Resident-owned in Big Sky Country

“Better Together.” It’s a phrase first sparked in me when I was a little girl growing up and wanted to build a fort out back of where we lived in the country. My mom would always say, “Why don’t you go ask your friends in the neighborhood to help, it will be better if you all work on it together! It will be a fun place to play and other kids will probably have some cool things that they can contribute to make it even better!”

As my husband and I set out across some of the most beautiful parts of Montana we have ever seen, we are looking forward to visiting with and seeing each of the 9 co-ops in a 3-day tour through the state. I am often reminded of my mom’s advice, but I never imagined how big a part of my life it would play until the last few years as a leader in a resident-owned community. Back in the day, my friends and I of course owned our fort collectively and all our cool stuff that went with it, but we did not own the spot we chose to build or set it up on. That often meant we had to pack it up and move to a new location due to one reason or another.

As we drove along, I began to recall all of the manufactured home communities — or trailer parks as people tend to label them — that had been sold over the past 6 or 7 years and how many people had been displaced before ROC USA came into the picture with the opportunity for economically challenged people to purchase the land under their homes and become a resident-owned community. Not only could their community purchase the land beneath them but also manage, improve, secure and enjoy living and raising their families. The responsibility of being “Better Together” would be up to us!

Our first stop on this tour would be Great Falls, followed by Red Lodge, Missoula and Pablo. I had known most of the leaders who I would be visiting for some time but, it had been quite a while since I had last seen them or their communities. We spent 3 really great days making the rounds and talking with everyone about how things were going and what all had changed over the course of a few years. Many had made great progress in their communities but all leaders shared with us that as has been heard so often, community participation and engagement was their biggest struggle. We were no stranger to that long standing dilemma in our own community. Why was this happening? At this point I want to share with you a quote I recently read by Julius Nyerere:

“People cannot be developed: the can only develop themselves. For while it is possible for an outsider to build a person’s house, an outsider cannot give the person pride and self-confidence. These things a person has to create in himself by his own actions. He develops himself by making his own decisions, by increasing his understanding of what he is doing and why, by increasing his own knowledge and ability, and by his own sole participation – as an equal – in the life of the community he lives in.”

We often stand in our own way on being “Better Together” getting into the habit of saying to ourselves, “I will do it myself, nothing ever changes” which by the way is true. If nothing changes, then nothing changes — focusing on what we want to do for the community and not with the community. I have drawn on this from my own experiences as a leader. The freedom to purchase and manage the communities we live in is a unique opportunity to create the very best living environment for yourself and your family. Like back in the day of building those forts: Some people wanted to build a fort and some people did not. Those who did want to build a fort put all their best efforts and hard work into creating the best fort they could, each of them having something to contribute. Sure we argued and had to work some things out but together we figured it out and moved forward. These communities are our home! If you are not inspired by the community you live in, ask yourself why? Ask yourself what you might be able to do to change that? Better yet ask a neighbor or two for their input. What cool things could you bring to the fort?? My husband would say a pool table of course but that’s another conversation.

Montana is a beautiful state with hardworking individuals, many struggling to make ends meet with affordable housing being very scarce! Consider how much we can lessen the burden for each other by volunteering to be on a board seat, plant a community garden, help a neighbor out with something, and plan a social activity. Get to know your communities and the people you live in them with. Watch how some of the smallest things truly make a difference. I believe it is never too late to make a community successful but, you have to want it! Be part of what makes us “Better Together”

Thank You, to all the Montana co-op leaders I spoke with on this tour who have worked so hard through the years to better their communities each of you truly inspire me!