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Charlotte Amalie
Sunday, July 14, 2024


In thinking about the future, it is essential to understand the trends and forces that are affecting us. Understanding trends is often difficult because they are shaped by slow, incremental change, rather than by sudden events, such as a hurricane or a financial windfall. Because trends develop slowly, we have an opportunity to get used to them and make adjustments.
This is not always a good thing. For example, because traffic gets slightly worse year by year, little of substance is done to deal with it. If today's traffic were suddenly to have appeared 20 years ago in a single day, the traffic crisis would have been addressed.
Trends also allow people to live in denial. Global warming is an example of a trend whose implications make many people want to deny its existence.
Most people would agree that many of the most important trends affecting the Virgin Islands in recent years have been negative. Some of these are measurable, such as economic decline, crime, and (to some degree) the government fiscal mess. (It is interesting to contrast these to the mostly positive trends on much of the mainland in the past decade.) One big question is whether trends are cyclical or secular and long-term. Most trends are cyclical simply because they contain the seeds of their own reversal.
There are certain trends that are more difficult to measure because they relate to cultural change or shifts in attitudes. In some ways, it is easier for outsiders to see changes brought about by these trends, because the outside observer is not immersed in them on a day-to-day basis.
In any society, one of the most dangerous negative trends is a growing sense of social pessimism, a belief that things are not going to get better. In these circumstances, valuable people start thinking about leaving because they see no future for themselves. Others desperately seek to hold onto whatever they have. Committed people are immobilized because there seems to be no point in trying. There is often a search for scapegoats to blame for the prevailing ills, and opportunism and divisiveness flourish.
For the first time, this kind of pessimism appears to be taking root in the Virgin Islands. In part, this trend may reflect the leadership void that the Turnbull administration represents. With Roy Schneider, there always seemed to be the possibility that the governor would take some sort of meaningful action, even if he never did. The illusion was the father of false hope. It is by now quite clear that Governor Turnbull is incapable of providing any leadership, and that he and his administration are just more impediments to the change that is needed.
What can be done in this situation? The first step is to understand that, while pessimism may be understandable, it is never defensible or acceptable.
Pessimism is invariably a self-fulfilling prophecy. If large numbers of people begin to believe that the situation is beyond remedy, it is.
Conversely, the response to pessimism is not optimism. Any thinking adult knows that, in human affairs, there is often little reason for optimism. Things often do not turn out the way we would like them to, and a lot of bad things happen. Today's optimists are tomorrow's pessimists and cynics or, alternatively, tomorrow's dippy, divorced-from-reality dreamers.
Rather than smiley faced optimism, what is needed is a basic faith that individuals and the community can make a substantive difference, and that it is essential to make a sustained effort, despite the fact that no one knows what the outcomes will be.
In the Virgin Islands, this approach means concerted action and pulling together on the part of the business, religious and social service communities. At this stage, there must be an acceptance of the unhappy fact that the Virgin Islands government is incapable of playing any positive role in creating the kinds of communities in which most Virgin Islanders want to live. The reality that the government exists to protect itself, its payroll and its privileges is, in fact, a source of much of the growing pessimism.
This condition need not be eternal. In the end, the government will have to be changed in fundamental ways, but these changes will come only from overwhelming pressure from an aroused and organized community and from the federal government. None of this will be easy, and, if there is an alternative approach that holds any promise, it would be interesting to hear it.
An initial set of actions would involve bringing together key stakeholders to assess existing plans, define an achievable future — i.e., what kind of communities do we want to live in? — and begin a process of moving in the direction of securing that future. The term "empowerment" has become a cliché, but in these circumstances, it is the correct one. The communities that make up the Virgin Islands need to come together as one, overcome their divisions, and empower themselves to define the Virgin Islands of the future.
Because the government is an impediment to that future and a bottomless pit into which all good ideas vanish, the driving force for this effort must come from business, religious, not-for-profit and civic groups. The prerequisite to bringing about these changes is a belief on the part of some group of people that change is both necessary and possible, and that pessimism and inaction are luxuries that simply cannot be afforded.
Frank Schneiger

Editor's note: Frank Schneiger is president of the Human Services Management Institute, a consulting firm. He has served as assistant commissioner of Health for the City of New York and founded Comprehensive Medical Management Inc. He is the author of "Cutting and Coping," a how-to guide for managing retrenchment. He has worked with V.I. agencies since 1975, most recently as consultant to United Way of St. Thomas/St. John. He is one of the founders of the St. Thomas/St. John Youth Multiservice Center.
Readers are invited to send comments on this article to source@viaccess.net.

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