Rural Community Collaboration - From Michigan to the West

This is a guest post by Patrick Kennedy

Despite the fact that the country is mostly rural, a vast majority of Americans live in urban or suburban areas; approximately 84% according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Regardless of this disparity, growing up in a rural town was fantastic in many ways, but also limiting. On one hand, the experiences you have are quite engaging because you feel part of a tight-knit community. On the other hand, it feels as though you are missing out on a broader context or narrative. I have personally grappled with this duality my entire life and firmly believe that whether you are from a small, rural community, or a sprawling, urban metropolis, you must seek out opportunities and experiences different from your own to become a well-rounded individual and civic contributor.

After graduating from high school, with a class of 32, I made the decision to attend a Big Ten university; Michigan State University. This was a choice that weighed on me because I certainly could have received more financial aid if I had remained in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan; and would have had easier access to my community roots and network of family and friends. Both the ease and familiarity of my home were forgone to gain different experiences and broaden my perspective in a new urban location.

In retrospect, this decision was critical for my growth as an individual and enhanced my understanding of the sociopolitical, cultural and natural world around me. I grew more aware of the issues being faced by people around Michigan, across the country and even on the other side of the world. Strangely enough, they were eerily similar to the issues being faced by the people I knew back home. For example, the rapidly globalizing world economy has created a market where jobs are shifting to urban areas and youth are following suit, leaving their rural hometowns behind. Whether the issue is derived from political or cultural change, generation gaps, or economic difficulty, we as human beings are not so different. However, understanding and being conscious of subtle differences and similarities can make collaboration much more manageable. In other words, uniting around a shared cause is often possible, even between seemingly polarized groups. This is even more necessary in small, rural communities that need to have a unified voice in order to be heard. Our core values are the same, but politically charged phrasing often clouds our points of similarity.

Toward the end of my undergraduate degree in Comparative Cultures and Politics, I decided to pursue a STEPP (Science, Technology, Environment and Public Policy) specialization. Through professors within this discipline, I was informed of a class with the former USDA Undersecretary of Natural Resources and Environment, Mark Rey. I jumped at the chance to take his course on advocacy in the natural resources arena. The next level of the class was a course on federal policy development, involving an internship in Washington DC with a nonprofit, trade association, or federal agency in the William A. Demmer Scholar Program. Over the summer, I was fortunate enough to intern for the USDA Forest Service National Partnership Office and assisted with the website.

The website seeks to engage youth in outdoor events as well as educational and employment opportunities across America. Helping improve the website was a great fit for me because of my experience volunteering with the Boys and Girls Club in my hometown, and having been a youth board member on the Chippewa County Community Foundation. I suggested many improvements, especially ways in which youth could be engaged more effectively, and how the website needed to be a forum for two-way interaction. I also produced a manual describing how to post and edit content on the website, so whoever would continue working on the site would have proper instructions.

Furthermore, I met many exceptional and diverse individuals and learned quite a bit about how the USDA Forest Service operates as a federal agency. It was truly astounding to learn how the Forest Service works on the ground throughout the U.S. and many places abroad to provide strategic forest stewardship, oversight and educational workshops. This thoughtful planning and knowledge ensures quality forests for recreation, timber production and healthy habitats for plants, animals and ecosystem services into the future.

Overall, a commitment to public service is at the core of the Forest Service. This is obvious when considering their motto to provide “the greatest good for the greatest number of people over the long run.” Fully understanding how numerous federal agencies, nonprofit groups and trade associations work together to produce well-rounded policies and eventual outcomes enhanced my perception of natural resource policy and the policy world in general. Policy outcomes must be the result of compromise and participation, from all stakeholders, ensuring appropriate use and conservation of resources.

To yield effective outcomes, those with the knowledge and experience must step forward and contribute in a collaborative manner, often times without receiving the proper recognition. This contribution can be as simple as signing a letter to an elected official or as intensive as volunteering your time and energy to an interest group that shares your beliefs. Giving to your community and drawing upon learned expertise, without anticipation of reward, should be some part of everyone’s life, big or small. I’ve sought to continue participating in and learning more about the community-based collaborative process at my current internship at Sustainable Northwest. My work with the Portland, Oregon based nonprofit is providing me with the chance to put my experience and knowledge to good use by observing and impacting critical natural resource policies in the West, as well as the outcomes on the ground. After all, having people from all across the country participate in the policy-making process, including rural areas, is key to producing wholesome policies. I am glad to be part of this process and contribute on behalf of my small, rural hometown and represent the broader rural areas of America.