No magic needed for a better community

Published 4:00 pm Saturday, June 23, 2012

Column: By Ann Austin, Live United

I recently took a trip to Denver for the Pioneering Healthier Communities conference. Pioneering Healthier Communities has been in existence in our area since 2009 and many local community members have gathered together to focus on making the “healthy choice the easy choice.”

This is a national effort to help turn around the tide of the past three decades. We have lived relatively well, but without realizing that our lifestyles have been making us sick.

Ann Austin

Email newsletter signup

There were many people from around the country at this three-day event, and there are many issues they are facing: significant poverty in Tennessee, no green space or parks for children to play in parts of Alabama, lack of grocery stores or “corner stores” with any healthy food choices in Washington, and the list continues, because everything around us affects our health.

The situation we are in now has been a gradual shift that has occurred over many years, as we have become more distant from nature and from each other.

So, back in 2006, people decided they were going to try to solve what each community was facing (because each community is very unique) by providing tools, resources and best practices for people in that community. It’s a great model and has helped deliver some success, but there is still a lot of work to be done — because something is missing.

I was talking to a friend the other day about a favorite book from my childhood called “Anna’s Magic Broom” by Barbara Westman. Anna lived on a rooftop, which she did not often leave because “the streets were so ugly, people were always pushing and shoving her and there was trash everywhere.” Every time Anna walked the street she would slip on a tin can or a banana peel and landed up in the gutter.

This frustration led her to isolate herself from the rest of her community. It is much like what happens in areas of the country where the conditions outside are not safe because of gang violence, degrading structures, lack of sidewalks, etc.

Anna’s story changed when a strong gust of wind brought a “magic” broom to her rooftop one day — when Anna grabbed the broom, another gust of wind brought her down to the streets below. As usual, she was disgusted by the condition of the city — there was garbage everywhere — and she became angry.

Anna didn’t get a chance to run home because the broom started to sweep, “it pulled and pushed and then whirled Anna down the street. In the blink of an eye the street was spotless. The people cheered, ‘Hooray for Anna! Hooray for the broom!’”

Anna cleaned up the whole street, from top to bottom that day. And other people started to come out of their homes to enjoy their neighborhood. They again appreciated it and were talking to each other.

One day, another gust of wind took the broom away. Anna looked everywhere but could not find it. She returned to her rooftop and did not leave for days. Anna’s will was broken because she had lost her magic broom. She remained isolated again until she heard noises on the streets below.

Her neighbors had brooms in hand and were sweeping up the streets! Everyone worked together to clean up the neighborhood — and they did it without a magic broom.

It may seem daunting to think of what needs to be done, but the small steps do help. Every day, we can do something to help make our community better. Every minute, we can look at life as having so much potential — we are capable of so much! Sometimes we think that it will take a “magic broom” in the shape of a pill, a lottery ticket or a new lease on life.

The magic wasn’t in Anna’s broom, it was in her heart and her will to start trying to do something about what frustrated her — and it was in the amazing community who rallied together and recognized that they, too, could do something remarkable!

Ann Austin is the director of the United Way of Freeborn County.