· Rural America ·
Recently I attended a community meeting organized by Heal Reno County http://www.healrenocounty.org where a rural sociologist, Ben Winchester, University of Minnesota Extension, painted a positive picture of rural America instead of one resonating doom and gloom. It was clearly an example of perception. Is the glass half empty or half full?
Instead of doom and gloom, Winchester recommended that residents who regularly tell a sad story of loss about their town, change the narrative. He encouraged us to talk about the assets in our community, not the liabilities.
Understandably, newcomers to a community have fresh eyes; they aren’t constantly comparing today to yesteryear. If you ask an old timer to tell a story about the olden days, it will often include memories of happier times, cheaper prices, and thriving businesses.
Today, a newcomer will visit the stores that are open and useful and meet the owners and employees who are personable and helpful. In other words, a newcomer sees the present while a long-time resident recalls the past.
Winchester encouraged us to avoid the narrative of rural America being flyover country located in the middle of nowhere between both coasts. If we buy into the negative stereotypes about us, then we are a big part of the problem because we encourage a downward self-fulfilling prophesy.
We’re better than that.
It’s true, negative voices can be very loud. When you live in a small town it’s easy to think that your town is dying, and easy to believe it’s the only town dying. Winchester pointed out that you can’t fight globalization. It’s happening everywhere.
Jobs in the heart of the country used to revolve around agriculture and manufacturing. Today it’s education and health services. Today’s it’s also more diversified, which is a good thing.
Rural life is changing, not dying, according to Winchester. Statistically the rural population isn’t shrinking as much as the metro areas are expanding. Where earlier the area outside of the cities was classified as rural or suburban, today the residents—without even moving—are urbanites, city dwellers.
Winchester pointed out that statistically the number of households in our rural communities hasn’t decreased, but the size of the average family has shrunk. In 1940 the average household was 3.6 people. In 2018 it was 2.6, a decrease of 29%.
Today there’s a lot of mobility across the country, especially with the younger population. That explains why rural America loses the 20-30 year-old group as they migrate to college and often search for a spouse or partner.
Most of us in the audience were well aware that many who migrate, like birds, return. But Winchester said that nearly two-thirds of the newcomers to small towns or the rural countryside did not live there previously.
I figured that a job was the number one reason for moving. Wrong. What are the top three reasons newcomers are attracted to a rural community? A simpler pace of life, safety and security, and a lower cost of living.
Once the migrators find their idyllic spot, a search for employment follows.
My cousin Patricia, and her husband, Matt, visit Kansas regularly from their home in Maryland. They’re always comparing the congested roads on the east coast to our stress-free driving. They even house-hunt when they’re here! They fantasize that since a lot of their work is done from home via phone and the Internet that maybe someday they can relocate.
Winchester reinforced this when he told us the statistics show that today nearly 10% of people work from their home. This is an important reason for rural America to incorporate fast and reliable rural broadband to our infrastructure.
Winchester asked us what we do to welcome new people. He also cautioned us about asking negative questions. “Why here?” does not resonate friendliness. He reminded us that people are choosing to live in rural America. It’s not punishment.
Newcomers want to be part of the social fabric of a community as soon as possible. Once welcomed they can thrive and contribute. Ignored and uninvited they question if they made a good decision.
A few transplants at our meeting remembered the days they were greeted to their new neighborhood by a friendly person belonging to the Welcome Wagon. It made a difference. While some in the audience wanted to resurrect the formal volunteer organization, another person suggested individuals simply respond personally to the “sold” yard sign after the new neighbors have an opportunity to unpack their moving boxes.
Winchester offered a word of warning. If children growing up in a rural community continually hear the negatives about their town, especially from their parents, they’re less likely to stay or ever return. Instead, a story of hope and opportunity with respectful language can give children a reason to consider a future in rural America.
Winchester reminded us how important it is for us to tell a positive story. The story we tell can make a difference in Reno County. People are listening.
Afterword: At the meeting, appropriately held at a community-based downtown business, The Wool Market & DIY School https://thewoolmarket.net, I wasn’t anxious to sign up to volunteer. I didn’t feel like being on a committee. But I did offer to invite new people to a thriving writers club which I consider a quality of life issue. It’s the perfect vehicle for welcoming new residents to join an established group of people with a common interest. In the process it helps create social cohesion.
Instead of my volunteer effort being part of a Welcome Wagon, I’d prefer calling it “Welcome Writer!”
The Kansas Authors Club http://www.kansasauthors.org is a statewide organization that encourages and supports great writing. It’s divided into seven districts. In Hutchinson, Reno County, (part of District 6) we have monthly meetings at Hutchinson Community College http://www.hutchcc.edu.
Whether you are a Kansas native who has remained here, a returnee, or a transplant, come write with us!
Until next time, happy writing and reading!