‘Brain Drain’: Put a Stopper in Your Mouth

"The rural brain drain" is an insult, writes Carol Miller of New Mexico. Look around. In your community, it's probably not even true.

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There’s still time for New Year’s resolutions. If you haven’t made one, feel free to borrow mine — in fact, I need you for my own resolution to succeed: Let’s stop talking about the “rural brain drain” once and for all.

A few years ago, at a conference about the woes of rural America, one speaker really caught my attention with a very simple message. “Never say ‘rural brain drain,’” She told us. “Think about it.” She pointed out that to say “brain drain” in a rural community is basically telling everyone  present — the people who stayed — that they’re dumb. You’re implying they somehow missed the boat and are demonstrating low IQ just by being rural.

That brief comment, spoken as an aside to a larger point on community development, really hit home. From that time forward, I banished the phrase from my vocabulary. Whenever someone uses the phrase I try to correct it, but I can’t reach enough people by myself. I need your help.

The underlying basis to the myth is the idea that rural young people who leave for an education will not come back, that our children, once enchanted with urban life, will no longer want to live in rural communities. In some cases, of course, that’s true, but it is not even close to a general reality.

The Manzanares family operates the first organic sheep farm in New Mexico and is making it a success.

Those Who Stayed Full of Brainpower – Two Examples

Just in the area where I live, in northern New Mexico, the people who stayed have maintained traditional agricultural economies or brought in new practices. There is a lot of brainpower here. Consider Antonio and Molly Manzanares, family owners of Shepherds Lamb. Antonio returned to Tierra Amarilla after college and has helped rebuild the sheep, wool, and lamb industry in northern New Mexico, becoming the first certified organic lamb rancher in the state.

Danny Sam heads the Picuris Pueblo bison program and is a member of the Intertribal Bison Cooperative.
The Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative (www.itbcbison.com) and bison restoration have been good for the land and people; it’s improving the health of tribal members who returned bison to their diets and created a bison economy through marketing. Seven northern New Mexico tribes are members of the ITBC, which formed in 1991. Picuris Pueblo is one of the member tribes; I live on their historic homeland, a part that was not included in their current reservation when it was established by the U.S. government. Visitors to the National Museum of the American Indian, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., can enjoy bison from the Inter-Tribal cooperative at the award winning Mitsitam Café.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of stories like these, of people who chose not to leave but stayed to invest their talents and creativity in their rural communities. I see, if anything, a rural brain magnet. That’s why it is time to throw out that expression forever.

Two Generations of Children Who Left – The Foreclosed and The College Debtor

The two most recent generations of young people who left rural and frontier communities to go to college or find jobs have both been caught in the Re-Depression. The first wave got their educations, found jobs, started families, settled down in other places. Many members of this age group are part of The Foreclosed Generation, with jobs and homes lost through layoffs or illness.

The second generation is The College Debtors. These young people did what they were told would help them succeed. They believed the myth of the “brain drain,” that they could succeed only by leaving for an urban area. As a nation, we have failed this generation. What were we thinking as a country to let our youth take on more debt than can ever be repaid and then send them out into a shrinking labor market?

Yes, the public will still be fed the myths of the rural kid who makes it big as a winner in whichever bubble is growing at the time. But that is the one-percent of the one-percent. We need the experience of the older group and the energy of the younger to re-populate small towns, farms and ranches. Change is underway. It turns out that lots of people want the rural lifestyle. People want homegrown food that tastes like food, not a factory. They don’t want to sit down to a meal with milk from China, a banana from Nicaragua and ground beef with a mix from Brazil and who knows where.

Even USDA Knows the Pendulum Has Swung: New Farmers, New Futures

In the late 1990s the USDA began to pay attention to a group they call Beginning Farmers. Throughout the past ten years especially, there has been an increase in new policies and programs to help these new agrarians. Although the rates vary by county, one out of every five farms currently meets the definition of a “beginning farm.” Many operators are young urbanites and suburbanites; others are rural returnees and retired people seeking small town life.

Two trends have aided this movement into local and small-scale agriculture; first, an increasing consumer preference for locally grown and organic food and second, the economic downturn and increased unemployment. Brain-strong rural people could see this trend coming before it caught the attention of national policymakers and the media.

A rainbow of yarns from the Manzanares’ sheep ranch in Northern New Mexico.

This is the perfect time to replace the outdated thinking about rural communities. The Farm Bill is on the calendar to be reauthorized in 2012. This creates the opportunity to scrap the old thinking of recent Farm Bills and replace it with a comprehensive Rural Development and Food Security Bill. Rural America did not “die” on its own; it was killed by a combination of bad policies and neglect. It is not too late to turn the tide, revive rural America, and watch it thrive.

The foundation is here; it has been built by those who stayed. They are ready to be rejoined by those who left and by those urbanites who have had enough with struggling to make it in bubble  economies that implode every twenty years or so. The rural future is bright if we speak with respect and when we act to assure that our policy makers fight for rural communities.

Carol Miller is a community organizer from Ojo Sarco, New Mexico
(pop. 400) and an advocate for Geographic Democracy: the belief that the
United States must guarantee equal rights and opportunities to
participate in the national life, no matter where someone lives.

 

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