‘Methland’: It’s Our Job After All

Allyson Villars
Former Executive Director
Youth Services, Inc.
Brattleboro, Vt.

Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town. Nick Reding.

Writer Nick Reding describes the four square miles that make up Oelwein (pronounced OL-wine), Iowa by making you feel like you’ve been there. He fascinates you with characters who have stayed in rural towns across our country even when the economy sent their neighbors scurrying to locations with some economic bounty. He paints a canvas that lets you see why decreasing population, economic strife, and communities on immigration routes combine to paint a bleak future; Reding says it is these indicators that create just the right climate to incubate an alternative economy based on methamphetamine.

You will say this is “not my home town,” “not happening in my backyard,” “not likely,” “not going to happen to me or my kids,” but no one in Oelwein thought it would happen there or to them either. Read and watch this Olewein community with an alligator-skin mayor and tougher police chief shape-shift their town into a brighter future pushing hard, like it was life or death — and it was.

‘Methland’ is extremely important to read because the demise of rural towns to meth and economic turmoil can be prevented, but only when communities are proactive. It shocked me that the root cause of the meth epidemic in rural towns was economic strife, including declining population. It shocked me further to note that preventing an economic slide would have a major impact on, or actually stem, the meth tide.

I think that we, as adults and as youth workers, need to think more broadly about the conditions in our communities that give rise to our youth sinking or thriving, and this book puts that clearly in focus. I do not think we can just do well by our youth one on one; that is not enough. We need to think and act at the macro level by taking on the bigger local issues even though we might see that work as “someone else’s turf.” We need to do this because taking on economic development and rural transportation and affordable housing, and micro lending for youth entrepreneurial ventures, will make a lasting difference for youth.

I know we mean well as youth-service providers, and that we don’t take on these big issues because we have little time, too few staff, and not enough mone,y and think TNMJ — that’s not my job. But these are the issues that will change not just the lives of one generation but the lives of many generations. Prioritizing this macro work will get us as agencies and non profits and community members out of the scarcity mentality to the abundance mentality. Most importantly it will send a lasting message to youth as they learn from what we do and not what we say.

Allyson Villars was executive director of Youth Services Inc., in Brattleboro, VT, until 2011.