Building a Culture of Hope for Rural Places

En route to a road not taken, Timothy Collins, rediscovers that the quickest route to rural America is a two-lane highway.  

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It’s a cliché to say life is a journey. That makes it the easiest way to describe our existence in time and places across the firmament.

The journey, or whatever else you want to call it, is also about choices made, or choices you weren't able to make.

Recently I learned a lesson, or perhaps a few lessons—another cliché—from a journey to interview for a position with the University of Nebraska's Rural Futures Institute (RFI). I didn't get the job.

So, the first lesson: I don’t like rejection, but I really am not upset about being denied the choice to pick up and move on to a new challenge. I do regret that I will not have a chance to add my ideas to a relatively new organization that is operating with the full support of the University of Nebraska system, including the Institute for Agriculture and Natural Resources, the Medical Center, and the other campuses.

RFI is one of the places to be where rural is concerned. Director Chuck Schroeder and his team are already up and running. They will do great things in the future, offering alternatives for rural Nebraskans who want to make positive changes in their communities and regions. The University of Nebraska is now the leader among Land Grant universities in rural community and economic development.

A job interview gives you a chance to evaluate where you've been, where you are, and where you want to go. I am just past my 10th anniversary at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University. It has been a great ride with a sincere and dedicated group of people. My health and state budget willing, I am happy to stay here for a few more years. My recent search on the side road of interviewing for a new job has reminded me that I am in a good place, with loads of unfinished work.

Photo by Timothy Collins

The second lesson: Getting off of the interstate is still educational, even if you've been in and around rural development for almost 40 years. My life's journey has included thousands of miles of rural driving on secondary and back roads. My decision to drive from my home in Bushnell, Illinois, to Lincoln, Nebraska, across southern Iowa on State Route 2 instead of Interstate 80 was well worth the few minutes of extra time it took, even with wind and blowing snow on the last part of the trip.

Iowa 2 begins in Ft. Madison, near where Illinois 9 ends at the Mississippi River. The road wanders westward across the state to the Missouri River, where it crosses into Nebraska City, Nebraska. Its 251.4 miles crack the myth about the flat Midwest. It crosses at least six named rivers, so much of the route is through rolling country of farmland, prairie land held in conservation reserve, and woods and forests, including numerous recreation areas.

Something about Iowa has always appealed to me, especially since my first visit in the mid-1980s. The state has gone through tremendous changes since then, and when you drive into some of the small towns that are still struggling to overcome the damage wrought by the farm crisis and evacuation of industries nearly 30 years ago, you sense a certain vibrancy and determination that brings about renewal. Iowa 2 traverses some of the poorest counties in the state, but that doesn’t stop people from trying to build better lives for themselves and their communities.

Iowa seems proud of its downtown heritage. Take Centerville, for example. The population fell about 400 between 2000 and 2010 to about 5,500, but that is not stopping people from renovating and improving the downtown square that focuses on the Appanoose County Courthouse.

Lunchtime found me on a brief excursion off the main highway, driving around the square, where a sign flashing word of caramel coffee caught my eye. This was Tangleberries Eats, Treats & Suites, a combination restaurant and gift shop with three overnight suites on the second floor. The custom-made salad and coffee were delicious, and I learned the business has been around for seven years. Not only that, according to the website, it is growing.

The lunchtime conversation covered other good things going on in the town, as well as some of the issues. At 17.2%, Appanoose County has one of the highest poverty rates in Iowa, compared with 12.6% statewide. It is a difficult social problem that presents obstacles for families, schools, health care, and in the workplace.

The third lesson: Working in rural areas can be a draining experience because there are so many negatives. They become acutely obvious when you drive through ramshackle places with grinding poverty. At my job interview with the Rural Futures Institute, we discussed the culture of despair that permeates many rural areas across the country, including Illinois and Nebraska.

Photo via the Tanglewood Eats, Treats, and Suites website
The "eats" part of Tanglewood Eats, Treats, and Suites in Centerville, Iowa.

My take on this sad condition is that we need to recognize it, be empathetic to the needs of people, and help them develop themselves and their communities if they want to be helped. In this case, our education and outreach efforts need to start with storytelling about community successes communities and the obstacles they must overcome along the way.

Centerville’s mission statement shows appreciation for the city’s assets and is part of the story of determined communities making headway to improve their quality of life: “The Centerville City Government will provide the leadership to unite all who share a vested interest in the excellence of our community. By learning from our history, preserving our heritage, and addressing the needs of an ever-changing lifestyle, our efforts are to enhance the total community.”

Some of the key words and phrases in the statement include government leadership, shared interest, excellence, and total community. These words offer a counterpoint to the affliction of despair. They suggest enlightened local government that receives support from the state government and seeks to create a community that has confidence in itself as a place and in its residents.

Rural despair is disheartening. But it is also a cliché when it is the only thing we talk about. We need to be critical about and understand what’s wrong with rural America. That is realistic.

But now, more than ever, we need to share the stories about the good life that rural communities can find if they can develop an appreciation of what and who they are and work together to come together around common aspirations to reach common goals.

This is the best lesson of all.  

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

 

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