I’ve recently been traveling throughout the rural parts of the U.S. — from western Nebraska to Alaska, and about everywhere in between. The visits have been a mix of visiting BCom Solutions customers, speaking engagements at various institutions, and a personal interest in learning from various rural communities about what makes their town “good” and what makes it “bad.”
Most of this interest stems from the fact that I grew up in the heart of rural America and have since committed a large portion of my professional work to building progressive, rural ecosystems. Working, living, and growing up here has given me a unique perspective and outlook on the future of rural communities.
What I hear time and time again — from media outlets, civic leaders, and politicians — is that rural America, simply, needs “saving.” I fundamentally believe this statement to be inaccurate.
Before I go any further, let me make a few statements: First, I’m not a journalist and I didn’t ask any specific person or community listed in here for their permission to promote or discuss in this article. Second, this isn’t meant to be political by any means. Third, my commentary is not designed to point to one specific community in rural America. Rural America is, in fact, quite large.
Back to “saving rural America.” Wow, that sounds ridiculous — as ridiculous as saying, “I’m going to ‘save’ urban America” while evaluating the challenges facing many urban inner-city neighborhoods. Although the challenges of rural and urban communities shouldn’t be understated, “saving” is too general and broad when it comes to challenges affecting people’s lives and prosperity.
And still, the number of scholarly articles, case studies, research projects, and online articles about rural America generally say the same thing: Rural America is in decline and needs to be saved.
Rural America, like urban America, and the coasts, have challenges and successes. In rural communities, the challenges look different than the urban environment. The only people hoping that the rural population is “saved” are the ones who are contributing to its challenges in the first place.
The rural/urban divide
The rural and urban divide is often talked about in a way that magnifies it into something it’s not. I’m the first person to admit the difficulties that face rural communities. I often think, though, that we spend too much time talking about a “divide” and not enough time thinking about the positive relationship when rural and urban America co-exist.
There are 5 million issues that come up when you mention the rural/urban divide (access to health care, the broadband challenge, access to entertainment and amenities, etc.). But what we’re not seeing are deeper conversations about racism, sexism, and stereotypes surrounding education, family structure, job success, and so on.
I’m fully convinced these issues are prevalent in communities with larger populations, but they tend to be more easily exposed when everyone knows everyone in town.
Trump and rural America
I’m writing this as someone who has seen rural communities thrive under all types of leaders: Republican, Democrat, Independent; young and old.
The 2016 election talked about rural America more than ever. Some argue that rural America decided the outcomes. Some argue that rural America voted against their own well-being. Some argue both or neither. If you’re curious about this topic, give this a read. And then this.
As a society, we are beginning to recognize rural America as an important voice. Politicians, think tanks, and corporations are looking at rural America as a population of decision makers. Whether you supported the winning side or the losing side, rural America is in the spotlight. It’s our job to portray a community of diverse opinions, people, ideas, and beliefs.
Partnering with rural America, not saving it
Rather than look at how we save rural America, we need to talk about how we partner together to make things that are good even better.
How do we make the most out of the rural-urban divide? How do we ensure that every family in our community feels like they can grow up here and lead a healthy life? How do we encourage young people to always look forward while remembering what’s in the rearview mirror?
These are the questions that everyone can relate to, whether you’re in the city or in a rural community. And guess what? These are the same challenges larger communities are tackling as well.
What we’re doing about it
We have built the Rural Impact Hub as a community-driven engine designed to tackle these challenges head on. We’re blending community health with economic development, with politics, with commerce, with religion, and everything in between.
The key piece of the Rural Impact Hub is impact. Locally, our goal in southeast Nebraska is to build a space where community groups feel empowered to join a club or civic organization. Or maybe even to run for local elected office. The best people to solve challenges in local communities are the people who see the issues every day, first-hand.
The Rural Impact Hub is an easily replicated model we’re advocating for in dozens of rural communities across the country. Why? Because in the past four years as I’ve traveled the world visiting rural communities, I’ve recognized one thing: There is nothing more important than awareness and intentional, action-oriented conversation.
I’m a believer in action
I’ve read too many books, seen too many news clips, and listened to too many amazing people share their stories to actually believe rural America needs saving. I believe, we, as rural citizens, need to do a better job of sharing the successes and challenges with people around us.
If you’re empowered and don’t want to “save” rural communities, but rather partner with us to help build this movement in every rural community, join us. We need rural people, city people, young people, old people, and everyone in between.
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