Tapping Untouched Talent in Rural America

When many Americans hear the word "rural", they often conjure up a romanticized image of what rurality is and what it includes. They approach this topic through a distance, with their knowledge informed by the typical Hollywood storyline or country song. City people still picture the modern countryside as being undomesticated and exempt from the effects of capitalism and industrialization, but this understanding has been inaccurate since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. This image of rurality and small towns is grossly misrepresented, outdated, and hazardous to the viability of rural America.

Certain Americans have the inclination to believe that rurality is a stress-free paradise with its charming and laidback qualities. This is certainly true for "amenity-based" towns, such as Aspen, Colorado, that are advantaged with picturesque landscape. Aspen naturally draws a crowd being a retirement and tourist destination. Conversely, "resource-based" towns that rely heavily on industries such as agriculture and manufacturing have experienced increasing struggles to provide basic services to their residents. Although these towns may have a smaller set of problems compared to their urban counterpart, they also have smaller budgets and human capital to deal with these problems.

Trends in demographic data show that people have left rural America by large numbers since 1976 and, while fluctuations in the rural population vary by year, this historical pattern of population decline remains accurate. As rural towns struggle to provide basic necessities such as safe drinking water and affordable food, their quality of life begins to decline. However, the good news is there have been a lot of new projects undertaken to protect the landscape and integrity of "God's country", and these efforts have been accomplished by none other than Generation Y.

In the past, young people have not been active participants in their rural community. Between working on the farm and participating in school activities, which is something that almost all rural youth are involved in given the lack of diverse recreational activities, there is not much time remaining to contribute to community development efforts. This has recently changed due to at least two interrelated reasons. The first is the increasingly deteriorating rural conditions due to the declining population, where in Nebraska we see that there exists one county only having one town within it, and this town happens to be unincorporated. The second is the complementary role community leaders and other adults have had in encouraging young people to become more active community members.

Just recently, my colleagues at USDA RD in Nebraska awarded a $15,300 Community Facilities grant to a group of high school students in Auburn, Nebraska, to keep their movie theater open. These students showed leadership in all stages of this project, from idea conception to implementation and maintenance. Janice Stopak, USDA RD Area Specialist, said that 'This project is a critical asset to the community. Kids need a place to get together for entertainment without having to drive to another town. It keeps the business local'. Although they have had strong support from their school and community, this facility still remains an entirely youth-led and youth-run operation.

On the other side of the state, USDA RD also provided a $175,105 grant to Central Community College to hold a series workshop on community development and entrepreneurship for the general public, many of whom were high school students. The communities in attendance recognized that the youth is a crucial element for the future success of their towns, which was why schools made sure that these students found their way to these workshops. There, students partnered with real business owners who inspired them to take action.

These examples make it clear that progress is not a solitary enterprise and that young people have tremendous untapped potential that can be directed towards community development efforts. Both the young and older generations must work as equal partners pursuing the same mission of preserving the rural landscape and its way of life. There is no secret recipe for success. Towns need inspired, mobilized and dedicated people, with a vision, who can lead the way.

Due to the longstanding and continuing history of urban sprawl, which has resulted in development that looks similarly featureless across America, people have found small town and the rural life to be increasingly appealing. Dense and traffic-congested developments, with an overabundance of parking lot-filled chain stores and restaurants, have resulted in indistinguishable towns and cookie-cutter-like communities. Rural communities need to capitalize on this opportunity to rehabilitate their towns to attract this new and interested population.

Small towns and the rural way of life are both important parts of America's cultural heritage and are assets that need to be preserved. This former frontier is a place of nostalgia that gets people thinking about the way things used to be, even if they do not have that direct connection or experience. Many of us will not recognize this before it is too late. It is important for rural towns to establish cross-sectional partnerships to promote community development and revitalization, and empower youth in the process, to ensure the future viability of the rural landscape. Young people are excited, energized, and ready to engage.