If you can’t make any progress doing all the things you’ve been doing, it’s time to try something else. That is the message behind the title of Dede Feldman’s new prescriptive book: “Another Way Forward: Grassroots Solutions from New Mexico” (235 pages, $26.50 in paperback, published by Dede Feldman Co./Books with foundation support).
For 16 years, Feldman was a leader of the slender liberal bloc in the state Senate, and later wrote an honest and valuable memoir recounting her experience (“Inside the New Mexico Senate: Boots, Suits and Citizens”) that I earlier reviewed in this column.
She is not the kind of writer who publicly gnashes her teeth over her frustrations. But behind her new book clearly lies the story of New Mexico’s inability to find solutions to its worsening social and economic plight. The book “offers hope to anyone discouraged by the nation’s inability to tackle problems like poverty and health care,” claims a blurb on the back cover, adding, “resourceful citizens are drawing a roadmap to permanent jobs and healthy communities, something that often eludes national and state officials.”
New data in recent days support her point. They describe New Mexico as having the second worst unemployment in the country, the worst school system and a stagnating population with more people leaving the state than arriving.
Meanwhile, federal, state and local governments and the leaderless business community are failing to come up with any plan to reverse the slide into increasing poverty, inequality and crime, deteriorating public services and hollowed-out public institutions.
So what is an involved public citizen, former state senator and inveterate optimist like Feldman to do?
Answer: Find “another way.”
By this she means bottom-up rather than top-down. If the elites won’t lead, maybe the people will.
Thus she explores grassroots cultural, health care, education and community development initiatives that improve people’s lives while not relying on government or big business. Her search turns up several dozen such initiatives, primarily in the Albuquerque area but also in smaller towns all over the state.
She avoids some highly publicized local efforts, such as the explosion of craft breweries. But she does look at George R.R. Martin’s successful efforts to expand Santa Fe community arts and entertainment with offerings including Meow Wolf, and such well established grassroots institutions as First Choice Community Health Care and La Montañita Co-op Food Market, both headquartered in Albuquerque.
Other programs that Feldman unearths, however, are far more obscure and on a much smaller scale than these multimillion-dollar institutions. Unfortunately, the dice are loaded in favor of Albuquerque. There are exceptions, such as the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps program in Jemez Pueblo, where “a tradition of running [is] now harnessed to combat diabetes, obesity and other health problems.”
The need, if anything, is even grater in the small towns and villages of rural New Mexico, most of which are dying for lack of jobs and economic opportunity. In such small towns as Mountainair or Estancia or Moriarty, a single good idea can make the difference between renewal and an agonizing economic decline. Many small towns elsewhere in the United States have discovered paths to such a transformation, but successful examples in New Mexico are nearly nonexistent.
I would love to see another book as a successor to “Another Way Forward” that describes how small towns in rural New Mexico could tap into their human and natural and historical resources to stave off economic death and revive community life.
The way things are going now, nearly all 2 million New Mexicans are going to end up living in the Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces metropolitan areas, and that would be a real tragedy, for it is in our diversity of cultures, landscapes and histories that the true strength of New Mexico resides.