Symposium on Small Towns 2014: Co-Creating Our Future

MN farmThis week I have the opportunity to participate in the the Symposium on Small Towns in Morris, Minnesota.  It was about a five hour drive up here, and I spent most of my time looking at the farms and the land.  I caught myself thinking about rural life and the significance of place in our lives.

During today’s sessions there was a strong focus on rewriting the rural narrative.  There is so much negative press out there about rural communities and that they are losing population, closing schools and hospitals, and that main streets dying; however, people’s experience limits what they can see.  Rural communities are changing, not dying.  Obviously, there is an impact of globalization and economies of scale, but most are not unincorporating and closing shop.  Thanks to Ben Winchester from the Center for Community Vitality and Randy Cantrell from University of Nebraska Extension, I learned that these are stereotypes and myths that exist.  Facts are that rural population in shear numbers has increased although the percentage of people living in rural areas has decreased from 26% to 19%.  In essence, we need to change our own narratives from a deficit-based approach to an asset-based approach…instead of the focus on the “brain drain” we should focus on the “brain gain” whereby there is an in-migration of 30-49 year olds into rural areas because of quality of life factors.  Additionally, there is in-migration to small towns from immigrants.  So newcomers are making there way into small towns.

A “newcomer” is defined as someone who has lived in a community less than five years.  Here’s some interesting facts about “newcomers” in Nebraska:

  • 40% have bachelor’s degrees
  • 48% have household incomes of over $50K
  • 43% of children
  • They are generally leaving their career and are underemployed in the new community, yet quality of life is more important.
  • 60% say that they will be living there five years from now and the more communities are friendly and trusting the more people want to stay.
  • Newcomers want to live in a place that has vision and where they can see an opportunity to participate and co-create that future.

Leadership and capacity-building is an important issue to highlight.  We need a strategy in order to grow what we need.  Little did I realize, but in Nebraska, there are 27.7 people for every elected or non-profit leadership position.  That means that there is a great opportunity to serve and build this vision for a stronger state, whereas in other places there are fewer of these types of opportunities.  In fact, in urban areas there are 144 people for every position.  How do you harness that opportunity?  We need to rethink our engagement strategy and find ways to bring non-traditional partners to the table.  Instead of doing things “to” or “for” people, we need to do things “with” people and engage them in re-imagining what could be.

Moving forward we need to hear an authentic voice about community assets and build relationships to strengthen the niche, promote the assets, build social capital, and connect the community.  This is a promising way to develop lasting community change that both honors the history, tradition, and people of the area and also allows for new voices, ideas, and visions to be heard.

SOURCE: Small Towns Symposium, 2014: Ben Wichester & Randy Cantrell, Rewriting the Rural Narrative; Craig Schroeder, Discussing the Youth Voice.

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