Rural Communities Can Bring Grads Home

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By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News

In five years of reporting from and living in the remote rural areas of coastal Maine, writer Gigi Georges said she discovered a reality that runs counter to the conventional downbeat narratives about rural areas “and debunks the notion that young people, in particular, have to flee to succeed. Indeed, there are lessons for all of us in the strength of community, resiliency, and rootedness to place in many of our nation’s most rural regions.”

In those rural communities in which there is hope for the future, the lives of the residents are based on a common recognition to support one another. This common cause was born early on in America’s history.

As French political philosopher and student of America’s young democracy Alexis de Tocqueville traveled the country in the 1830s, he admired the large number of organizations to which its citizens belonged. He also observed that most of the country’s “democracy” occurred at the local level, where citizens elected their leaders and participated in the process of decision-making.

But there is reason to fear that the deep roots of America’s local government involvement by citizens, where many of the decisions that affect our lives the most are made, are becoming shallower. As generations that felt a deep responsibility to participate in community, who had built social ties through belonging to social clubs like Kiwanis, or bowling leagues and card clubs, pass, they are replaced by generations more focused on themselves.

We don’t participate as much as we used to as citizens. Rather than a participatory democracy, we are developing a caretaker democracy where only a few oversee setting and carrying out a community’s agenda.

There are reasons for worry in those rural communities where the main street is shrinking, where school populations steadily fall, and where entertainment and recreational opportunities are disappearing. Will young people want to return to these communities given the headwinds they face?

“Strong evidence indicates they will. Among the hundreds of locals I interviewed and dozens I profiled in my book, ‘Downeast,’ I saw a deep and multi-faceted attachment to place,” she says. “Many are opting to stay and build, not abandon, their hometowns—and among those that are leaving for now, most want to ultimately return.”

Georges says she isn’t alone in reaching this conclusion and that it isn’t limited to rural Maine.

“A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that rural residents are more likely to want to stay in their communities than their urban and suburban counterparts. They are also more likely to live near extended family and know all or most of their neighbors,” she writes.

Georges cites a study by the American Educational Research Journal “that top-achieving rural students have ‘the highest community attachment’ of their peers.” That means if the opportunities exist for them and their spouse to return, they are the best candidates to pursue.

“Their attachment is fostered by ‘the close-knit nature of the community and school environment,’ the personal attention and opportunities that come with being in a small school, and an overall ‘sense of belonging and inclusiveness,’” Georges writes.

And, it isn’t just about bringing former students home. It is also necessary to show those who would stay in the area after graduation that they can also pursue their dreams and be recognized for their achievements.

“Along a central hallway of the high school that serves the towns I researched, a poster hangs with the words: ‘Staying Isn’t Settling.’ Surrounding it are photos of successful alumni who’ve decided to remain in or return to the area,” she writes. It is a daily, powerful message for students walking the hallways that their contributions are essential to building their community.

COVID-19 has renewed interest among some who now live in metropolitan areas to explore the opportunities available back home. Georges talks of a “rural rebound” happening around the country. Yet, her words may be overly optimistic. There is a lot to be done yet by communities that want to bring back their graduates.

Former students must know they are returning to a community where tolerance for differing points of view are accepted and where diversity is cherished. That diversity stimulates growth, change that moves a community forward. Too often these days, we are embedded in tribes that are about exclusion rather than inclusion.

“Central to developing a positive community is comfort among its members when it comes to speaking their minds and expressing what is important to them,” Nicole Celestine writes in an article with the title, “10 Traits of a Positive Community.”

Sense of a community is built by creating a common story we share about the place we live. Those stories embed pride and a passion for the place we live. Those stories of a community can’t be written if it is fractured.

“Individuals who feel encouraged to give input about an issue and who feel heard when they speak their minds are more likely to feel connected to their community,” Celestine writes. “Further, successful communities recognize the importance of opinions that diverge from the majority and are open to hearing (them.)”

There is no prohibition on disagreeing with those whose thoughts we don’t agree with. But it is the manner of disagreeing that defines a community. Are we civil with one another, trying to understand those whose points of view we don’t accept, or are we demeaning?

“Empathy is the starting point for creating a community and taking action. It is the impetus for creating change,” actor Max Carver says. Empathy has a greater possibility of taking root when we share a common story.

Where do we find the common story of our communities that inform us of the challenges we face together, from providing daycare services to funding our schools to ensuring we have medical care available for our citizens? It is through a common source of information. In most small towns in America, that common source is the community newspaper.

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