By Elena Kaye-Schiess, NeighborWorks Rural VISTA
Recently I had the opportunity to attend the National Rural Assembly in Bethesda, Maryland where rural leaders and organizations from across the country come together under the guiding principle that an inclusive, prospering, and sustainable rural America improves prospects for all of America. Participants focus on key rural policy areas like health, education, community development and conservation.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack delivered the keynote speech where he said that rural America is faced with some very serious challenges, “one of the principle reasons is that we don’t market the extraordinary opportunities that exist in rural America, and we make it more difficult for young, bright people to see their future there, and many who are raised there leave and do not come back”.
I grew up in a small town of 2,500 in rural Maine, and when I left for college I enjoyed bragging to my mostly urban classmates about the quirky challenges of my rural upbringing - “When I was a kid, to collect eggs I had to beat back an aggressive rooster with one hand while knocking hens out of the way with the other,” or, “Ever try riding a sheep?” And, “Have I
told you about the town pig scramble?”
I often told stories of my hometown with pride, but also as if being from rural was a challenge I was proud to have overcome. However, after attending college outside the US, when I graduated in 2011 I wanted nothing more than to spend the summer back home with my family. But, I was terrified that my job options would range from cashier at The Corner Store (that’s really the name) to cashier at the other store, “Boonies”. Even worse, I thought that after spending four years abroad my community was going to think of my return as the ultimate failure. I remember just a few days before graduation I timidly knocked on my professor’s door and explained my desire to go home, but also my fear of judgment and the dearth of opportunities waiting for me. Her advice, “you have to figure something else out”.
I reflected on this conversation at the Rural Assembly during a Young Professionals Leadership Training on Public Narrative session, a tool designed to teach us how to use our stories and values to motivate and inspire others into action. Following the training, three young professionals were selected to share with the full assembly their incredible stories of growing up in small rural towns, leaving to attend college or pursue other opportunities, but ultimately deciding to return and be a catalyst for change:
First, Andrea Salina spoke of how she returned to her small mining ghost town in North Central, West Virginia after seven years in the eastern mountains. In spite of blight, unusable land, and crumbling infrastructure, she seized the opportunity to return home because she wanted to be able to raise her young daughter in her close knit town with the support system of family and friends. “The challenge,” she said, “lies in how to revitalize the tangible community as well as the pride and spirit of community, both of which were lost when the local mine closed in 1985.” Now in the recent wake of Patriot Coal Company’s bankruptcy, “not only has the coal industry taken away clean water, healthy soil, and community morale, it has now further iced the cake by stripping away the benefits of those who dedicated their lives to the coal mines.” Andrea is staying to fight, and is forming a grassroots organizing group to change the bankruptcy laws because, “the unions, employees, and their families should not have to fight this battle alone, but together we can make a difference.”
Next, Brett Tully told the story of growing up in a family with a long history of fishing, but even as a young boy his father discouraged him from following in their footsteps. “Collectively we have been told this story that our way of life doesn’t matter”, Brett said, “so I had a choice, I could leave this tradition that began with my great grandfather, passed onto my grandfather and then my dad. This tradition of independence, hard work, feeding people, a tradition of stewardship and taking care of the ocean, this thing that has nourished our souls and community and my family for so long. I could choose to leave that, or enter what I was being told is a dying way of life.” Brett did leave, only to discover that his story is not unique; the same types of policies that are displacing his family of fishermen are also displacing millions of others around the world. He decided to return and fight to ensure families like his aren’t forced to remove themselves from their home and their land and their rural communities. Now with the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, he said, “we are working right now to transform coastal rural communities and fisheries and our seafood industry, and we are bringing a new vision of a triple bottom line where we do not have to pin the environment vs. jobs, and we don’t have to force small scale fishermen to make the choice of either scale up or get out. We are bringing a vision where food producers get paid a fair price and a vision where no matter what the income of your family you can have access to local, healthy and culturally appropriate food.”
Last to tell her story was Devan Grote, a young woman from southwestern Pennsylvania. While her father and the four generations before him were coal miners, Devan wanted to be a businesswoman like her mother and her mother’s father who came from a long line of family agriculture businesses. She chose a college far from her home for its probability to take her big places, where many of the students came from Boston, New York, and DC. By junior year she had landed an interview at the top of the Chrysler building, and it was there that she said, “I went from wanting to be in a place where I couldn’t even sit down to form a thought, to wanting to go home where I suddenly realized my thoughts could create a new place.” Devon returned to rural America and started the Fayette young professional’s network because, “preventing brain drain is not about keeping our kids in their small towns, it’s about encouraging them to go off and gain knowledge and then giving them the desire to come back as owners of their rural communities who feel a responsibility to make it a better place.”
Creating stable and sustainable job opportunities is a key roadblock to rural youth retention, and it is not a point I am trying to underemphasize. Yet an often overlooked factor is youth’s perception of their rural community’s unique assets and opportunities, and a deeper understanding of the priorities that can ultimately guide their decisions to return or stay. While “getting out” is a powerful force almost everyone experiences at some point, there also exists the irreplaceable understanding of and connection to the place we grew up, and harnessing that can be an equally powerful motivator to return. Just prior to these three stories, Amy Sterndale from the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire addressed this issue and presented data from a study of Coös County’s 2009 High School Class that found “76 percent rate leaving Coös County as highly or moderately important; however, 93 percent also report living close to family as highly or moderately important, suggesting conflicted priorities.” A related study found that youths who perceived less educational and occupational opportunities reported less confidence that they will finish high school and college, suggesting communities can have a positive impact on youth futures, and potentially strengthen their appreciation for the community, by targeting educational and job opportunities for teens and helping them connect to existing opportunities.
After my college graduation I did choose to return home, and contrary to what I had anticipated I spent the summer wrangling youth at a summer camp for kids from my community and a few of the neighboring towns. That summer was transformational; I renewed my respect for my own rural roots, reestablished a connection with my family and friends, and established a new connection to the youth from the area. Instead of judging my return as a sign of failure as I had feared, my community valued my skills and experience. At the end of the summer I did not return to work abroad as I had intended, but I began as a VISTA with the NeighborWorks America Rural Initiative in Boston where I am now based. While I did leave my hometown, I no longer consider this a source of pride. Rather, through my work with the Rural Initiative I am proud and inspired to be engaged with a network of innovative and resilient rural organizations across the country that are not only solving fundamental challenges in their communities through housing and infrastructure development, but are also creating new and sustainable economic opportunities that represent the voices and interests of the local residents.