Where is home?
It’s a question I’ve been trying to answer for much of my life. About more than simple geography, it is a question that carries significant weight, a question about finding a sense of place and belonging.
As a community organizer, I love the stories people tell of where they grew up. There’s a raw connection, good and bad, that shapes them and drives them through life. For those who still live in their home communities, there is often an unbridled passion--a vision for what this place could be--and my work is to move them to act on that vision, and through intentional community-building, bringing that vision into existence.
Our hometowns shape who we are. They visit abundance and scarcity upon us, determine if we stay or leave, or if we even have that choice. I meet a lot of people who have left. They come from small towns and dying cities. They’re looking for meaning, for hope, for opportunity.
My own path has been far from simple. My early childhood was spent in the Eastwood neighborhood of Birmingham, an area for which I have absolutely no context, no history. Much of what I remember is gone. The landmarks I knew as a kid were Eastwood Mall (now demolished) and Century Plaza (now crumbling). We would pass them everyday on the way to school at McElwaine Elementary (now closed).
When I was about nine, my family moved to Alex City, a town of maybe 16,000 people. My dad had a new job and the schools were supposed to be better. But it was a place I couldn’t quite make sense of. Here I was the new kid, but my peers had known each other all their lives. They liked hunting and fishing and football. There was racial tension and a class divide far more overt than I had experienced before.
I wanted the sense of community, of belonging I saw among my peers. I made friends, but I never shook the sense that I was an outsider. I didn’t know the local lore or have the same experiences of place. I knew I wouldn’t stay there and began looking for my way out.
After nine years an opportunity was provided. It was move-in day at the University of Montevallo, an architectural gem in rural southern Shelby County situated in a city of only 5,500 people. And it wasn’t long before I met others like me. Others from small towns who didn’t fit in, whether because of politics, religion, sexuality, or place of origin. Together we forged our own community in this quirky little town, banded together along the brick streets, contemplating our place in the universe on the wrap-around porch of the local coffee shop.
I’ve lived a lot of other places. And most of the people I knew in college are living elsewhere. But for me that small community is where I call home. It’s where I met my spouse, where my kids started school. We love the scenic walks along main street and the university campus, and taking the kids to Orr Park and community events. It’s been a place of discovery and struggle, of love and of loss.
But the drive for community is not mine alone. When others share their stories of their hometowns, that’s what I hear--a longing for community that no longer exists. Because we’ve been divided by outside forces, compelled to leave in search of economic opportunity or left behind by those who do. The local shops have been supplanted by Wal-Mart and Starbucks. We’re told this is the way the world works, that it’s progress, that the future is in the city.
But it doesn't have to be that way.
Our hometowns can innovate. Our hometowns can provide opportunity. Our hometowns are the future. But it won’t be outside forces that make this true. It is us, everyday people with a love of place and a determination to thrive. I meet them everyday and we share a collective vision of greatness for our hometowns.
We’re coming home.
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Justin Vest is the founder and executive director of Hometown Action. He is returning home to Montevallo with his partner and three children.