As I’ve written before, too much “rural” talk in our national conversation is trendy, patronizing, and self-serving. We also lack rural voices from “out here.” The rural communities of Appalachia, the Midwest, and West of the 98th Meridian have similarities, but they also have distinct concerns as well. Each of those voices needs to be heard, not homogenized as one “rural” voice for political speeches and sound bytes on cable news.
I’ve heard for years that the Texas Cowboy Rodeo was slowly dying. I’ve also heard for years that rural communities are slowly dying. There are supposedly better entertainment options in 2019 than a “danged ol’ rodeo.” There are better places to live in 2019 than a dusty small town. Right? Isn’t that what we’re told? Isn’t that logical? Our communities might survive, but they’ll never be what they once were. Or is that true after all?
As I’ve grown over the years, I’ve learned the importance of support for events. It’s not about supporting the underlying event as much as it’s about supporting the community that benefits from that event. A man may not care about a rodeo, but the Texas Cowboy Reunion will drive thousands of visitors into town over a four day period and boost the economy like no other four-day period in the year. You don’t even have to know the difference between a shotgun and a rifle to recognize that your hunting economy should be supported.
In life, adversity is the rule, not the exception. No matter what community revitalization project we undertake, adversity WILL happen. High-dollar electronic equipment fails. People get busy and don’t give maximum effort to a group. Cleanup days have a lackluster turnout. New businesses struggled to find a footing. We get exhausted and struggle with our own motivation. But if turning around a rural community was easy, none of our communities would need our energy and our ideas.
My passion in life is revitalizing Stamford and seeing other rural communities have the same experience. But we should be honest about these latent divisions, so that when our community DOES take off, people don’t get left behind. If Stamford prospers and the population grows, but only part of the town benefits, have we really succeeded as a community?
The city pool is not just a random city service that I have fixated on. City pools, especially in rural communities, stand as something very meaningful. As we talk about revitalizing rural communities, the conversation inevitably involves “quality of life.” If a community wants to keep its current residents and attract new ones, the community must have amenities that make the community an enjoyable place to live. Moreover, these amenities should provide quality of life for everyone in the community, not just a partial segment.
As I think of the war dead, I think that each of them were men and women of action. The freedom and liberty I mentioned? It does not exist spontaneously, created by some chemical reaction. It was created, preserved, and perpetuated by men and women of action. Many of these men and women gave their lives in full awareness of the flawed, imperfect nature of America, hoping that their sacrifice would lead to greater freedoms for more people in society. And they were right.
Some of our forefathers laid down their lives, but all who served gave a piece of their lives to the proposition of a larger calling, to ideas that would create a better, safer, more prosperous world for all. Not all of us are sent to the Argonne Forest or to Iwo Jima, but all of us are called to serve in ways that we are equipped and in the places where friends, family, community, and country might need us.
For many of our rural communities, our future prosperity, quality of life, and heck, even our very existence, is dependent on sound economic development. I believe the same applies to rural economic development. If you don’t treat it aggressively, do you really understand the consequences of NOT being successful? Action is necessary. Continuing the status quo is not acceptable.
Just like the people of Jerusalem in Nehemiah’s day, the city walls of rural American need rebuilding. What if we recalibrated our time, effort, and energy to the right places? What if we focused that on the betterment of our community and the people within it? What if our priorities—individually, in our families, in our businesses and organizations—centered around giving of ourselves to improve our community? What could each of us accomplish? What could we accomplish together?
We talk a lot about “community pride” but simple, straightforward definitions of the phrase are hard to come by. After working through various discussions of community pride and the definitions of “community” and “pride,” I proposed the following definition of “community pride”:
“A collective group of people’s dignity in, and satisfaction with, objects of importance and meaning to their group.”
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.