As I think about how to bring back our homecomers and attract new businesses and residents, I continually think about our internet problem. With better internet access, a community can attract self-employed and remote workers, creating more jobs without waiting for a major employer to move to town. A rural community with a low cost of living, quality schools, and reliable high-speed internet has a fantastic sales pitch for families tired of the city. But what about the rural community without decent, readily available internet access?
Homecomers aren’t likely to move “back home” to rural Montana or rural Texas (or wherever you’re reading this) in the family stage of life unless “home” is a good place for their kids. What are the schools like? How are the parks, libraries, and youth sports? What summer programs are offered in town when school is not in session? Can the kids do their homework and play games on the town’s internet?
Conventional wisdom says people don’t want to live in rural America, especially not young people. Polling and research indicates the exact opposite. People want to live in rural America if they can, but they need economic opportunities to either keep them in rural America or to draw them back. So how do we reverse that brain drain? How do we create “brain gain” by attracting our homecomers?
Only 12% of Americans live in rural areas, but 27% aspire to. That disparity between reality and aspiration is the largest on the survey. More people live in the city than actually aspire to do so. Meanwhile, if aspirations became reality, the rural population would almost double. So how do we make that happen?
Our society has advanced far past where it was in 1962, but that doesn’t mean we’re perfect. Overt segregation and discrimination are harder to find, but ingrained, subconscious societal prejudices still exist. No matter our skin color, we’ve probably both experienced and propagated a few prejudices, even if subtle ones, and even if we didn’t intend to. Sometimes, it’s good to be challenged to think about our society. It’s good to be uncomfortable as we think about the unsavory pieces of our past, so that we can ensure we don’t repeat the mistakes of our forefathers.
Our rural communities were each once part of the American frontier. The history of the frontier is of a wide-open place where anyone—immigrants, aristocrats, nobodies, and somebodies—could seek out opportunity and with hard work and the right amount of luck, carve out a new life regardless of the good, bad, and ugly of their past. The frontier was chock full of people who were hard to love.
February 18, 2019 is the day designated for the annual celebration of Presidents’ Day in America. As has been the case for decades, many commentators will use the day to honor all 45 Americans who have held the office of President of the United States. But today, I want to author a reminder that the federal holiday is still technically known as “Washington’s Birthday” and talk more about the man for which the day was created.
Why has the American experiment persisted and thrived for so long, even in spite of our society’s flaws and missteps? Why have other nations attempted to copy the American system, only to see it fail to launch or struggle to sustain it in a stable manner? In part, it’s the uniquely American concept of local government and town meetings.
In the last decade, something like 90 rural hospitals have closed. 20 of those are in Texas. The National Rural Health Association, our nation’s foremost advocates for rural healthcare, estimates that something close to 800 more rural hospitals are at risk of closing. That’s about one-third of all rural hospitals in the entire country. It helps a little to know that it’s not just us.
What are WE doing on a local level? Are we the thermometer, going with the flow of popular opinion? Or are we the thermostat, responsible for changing the temperature? Are we defending the status quo, giving silent or vocal sanction to the power structures of the community? Or are we the disturbers of the peace and the agitators, putting an end to hatred, injustice, and need within our realms?
Today, I ask you: what are we doing to improve the lives of those around us in rural America? Are we acting as extremists for love and the extension of justice? Are we working through our churches, our community organizations, our businesses, and our elected positions to ensure that all of our people prosper and are treated with the respect and dignity they deserve, no matter their net worth, skin color, or religious affiliation? Are we extremists like Dr. King and Jesus? Or are we the modern day descendants of the white moderate? Do we prefer an absence of tension to a positive peace, satisfying ourselves that we are a “silent majority” hoping for the flow of time to cure all ills, while we remain comfortable and inactive?
One in three women in America have experienced domestic violence during their lifetime. One in four men have experienced domestic violence. I heard these shocking statistics this past Sunday in a presentation at church from Dan Cox, executive director of the Noah Project in Abilene, Texas. I walked away educated, but heartsick.
It is often said that sharing a table and a meal is one of the most powerful, leveling experiences that a group of people can have together. Every year, I look across the dining room and I am reminded of the accuracy of that statement. I see people sitting side-by-side whose paths might never otherwise cross, from all ages, backgrounds, and creeds. Then I see something even more special. They don’t just wolf down a meal at the same table and then depart. They eat. Then they trade desserts. They re-fill each other’s drinks. They talk to each other’s kids. They visit about their lives. They STAY. Together.
The Grand Theatre beautifully sums up why the “good old days” are a complicated thing. Memories of the theatre span eight decades. Each generation remembers a different version of the theatre, each of which took place in a different era of the town’s history. But to that generation, their memory is the “good old days,“ and guess what? Each group is exactly right.
If the colonists can stop to give thanks for a successful harvest, and if President Lincoln could see the big picture of America’s blessings amidst war, then we too can see our blessings. If we stop and look for them, we can find countless reasons to be thankful for our individual communities and for rural life in general.
War is an awful, terrible thing, sometimes needless and sometimes necessary. No matter the circumstances, every American war has been fought the likes of Dan Crenshaw, regular men and women who sacrificed career, family, and immeasurable pain out of duty on behalf of the rest of our society. As Congressman-elect Crenshaw said, we can forgive one another and remember the things that bring us together.