Sunday, December 1, 2013

On Her Tractor: Wisty Sows New Jobs

Wisty Rorabacher: Working to create work

At a children's Halloween party in Northampton, Mass, the only two women of a certain age gravitate towards each other.
I like how Wisty Rorabacher is dressed – plaid shirt, corduroy overalls and a brown tweed  British newsboy cap. Our conversation is as relaxed – and as surprising – as she looks. Because Wisty has accomplished something in her so-called retirement that, in two years of interviewing people,  I had not found:
Wisty has created jobs. She puts a lie to the idea that older people are draining the nation financially and taking jobs from the young. In fact, she’s done the opposite. How?
Six years ago, Wisty found herself, like a lot of retired people, moving to be closer to a son and daughter-in-law. She and her longtime partner arrived in Greenfield, Mass. from the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, with no jobs, no friends, no history, no connections.
 “Part of it was, I just retired. I don’t have 20 years to slowly make friends.  I had to hit the pavement. And I decide I’m going to do something, right here, right now. I really wanted to work on being physically healthy. So I joined the Y and worked out three hours, three days a week there. You gain friends in the locker room. Women didn’t used to do that, But you get your locker room friends. So there were those people.
“I really wanted to get involved in the community.” Greenfield “is like 18,000 people and if you want to get involved, you get involved. One of the things I read about Greenfield before I moved was that there was a national sustainable energy organization. I called them up and said, ‘I’ll do whatever you want. I’ll help out.’
Plowing Greenfield's community garden
“They had some gardens in their solar park. They needed someone to work those gardens. I had just come off the land in Arkansas. I know how to garden and I missed it. So they gave me the best gift and they were thrilled to find somebody who felt good about doing that.”
“Meanwhile,” she continued, “I was meeting all these people in the sustainable energy community. So I got onto some committees on energy.  One thing led to another and it was real easy to start an identity from being active in that community.”

Soon, she was helping to pull in federal and state grant money and large donations for the community farm to sustain open space and grow crops for local residents.  Low-income families pay just $5 a week. And she was garnering press for Greenfield Community Garden, driving a tractor, plowing 20 acres of the 60-acre tract that she’d helped preserve in perpetuity. Suddenly, there were jobs to be filled: a full time farmer, a full time person who does education, an executive director and assistant director to oversee media and volunteer work. Others are hired seasonally, including an apprentice who helps weed and harvest and work in the farmers market.
If that weren’t enough, Wisty, who spent her career in education – teaching special ed and early childhood education in Minnesota and then gifted students in Arkansas--also is creating jobs in the Greenfield public schools.
In a permaculture gardening class, she met a woman who wanted to get YMCA members to volunteer in the public schools. “Nancy said, ‘How bout if we work together on it?’ Wisty recalled.  “So we made a proposal; the superintendent liked it and asked us to run with it, so we did. It quickly became apparent that we needed to hire somebody” to coordinate the volunteers.
“It was one of those things in a smallish community, if you see a need and you can show that you’re reliable,  responsible, you’re gonna follow through, then people will give you leeway. And it happened.”

Next for Wisty:  Her work to tie the community farm program into the schools, with students coming out to the farm and educational programs, got her doing some research. She found that none of the agricultural courses in the state’s tech or vocational schools focused on small organic farming, despite growing demand. She’s now intent on creating such a program with the high school.
“If that happens, “ she says, “it will open up more jobs.”
Wisty told me all this because I asked. She doesn’t usually wear her accomplishments on her overalls that way, even though those who’ve left careers often yearn to be acknowledged.
“One of the things that I learned to treasure,” she says, “ is to just walk around with that knowledge myself. Maybe nobody else has a clue about [what I’m doing] but it’s like part of the whole of me. You know what I mean?”


Wendy lee said...

This is fascinating and very inspirational. What a great report...thanks for this.

Linda P. said...

I loved reading about someone who made a difference in new community. I particularly loved, too, the way you gravitated toward her and elicited the facts that led to this story.