear the brunt of the school tax burden. And I am okay with it. Rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard once famously announced, “Wu-Tang is for the children.” And so am I. However, as a college professor, I also know firsthand that many students arrive in my classroom unprepared for the rigors of a college curriculum. It doesn’t matter if they come from wealthy school districts with fantastic buildings or not. Knowing this doesn’t mean that students should be learning in subpar buildings. And it certainly doesn’t mean that teachers, sacrificing so much for their students, shouldn’t have adequate physical resources. The issues fall on a spectrum of challenges.

Yellow Springers will soon be asked to support efforts to either build a new school or improve the structures that are already in place through a new school levy. Up until three years ago, a school levy passing in Yellow Springs had been a no-brainer for several generations. Residents have historically supported our schools with decades-long approvals of education tax levies.

The first levy defeat in decades occurred in 2018, when many voters believed that the levy put forward by the school district was too expensive. It was soundly defeated, with 64% of the village voting against it. The district plan called for increasing the tax burden on an aging Yellow Springs population, many of whom were on fixed incomes and struggling to meet increased cost-of-living expenses. Others pointed to declining school enrollment and openly questioned the efficacy of building schools with such a high price tag. While there was pervasive belief that something needed to be done, there was also anger expressed in some quarters that the district was dismissive of the overall needs of the community and exhibited a heavy-handed non-fact-based marketing approach to force the levy through. Even the parents of school kids were split, leaving bitter discord and friendships broken over the differences of opinion. 

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Three years later, we are now in a worse situation locally and nationally. Village revenues have faltered because of the COVID-19 pandemic and property taxes have increased exponentially for many residents. Our population is still older. At a time when the town’s infrastructure is more fragile than ever and utilities remain sky high, we will be asked to approve a levy — for either extensive school renovations or a $30 million base price for new schools.  The sweet spot between improving the physical buildings for our students while in a declining enrollment cycle and attracting new families with children to increase enrollment is a lobster shell.

In knowing all of this, let’s not make this new levy process a Bill Murray Groundhog Day movie remake. Supporting our most vulnerable populations, including our seniors and children, is important to the overall health of our community. All of us, including the school district, Village and township elected officials, foundations and community organizations, must factor in the true human cost of what it will take to build or renovate the schools. We need community development planning that extends beyond new schools. We need to commit  to building new schools while also working with social service organizations, foundations or Village officials on ways to establish funds to support those who will feel the brunt of a new levy. We need to engage in a process in which we stop pretending that an extra $50 a month or even an extra $10 a month tax burden won’t mean that some people will have to choose between medication and food. It happens here all the time. Yes, even in Yellow Springs.

An ideograph called a KiKongo cosmogram demonstrates this critical balance of youth and elder energy and its importance in our lives. The BaKongo people of Africa were brutally forced into enslavement in places we now call Haiti, Cuba, Brazil and the United States. The BaKongo are part of my ancestral lineage.

The cosmogram is a non-linear concept of time that represents the sun’s life cycles. It is a metaphor for human transformation over time. Descriptively it is a circle with two lines drawn horizontally and vertically through the interior, forming a cross. If drawn in the sand or dirt, ceremonially, a person stands in the center of the circle where the lines meet — at the crossroads. Depending on the direction one faces, symbolically or through the aspect of where a person is in her life, important lessons are derived about humanity and nature. Therefore, communities can glean important lessons derived from these cycles of transformation.

Directionally speaking, facing South at the crossroads is the deep, dark mysterious energy of the womb. It is where seeds find root, where ideas form, where ancestral memory from the elders is passed to a person being born.

Birth is represented directionally to the East, to sunrise. When babies are born, they are close to the source of wisdom. They carry within them the fresh memory of lessons learned in the womb.

Facing North while standing at the crossroads, one gazes into the fully realized energy of daylight. Adulthood, brought into existence through the sun’s energy, nudges awake the seeds buried deep in the womb, bringing us into consciousness. Daylight is responsible for the transformation of ideas into action.

A person standing in the direction of the West, or sunset, is facing elder status, the final stage of life before returning to the source with the knowledge learned in this lifetime to be shared in the nesting womb of night. An elder is also responsible for imparting knowledge to the generations coming behind.

Because children and elders reside at both sunrise and sunset symbolically, they anchor and ground our collective humanity. In many ways they both are the most important assets in a community, the ones possessing the greatest wisdom. In some African societies, it is why grandparents bear the responsibility of raising the children.

In a community such as Yellow Springs, where people do have respect for our youth and elders, it is evident that our collective vitality is anchored by both. It would be more than contemptible to pitch two of the most important generations against each other in this levy process. We must protect both our young people and our seniors.

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