In anticipation of coming to Menomonie, I had been wondering how the Midwest would differ from my experiences living in New York and North Carolina. Having grown up in the Northeast, moving down South was a big change. Not only did I find out how different college town Chapel Hill is from metropolitan New York, but in the two years I’ve been there, I’ve also had to modify many preconceived notions about the South that I had brought with me. So I made sure to come to Menomonie with an open mind.
After arriving, one of the things that I noticed at once was the strong feeling of community here. Standing out especially was a meeting of the Tainter Menomin Lake Improvement Association that I and a few other students went to on our second full day here. People from all over the community came together in an effort to try to collectively tackle problems related to the management of the Lake Menomin.
Immediately I thought of how what I was seeing profoundly conflicted with the picture of democratic life as painted by economics textbooks. Mainstream economics often operates on the assumption of autonomous and self-interested individuals for whom community apparently does not exist. From these axioms, it’s been deduced that humans are frequently helpless when it comes to collective resource management (exhibit A: the infamous “tragedy of the commons”). But once these assumptions are relaxed and made more realistic, we see that people are able to overcome barriers to effective collective action. Elinor Ostrom, a Nobel Laureate in economics, provides plentiful examples in her seminal work on the commons. Seeing that it is possible, the hope is that communities like the one in Menomonie can work together to solve problems of collective resource use.
Shortcomings of economic analysis aside, it's been great to see how tightly-knit the people are here. Not only is the town small, but LAKES is a small group as well, meaning the students have a lot of opportunities with their mentors. A typical day here is definitely different than being on the big campus of UNC Chapel Hill (with a 30,000 student population that’s almost twice as large as Menomonie).
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing going on here. I was pleasantly surprised to find out about all the events that go on here when I first arrived. There are weekly concerts at Wilson Park and the public library, pie and ice cream socials, a farmer’s market, and later on in the summer there’s Freedom Fest and the Dunn County Fair.
And as far as research goes, so far it’s been a lot of reading in preparation for my project on analyzing the effect of farming techniques on water pollution. Next week I’ll have a literature review written up and I’ll begin working with the data. I’m looking forward to getting started, working with my mentor Zach Raff, as well as learning from all the other students and their projects!