GVI — the non-profit established in 2008 to “create environmental and community change through local action” — has had a tough row to hoe.
First, the organization had to establish itself. What would it do, and how? Where would it work? Who would it represent and respond to?
GVI quickly plowed new ground — figuratively and literally. A community- supported agriculture program took off. An internship program harnessed the passion of Staples students, who walked over from the nearby high school and poured their hearts into the project. Films and lectures carried the “environmental and community change” message to people of all ages around town.
But the heart of GVI was the farm and garden. Under the direction of Staples AP Environmental Studies instructor Mike Aitkenhead — Westport’s 2009 Teacher of the Year — and his wife Carrie, the GVI-renovated farmhouse and adjacent land became the centerpiece of an ongoing, constantly evolving effort that combined a Vermont back-to-the-land sensibility with a Westport education-activism ethos.
Yet all along, GVI occupied a little-understood space in town. Was it a municipal organization? Quasi-civic? Who ran it, and who was run by it? For a community organization, it seemed to be led by a small group of people who — I often heard — had a “my way or the highway” management style.
(Wakeman Town Farm is, in fact, owned by the town — which leases it to GVI for $1 a year.)
Earlier this month — several weeks before the Aitkenheads’ contract came up for renewal — a faction on the GVI board scrutinized the couple’s stewardship of the farm. Fault was found in many areas — including, I am told, that one of their young child’s toys was in a community area.
The Aitkenheads cannot speak publicly. But, I have heard from others, it seems as if their entire lives at the farm had turned into a public event. I liken it to living at Old Sturbridge Village, 24/7/365.
The Aitkenheads’ contract was not terminated. It was simply not renewed.
But the effect — on the farm’s many interns, the Staples and Westport communities, even GVI as an important town organization — is the same.
Few people are talking on the record. At least 4 board members have resigned — quietly.
“06880” teems with comments. But — at least so far — no one in a position of authority seems to be listening to the passionate pleas of the hundreds of men, women, teenagers and younger children the Aitkenheads inspired.
In fact, their concerns have not even been acknowledged.
The bond between WTF and the twin communities of Staples and Westport is crucial. The Aitkenheads — and GVI — have developed more than a farm and a garden. They’ve created an organic, living entity that — though still in its infancy — shows signs of growing into one of the most important elements of our community “family.”
Yet GVI seems willing to let it die. Or — perhaps more harshly — seems eager to kill it off.
Several meetings have been held over the past few days, in an attempt to resolve the issue. As with the Washington budget talks, progress seems impossible.
It’s time now to move the discussion in another direction. We need to ask:
- Is the non-renewal of the contract a done deal?
- Where do leaders of the town — which owns the farm — stand?
- Has GVI lost its legitimacy? Can it survive? Should it?
- And where do we go from here?
Farmers don’t like to talk a lot. They prefer actions to words.
Westporters do talk. But eventually we act too.
Let’s start hearing some straight, action-oriented talk from everyone.
And then let’s do whatever we can to get the Aitkenheads back on the farm, and the farm back to work.