Listening To Our Youth Could Bring Them Home

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By Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

Too often, we define our efforts to attract people to the community by what we want when we should be defining it by what those we are trying to bring here are seeking.  In looking to fill our needs, we pass by the needs of those we want to keep or have return, to our rural town.

Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Kentucky and many other states with large rural areas are all trying to figure out a way to keep their young people around, as well as for ideas in bringing them home.

A recent study completed in New Hampshire spent 10 years following a group of nearly 900 young people from a small rural county, questioning them through the years about their attitudes toward their hometown. They watched how their answers evolved and at the common threads that ran through their replies.

Among the top indicators of whether or not they would consider moving back might surprise you.

“Whether people in rural, northern New Hampshire return to their home county later in life doesn’t just depend on their perception of the job prospects there but whether they thought adults listened to them in their youth,” Erin Rhoda writes in The Bangor Daily News.

The study began in 2008 when researchers with the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy “set out to better understand young people’s aspirations, choices, and challenges, and invited all seventh- and 11th-grade students at public schools in Coos County to fill out a survey,” Rhoda reports. That survey was followed-up by the periodic interviews. “They wanted to know what influenced their decisions to leave or stay, and what drew back those who returned.”

Listening to and seeking the input of young people appears to have been a clear indicator of their willingness to consider returning.

“Among those who perceived having a strong voice in their communities in 2008, 36 percent reported by the end of the survey that they hoped to make Coos County their long-term home, as opposed to only 21 percent of those who had perceived having a low degree of voice,” Rhoda writes.

It isn’t just a matter of including young people in community conversations, but showing respect and interest for what they have to say that matters.

If adults in charge of economic development listen to the key findings of the New Hampshire study, it should shape their efforts in defining what economic development looks like. It has to start early, long before these young people become part of the labor force.

In some areas we are doing an excellent job of including youth, in others perhaps we could do better.

This past October, U.S. Senator, and now presidential candidate, Amy Klobuchar was in Benson. The sole focus of her visit was to talk with students at Benson High School and hear how they are engaging with local businesses and industries to gain job experience and skills. Those students were working at CNH, Custom Roto-Mold, and the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company.

While the collaboration gives students a feel for fields of employment they might want to pursue when heading off to college or a trade school, it also says to them that the community would like them to come back – that there is opportunity here. It says to the students that we care enough about them to include them in our workforce today with meaningful experiences.

Earlier this month, the City of Benson conducted a three-day, nine-hour strategic planning session developing a comprehensive economic and community development framework for pursuing a vibrant future for the community. While the meeting included many thoughtful people deeply interested in seeing the Benson area thrive, there were no high school students in the room, and no one under the age of 25.

A request had been made to include some students from BHS, but apparently, there were scheduling conflicts. Going forward, a much more concerted effort has to be made to bring young people into a community discussion about the future. It should be a regularly scheduled effort where community leaders sit down with young people to seek their observations, input, and recommendations.

In including our youth in our community conversations, we do much more than just ensure young people consider coming home to fill jobs – we help establish a habit of involvement in their hometown.

Historians, philosophers, and great leaders have recognized that instilling the “essential virtues and skills and knowledge and habits of democratic citizens” has to start with the education of our youth, author Robert D. Putnam writes in his book Bowling Alone. “If we are to change the downward slide in civic and societal participation, that is where we have to start – the education of our youth…for the single most important cause of our current plight is the pervasive and continuing generational decline in almost all forms of civic engagement.”

Putman sets a difficult challenge for those in our society who have let their civic participation slide – teach your children to be good citizens. “Improved civics education should be part of our strategy – not just ‘how a bill becomes a law,’ but “How can I participate effectively in the public life of my community?’

“A mounting body of evidence confirms that community service programs really do strengthen the civic muscles of participants, especially if the service is meaningful, regular, and woven into the fabric of the school curriculum,” he writes. Such programs in the schools increase a young person’s sense of responsibility, hones their leadership skills, and teaches them to work together, Putnam says.

We repeatedly come back to communities being more inclusive and welcoming, as well as proactive in engaging their youth, as keys to growth. It points to a need for a place where people in the community can gather, a place to put on community programs and have small group discussions, a place that is comfortable to gather and meet one another.

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