People define communities; best communities come from people who stake claim 7/30/2013

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 30, 2013

People define communities; best communities come from people who stake claim

By Karen Ott Mayer
Guest Columnist

Remember this phrase: Staking a claim.

Last week, the Como Main Street Alliance spearheaded a community survey around town as part of our work with Mississippi State, The Stennis Institute, and The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). 

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With my crew of teen volunteers, we had four days to get as many filled out as possible.  Our goal?  400.  Our strategy included a guerilla-style marketing campaign with tables on Main Street, at the intersection of Cherry and Warren, and in the parking lot of Dollar General. We hit Facebook and visited businesses in person.

These surveys were totally anonymous. We didn’t read them, review them or look at them. The folks at MSU have graciously taken on that part of this project — which makes it totally objective for us. We also offered the chance to win a $20 gift card for anyone who completed the survey. We hit just under half, sending MSU about 160 total. When looking at our local population, that’s about one-sixth of our town.  Good?  Bad?  Respectable, I’d assume.

What surprised me more, however, was the nature of the resistance to this survey.

This not being my first survey rodeo, it’s common to hear typical reactions. “I don’t have time.”  “I don’t care.”  “I don’t like them.” “It won’t change anything.”  “My husband filled one out.”  “I have to rearrange my toothpick drawer.”  You name it, we heard it.

However, the most illogical response to my mind involved perceptions of geography.  “I don’t live in Como, I only work here.”  Or, “I live just outside of town.”  Or, “I only eat here everyday and work here, but I don’t live here.”


When I hear this reply, I feel nothing short of an overwhelming desire to throw myself on the ground in a childish tantrum. In the past, someone once said to me, “Karen, you don’t even live in Como so why do you care what happens here?” 

As I told this person, let’s review.  I shop in Como.  I eat in Como.  I go to church in Como.  I bank in the town.  I mail my letters from town.  Geographically, yes, I live outside of Como…by about 12 feet.  The city limit sign is just across the road from me. 

So I asked this person, “So what part of my reality would change if we moved the sign 12 feet West?”  Nothing.  I’d still shop, eat, worship, bank, mail, party and dance in Como.  My claims on this piece of the world would remain the same.

Here’s my point.  Cities and governing bodies set boundaries.  People define communities. 

When challenged with these walled responses during our survey, I explained my own belief.  If you have any association with this community at any level — work, church, recreation, socialization — then you, or some part of your world, is part of this community. You have a claim on this land, this town, these people.  Instead of abdicating our citizenship, we should be staking a claim on it.  

In the early 1900s, settlers in this country raced across the plains out West to stake a claim.

These claim deals were actually organized events. At the sound of a gunshot, these brave souls literally raced against neighbor and friend to drive a stake into the ground first.  They fought for that claim.  They physically drove a stake into the earth—and then guarded it!

What has happened to us as communities if we spend our days existing in a space—but then feel the need to deny it?  Ironically, those who opted out of the process are generally those who generously offer their complaints at other times.  Does anyone besides me see an inherent conflict in this reasoning? 

After spending several days on this task, here’s my own opinion.  And before everyone runs to the computer to send a rebuttal, remember these are simply observations.  First, those who were most cooperative and wanted to participate were those in our community who generally had no position of power or a strong voice.  Those who turned up their nose were generally the keepers of the power or the wealth base.  Makes sense, no? If life is fine in your corner, what in the world does it matter to change the world around you?  If you are the keeper of resources, then no doubt, you vote the status quo then go home to make a martini or drive the BMW around the block.

Can a stack of surveys change the world?  Probably not.  But can they give us some insight into ourselves, our belief systems and our hopes?  Sure. We’ll eventually have some snapshot of our internal image in Como.  What will it look like?  We’ll definitely keep everyone posted.

In the meantime, think about your relationship to this community. Do you claim it?  If not, there’s still time to drive that stake in the ground.