Op-Ed: Wanting to be here – John Batey

After the January 2014 issue of the PULP, I started thinking about what forces people, particularly young people, to leave this place in droves as soon as they’re able. The editorial that appeared that month struck a chord with me. What has caused this? 

The deceptively simple answer to this question is ‘no jobs.’  And while it is absolutely the correct answer, the creation of long-term jobs and more permanent industry clusters will only come about as the by-product of making Pueblo a place where people want to be.  And more importantly to our young people, a place where people want to stay and build a life.

To make this happen, what is needed is nothing short of a fundamental cultural change in how we perceive this community.

There is nothing anyone can write, say, or do to bring about this sort of cultural change.  It must be an organic process that occurs and grows on its own.  But one can take a step in the direction of trying to uncover some answers as to what this positive image of Pueblo-as-a-Destination could look like by getting to the root of what made a group of Puebloans leave, what made them come back, and what keeps them here.

To that end, this piece is peppered with quotes and background from a set of anonymous interviews with two groups:  two people I’ve chosen to call “returnees,” or individuals who had spent a number of years living away from Pueblo and have recently moved back, and two people I’ve chosen to call “native nesters,” who are both individuals who chose to stay in Pueblo for most of their lives and build lives, careers, relationships and households all here in their home town.

To get anywhere, we first have to ask who we want to become. 

Since returning to Pueblo more than three years ago, I’ve had the pleasure of working with economic development officials from across the region.  One story relayed to me from folks out of Oklahoma City was very telling—when they asked a major primary employer why their city was not chosen over Chicago when it came to building a major facility, the answer from the employer was simply, “Because no one wanted live in Oklahoma City.”  Our own economic development officials have faced similar dynamics in past attempts to secure prospective employers.

Pueblo will not succeed until Pueblo becomes a place where people want to be.

“There appears to be no community-wide, commonly held vision for moving Pueblo forward.  Pueblo doesn’t seem to know who it wants to be,” said one returnee I talked with.

He was born and raised in Pueblo, and attended CSU-Pueblo. After finishing college, he moved away from Pueblo because he could see no career path by staying in town. For him, there is a serious challenge of how to inject a philosophy of excellence into a community.  Although he has a deep love for the Pueblo community, he acknowledges that at times there is a “good enough” mentality that works against us in the long run.

Pueblo is a uniquely different flavor of Colorado as opposed to Northern Colorado, the mountain communities or the even the eastern plains. It is where the names of cities, counties, rivers and valleys turn Spanish.  The mountain ranges sound alien and unpronounceable to other Coloradans–the Wet Mountains, or the Sangre De Cristo Mountains.  “What is the Huerfano?  Where is the San Luis Valley?,” they ask.

Pueblo sits at the crossroads of a historic borderlands region–one of the major borders of 18th Century North America, where the Louisiana Purchase ends and New Spain begins. The Arkansas River, the largest river on the front range of Colorado, brings an abundance of quality water to Pueblo–an increasingly rare commodity nearly anywhere else in the Rocky Mountain region.

We were diverse from the beginning.  

Among the original founders of Fort El Pueblo were an African-American frontiersman, a Hispanic woman, along with several Euro-American men of various Germanic, Italian and southern/central European origin.  And of course the Spanish, Indian and mestizo cultures that all the groups were and still are immersed within.  

African-Americans in Pueblo?  Yes, indeed!  Pueblo’s African-American population declined following the decline of CF&I, but Pueblo is the heart of African-American history in the state of Colorado.  Pueblo is the locale of the oldest chapter of the NAACP in Colorado, the Pueblo Branch #4005 chartered in 1918.  Pueblo was also the location of the state’s only “colored-children’s orphanage” beginning in 1914–the Lincoln Home, which is still located at 2713-2715 Grand Avenue and is on the National Register of Historic Places.  

The steel mill brought a constant stream of former share-croppers tired of living under the financial yokes of former slave-owners, and Pueblo became home to many prominent and wealthy African-American Coloradans including Sam Nelson, whose furniture store stood on Union Avenue beginning in 1912.  African-Americans have always been here.  Every African-American who walks these streets, along with everyone else for that matter, must always remember this fact.

So what does one do with this inherent, native diversity?  There is a simple choice, the exclusionary principle or the inclusionary principle.

The Exclusionary Principle  is where we seek to isolate (or segregate) ourselves from people of different ethnic, religious or cultural backgrounds.  

Under this principle, we can also choose to exclude people based upon sexual orientation, political party or what part of town they come from. We can exclude, isolate and segregate ourselves until we are incapable of doing anything as a community because we have chosen to completely dissolve the very notion of community by excluding so many of our neighbors and fellow citizens.  

“Some old Pueblo families tend to gravitate towards the familiar, which can sometimes be good or bad,” a Pueblo native nester still living here told me. 

She works in a male-dominated industry in Pueblo.  She has learned to navigate Pueblo’s “old school” politics, although she acknowledges that it can be difficult to get a job and build a career in Pueblo without “knowing the right people.”  She has very deep familial roots in the Pueblo community, so she feels “rooted” by being here.  After finishing high school here, she immediately went to work and began college, buying a house in Pueblo relatively soon thereafter. She has continued living here for well over a decade since.

“Although old school Pueblo politics is frustrating, you got to learn to work it so you can change it from the inside,” another native nester told me. 

This native is the youngest of all my interviews.  After graduating high school and leaving Pueblo for less than two years, he attended CSU-Pueblo and received his undergraduate degree.  He now works in a professional capacity in a downtown office setting. He has enjoyed a good pace of career advancement here in Pueblo, although he is hungry for more advancement.  He enjoys Pueblo’s pace of life, and also appreciates that the “big city” is less than 2 hours away. He looks forward to more leadership training opportunities in Pueblo; he feels strongly that current community leaders need to do a better job of mentoring young people to step up into executive positions.

Pueblo could also change via the course of the Inclusionary Principle, which includes working collaboratively, with any and all of our fellow residents who care about the welfare of the community, to advance a commonly-held agenda born from a process of compromise.  

Allegiance to the inclusionary principle necessarily means focusing upon goals bigger than ourselves or our individual clique. It also requires a willingness to release control over a project in order to see it move forward–and accepting that although the outcome may not be exactly what you desired, the project should still be considered a success if it’s well-received by a larger number of people.  In addition, inclusion means embracing our diversity and using this as an asset that adds real substance, or ‘thick culture’ to our city. 

Inclusion means finding ways to say ‘yes’ to someone else’s idea, until there is a legitimate, bona fide and well-articulated reason to do otherwise. This is the only way a “community” can truly move forward.

I know for certain which option our ancestors chose, because we are still here.  They would not have survived in the barren wilderness unless they learned to cooperate and work together.  

But make no mistake, I am no idealist. I’m equally certain that ethnic prejudice, hatred and segregation have also been dominant themes throughout Pueblo’s history.  However, the themes of teamwork, cooperation and collaboration are undoubtedly the foundation of what built our legacy to the world, the steel industry.

“Pueblo is a true melting pot, with good weather, low cost of living, and neighborhoods which have great character and diversity,” another returnee told me. 

She grew up in Pueblo but moved away for college to one of our nation’s coasts. She lived in several major metropolitan areas for a many years, and moved back because of economic factors, and to be closer to her family.  Although she did not plan on staying (just wanted to hang out while reevaluating things), she ended up staying and is trying to building a life here.  After experiencing that Pueblo hasn’t changed much in thirty years, she isn’t quite sure she’ll stay. 

She said she feels strongly that there is no pressure to be your best in Pueblo. She notes that in a large city, you must always do your best because there is a long line of people behind you ready to take your job.  Because that pressure does not exist in Pueblo, she feels that at times people strive for very little, especially in the higher end jobs.

I would agree with her, but I do feel there are some community leaders who are giants in Pueblo and who have accomplished great things. I’m fortunate to have breakfast every Friday morning with a few of them.  However, the nesters are also correct that we need to do a better job inspiring a new generation of Puebloans to stay here and stand on the shoulders of these giants. To take and build upon these accomplishments.  

Both the native nesters have learned to succeed in Pueblo by learning to work within the “old school Pueblo rules” that tend to be based upon the exclusionary principle. While this is commendable, I would implore them and others to use whatever influence they have to bring the inclusionary principle into the conversation. Encourage new collaborations and cross the tracks to the other side of town; reach out to groups and individuals who haven’t been heard from before.  Grow community instead of dissolving it.

Ultimately, we must welcome everyone to Pueblo, and I mean everyone: Euro-American retirees, African-American soldiers from Fort Carson, artists, the LGBT community, college students looking for a great bargain on a degree from CSU-Pueblo. Come live in a real place, with a real sense of place.  With a local culture you won’t get anywhere else.  Also, there is good chile.

John Batey is a graduate of Central High School and is the Pueblo Urban Renewal Authority’s Executive Director. 

Editor’s Note: Guest contributions are neither solicited by the PULP nor are contributors compensated for their work.

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