Since I returned to Montana in 2012, our economy has been stronger than most states. We are beneficiaries of the natural gas ‘fracking’ boom, and China’s demand for our cheap coal exports. I remember the decades when communities in Eastern Montana were desperate for any kind of job. They were recruiting factory cattle feed lots that other states were banning because of water and air quality concerns. More than one community had fallen victim to fraudulent promises that if they would just build an industrial park, the corporations would come. Like the rainmakers of the past, the con artists would come dancing into the town, in fancy suits driving expensive cars, and leave with tens of thousands of dollars of the community’s hard earned money. Desperate for jobs, they were easy prey for the charlatans.
Now the energy companies have come to deliver these rural communities from their decline with promises of high paying jobs and attractive royalty payments for land owners. Worker shanty towns (mobile home parks) reminiscent of past boom times have popped up. Schools are over-crowded, streets are falling apart, law enforcement is spread too thin. Rapes, assaults, thefts, and murders have multiplied (increased by 32%). Men (and a very few women) are commuting from hundreds of miles away, sometimes even from other states, sending their money back home to their family. The communities got their high paying jobs, but they lost their sense of community and safety.
Meanwhile in Western Montana, environmentalists and liberals are highly critical of the energy (fossil fuel) economy. There are protests and demonstrations to end the massive numbers of coal trains, and to educate citizens about the dire environmental effects of fracking and burning coal (even if the coal is burned in China). Many of the protesters are employed in the public sector, education, knowledge workers, or have retirement incomes. They don’t understand the trials and tribulations of the unemployed, or the long term economic challenges facing rural communities. It is hard to convince people in Eastern Montana that we need to end our reliance on fossil fuels when jobs in the energy sector are the only jobs they can find that will allow them to feed their children and pay their rent.
The Montana Legislature reconvenes this week in Helena. They only gather every other year for approximately 90 days. I am constantly frustrated with the divisiveness of Montana’s politics. I have worked with small business owners. I have started and owned businesses, and borrowed money to make payroll for employees. I have also felt the shame and marginalization of unemployment. I know what it is like to watch the community that you grew up in, that you love, wither away with little or no hope for the future. I understand the dilemma of knowing in my soul what is right and what is wrong, but feeling compelled to continue working in a place that does not align with my morals because I have to pay my mortgage and put food on the table.
In my heart I know that we (liberals and conservatives) are more alike than we are different. We care about our families, and our communities. We are trying to make ends meet. Some of us blame the government, others blame the poor, and some blame capitalism and corporations. We all participate in the systems that are not working. We are all responsible for working together to create new possibilities for a brighter future. We have to learn how to disagree with respect and to treat people with dignity, regardless of their position in our social hierachy.
I feel a sense of urgency to express myself as a leader through writing and public speaking. I also fear the consequences of writing about injustice in the face of power. And there are two competing voices in my head: I am NOT a writer, and I should be a writer. What if I write and no one wants to read what I have written? Is that senseless, useless? Should I be doing more productive things, like being a ‘real’ leader with positional authority? Should I be more concerned about my own retirement, how I am going to make ends meet? Do I want a job, and a salary with benefits? Or am I ready to take a risk again, and do something creative? Can I create my own employment, and by doing so become a role model for others?