Like so many rural communities in New Mexico and across America, Ratón is at a crossroads.
Founded in the 19th century as an outlying colony of westward expansion, Ratón provided coal and water for the new railroad. While it exported cattle and coal, its food was largely produced locally—through small farms, gardens, and the raising of sheep, goats and cattle.
When houses converted to central heating, local coal was the fuel. As demand for electricity came, it was provided by burning local coal. Ratón developed its own electric distribution grid—still in existence and in good shape.
Eventually, the exports became coal, cattle and kids. The vacuum cleaner that is higher education arrived in the 1950s, taking our most motivated children. We celebrated those successes before we realized there was also reason to mourn them. Globalization eventually replaced local jobs, so our children had few to which they could return.
National centralization of energy production overrode the efficiencies of local coal. And local food production was replaced by global production.
In time, lack of demand diminished and aged the housing inventory. The Main Street business owners are aging-out as well, with no one coming forward to buy them out.
And the public schools gradually became the mirror of a community dropping slowly into the poverty that now plagues rural America as a whole. Without a middle class and the young people who inhabit it, the schools no longer have the critical mass of motivated parents who helped public education succeed. At the same time, national K-12 policy has long favored the higher achievers and the most challenged, leaving the middle 60 percent without the kind of practical education that translates directly to the very jobs that are so hard to fill.
The dilemma is clear. Even if rural communities like ours could get a new industry, we no longer have a workforce. The fact is that Ratón has jobs, with many more coming in the healthcare field. The challenge is finding young people who are willing to move here when housing is inadequate and the public schools are struggling due to the ravages of poverty.
It is becoming apparent that communities like Ratón are produced by a history of colonization and now are part of an intractable system of globalization and consumerism—a system that destroys rather than cultivates local community.
So, Ratón is developing a new strategy that draws on systemic thinking. What would it look like, we are asking, if we turn our heads from the past and look toward a future with an entirely different perspective? What kind of system would work?
If globalization is the challenge, then localization must be part of a solution. If what has happened in the past is not sustainable, we have to ask what sustainable community looks like.
As we explore this big question, a few things become apparent rather quickly. Sustainability technology—the ability to produce food and energy locally—is already available. What is perhaps more challenging to find is the “community” part. Company towns were run from the top down. Communities like Ratón need to strengthen their ability to collaborate through new partnerships in a process of mutual support.
Partnering is a new concept for old company towns. And it must extend beyond individual municipalities. Our northeastern New Mexico community is really several communities that live and work together.
There are critical partnerships that are outside our geographical region. The New Mexico Secretary of Higher Education recently allowed Ratón and its schools to be included in Santa Fe Community College’s service area.
SFCC is an internationally recognized leader in the development of sustainable technology whose mission is to empower students and strengthen community. It is also a leader in partnering with local schools to bring career technical education (CTE) to both the middle-level students and the highest achievers. SFCC is also modeling project-based learning (PBL). PBL is increasingly recognized as the best answer to evolving a standard K-12 curriculum that is no longer working. With it, students can get science, technology, engineering, math and other required credits while, for example, building a tiny house or growing food. SFCC and Ratón Public Schools are now partners in those initiatives.
Ratón also has a new partnership with Eastern New Mexico University, a school that specializes in educating rural students.
Ratón’s new effort is being led by The Center for Sustainable Community. Its vision is a sustainable and resilient community. Its mission is to lead our region by creating partnerships that will make the vision a reality. The center held its grand opening on Oct. 14 to introduce its programs to the community, including distance-learning classes with SFCC and Eastern New Mexico University (ENMU) and the opening of New Mexico’s first remote Small Business Administration office in the center.
If we can get momentum toward a truly sustainable community, there are lots of young people combing the American landscape looking for just such a place to live. We’ve got a good start.
John Davidson is the executive director of The Center for Sustainable Community, a project of the Northeastern New Mexico Educational Foundation, Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, originally founded in 1997 as New Mexico’s first higher education learning center. In October 2016, the center opened its 8,000-square-foot classroom facility and computer lab for distance education. www.sustainraton.org