April 10, 2013 —
LIBERTY, NY — A group of teenagers is crowded around a table full of food, devouring everything edible with an efficiency that would shame a horde of locusts. Of course, that doesn’t prevent them from talking animatedly and keeping constant check on their cell phone screens. At first glance there’s nothing remarkable in this scene—until you listen in on the conversation at hand. These young adults are talking about business and ecology and social justice. This is the weekly meeting of the Youth Economics Group (YEG), held in the basement of First Presbyterian Church of Liberty.
Since its inception in October 2010, YEG has been an arm of the Rural & Migrant Ministry (RMM), a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving quality of life for rural New York State residents. Per its mission statement, RMM works for the creation of a just, rural New York State by nurturing leadership, standing with the disenfranchised (especially farm workers and rural workers), and changing unjust systems and structures. In the young adults of low-income Sullivan County families, YEG has cultivated a hotbed of enlightened leadership and enterprise.
These leaders of today and tomorrow, currently comprised of sophomores, juniors and seniors from Liberty, Fallsburg and Monticello school systems, don’t just talk the talk; they walk the walk. YEG is a hands-on training program designed to make its members entrepreneurs through experiential learning. YEG members design, sew, decorate, market and sell their own product—Basement Bags—eco-friendly canvas shopping bags bearing logos, slogans and pictures promoting responsible stewardship of natural and human resources. YEG owes something to Europe’s Renaissance craft guilds and something to 20th century American rural community-based nonprofits like 4-H, Junior Achievement and the Cornell Cooperative Extension. It is a contemporary artisans’ cooperative.
Mentored by two RMM teaching professionals, Jillian Rahm and Katia Chapman, and two Sullivan County Community College interns, YEG members learn life skills, nurture design inspiration, hone their crafts and develop exemplary sales, marketing, advertising and accounting practices while generating income for YEG and receiving a salary for their work. There are also frequent opportunities for instruction from notable guest artists, social activists and successful business people. And, to counter the isolation and scarcity of rural life, there are regular trips to urban centers like New York City and Boston. At least two trips to New York City are planned for later this month, one to scout new trends in style and design and one to attend the year’s largest RMM fundraiser—a dinner at Riverside Church on April 25. A five-day trip to Boston is planned as the end-of-year trip.
But, for all of its successes, YEG faces continuing challenges. Its foremost current challenge is lack of usable space. For the whole of its existence, YEG has been renting meeting room and studio space from First Presbyterian Church. The two rooms are barely large enough to support present YEG activities; in fact, during the warm months, most craft work is performed on the church lawn. Through a stroke of luck, a sound Liberty storefront building has been identified as a property ideal for YEG’s permanent housing. The purchase of this property would benefit Main Street Liberty merchants and permit YEG to expand its outreach. Although the parties involved in the prospective transaction concede that it’s a good deal all around, YEG must be creative to find adequate funding. For now, it remains on the drawing board.
For more information about YEG and RMM, or to register for the fundraising dinner at Riverside Church on April 25, visit www.ruralmigrantministry.org . To order Basement Bags, see www.ruralmigrantministry.org/youtheconomicgroup.html .