Helping Rural Regain Its ‘Swagger’

“What if everything you are being told about the demise of rural living is wrong?” That’s the question Robin Rather wants to ask participants at next week’s creativity and economic rural renewal  conference in North Carolina.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Next week’s “Cross Currents” conference in Greensboro, North Carolina, looks at the intersection of rural community development and creativity. The event, sponsored by Art-Force and the National Rural Assembly, will examine how partnerships between creative-arts organizations and agriculture-related enterprises can promote economic and social well being in rural communities.

The opening speaker for the event (Wednesday, September 3) is Robin Rather, a fifth-generation Texan and CEO of Collective Strength, a communications and marketing firm. Rather, who is the daughter of former CBS News anchor Dan Rather, spoke with one of the conference’s organizers, Janet Kagan, about the role of rural America in building more vibrant communities for everyone. An edited version of this conversation is below.

Janet Kagan: The focus of your work ranges from transportation to city and regional planning, and from workforce housing to renewable energy — critical issues in urban and rural communities.  How do you traverse between these two contexts?

Robin Rather: I was born in Houston and am a fifth generation Texan on both sides of my family.  I spent the school year in cities including Washington, D.C., and London but spent every summer with my grandmother in a small rural town on the banks of the Colorado River.  To this day, I consider myself a hybrid:  both a city and a country girl.  I have a ton of first cousins who still live in Bastrop County(Texas), and their kids and grandkids are still there.

There really is no rural without a city nearby and no real city exists without a rural counterpart nearby. They are part of the same ecosystem and are, in truth, completely inter-dependent.  I have no trouble integrating the fundamental issues of our time — jobs, energy, water, air, and land — into either an urban or rural mind-set.  It is not either/or. It is both. 

Over the past decade or more, way too many pundits have just stopped thinking of rural areas as equally important and have fallen all over themselves thinking that cities are the answer to the world’s sustainability problems.  I don’t buy that at all.   Cities have something to offer as we move forward, but rural areas have just as much and arguably even more.  As an example, let me point to Maurice Strong, a respected businessman , and as an executive at the United Nations considered one of the grandfathers of the sustainability movement.  He states, “…the future health of our planet will be determined in our cities.”  With all due respect — really?  (See also this Fast Company article.)

A bridge over the Colorado river not far from Rather's grandparents' place in Smithville, Texas.

JK: You frequently use the expression “half-back.”  Please describe what you mean. 

RR: Half-back is a term quoted in a New York Times article  and coined to describe retiring Yankees who think they want to move to Florida but instead find themselves falling in love with rural areas all over the South and moving there instead.  I first heard about it in Tennessee where many of their rural areas and small towns are courting these “half-backs” quite aggressively.  It has become a mini-population boom. In my polling, I see some tentative signs that this may start to happen with the younger generation as well, as many of the cities they “think” they want to live in are ridiculously expensive and stressful. 

JK: Seminal to your work is creating a “framework of values.” How do you assess “value”?

RR: Values are those high-level, “bedrock” ideals and priorities that don’t change with the wind.  Freedom is a classic example of a core American value.  Some people associate the word “values” with “morals” or with religious concepts, but I don’t.   Values are bigger than politics, bigger than religion, bigger than anything except our own imagination.  In my work, values simply means “what is most important” to this community as it thinks about the future.

Every community is different in terms of what their highest hopes are and what their fears are. What we do [at Collective Strength] is deeply listen to a lot of different people in a community and then show them what they have in common. Typically, people think they have different values because our political system is very divisive. If you get underneath all that, you find out what is really important, down deep and it is easier to motivate and pull people together by focusing on those common personal values and not politics or religion or any other label.

For example, we did a values study in the over 30 parishes that were affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Those communities ranged from inner city New Orleans all the way out to Lake Charles with more than half of the parishes being very rural. We found what people valued most in that situation was a) their own cultural roots and b) a chance to make things better for the next generation after the storms. 

 So if you talked to people in the context of those values, you could have very positive, productive, creative discussions and decisions that were exciting instead of political posturing.  Those values allowed us to bring rural, urban, Cajun, African American, Vietnamese, white, affluent, low income people all together and make it relevant and inspiring. People didn’t expect that, and it meant a lot to them to have a unified vision of the future instead of just more fighting or misunderstanding. 

JK: Collective Strength recently completed a poll for the American Planning Association.  What data surprised you?

RR: The 2014 APA poll consists of  a national sample of 1,000 people, statistically calibrated to represent the U.S. population over 18 years of age to 65 years of age. Of all the questions we asked, this one was most intriguing to me personally, although the APA did not include the data in their summary report:

Where do you live now and where would you most like to live someday assuming you could afford it? 

-A walkable urban area with lots of shops and restaurants nearby.

-Out in the country with lots of nature.

-A suburb where most people drive to most places.

-A walkable suburb with some shops and restaurants nearby.

-Or a walkable small town in a rural area. 

The data indicates that almost 40% picked either “out in the country” (27%) or “in a walkable small town in a rural area” (13%) as where they would like to live someday — and this is compared to 16% who picked “a walkable urban area and only 21% who picked a either of the suburban areas.  ( Source: APA 2014.)

Photo by Robin Rather
Springtime in Texas.

I know what you must be thinking — what about the all important younger generation, those under 35 years old? Turns out that 36% of them want to live in the country or rural small towns too.  There are almost 80 million of them in America, [so] that’s a huge number of young people out there to attract.  Now just because they want to doesn’t mean they actually will someday, but it does mean there is something powerful drawing people from all over the U.S. and across all age brackets, even the young guns, to wish to go back to rural areas. 

All of us have an innate and undeniable need for deep nature. The environmentalist in me, the mother in me, and the Texan in me doesn’t just intellectually think that; I know it’s true, deep in my bones.  We are wired for nature.  For most of human history, we have lived more or less “embedded” in nature.  And contrary to all the urbanist theory out there, even the “greenest” of cities will not be able to satisfy that part of our DNA.  

So the question is what if there is a larger than expected movement back toward rural areas? What if there are things we can do to coax that trend along more rapidly?  Are the rural areas ready?  What could the next great rural age look like and offer folks?  What if we stopped being as fatalistic as we have been about the future? 

JK: What attracted you to the conference Cross-Currents: Art + Agriculture Powering Rural Economies?

 RR: Many rural economies are suffering from a lack of self confidence right now.  I want to challenge the audience to help rural areas get their “swagger” back.  This conference has a distinct new energy, a new optimism that is looking to blend the best of the creative arts with the best of the local food movement and finding new approaches and new ideas.  I am more excited to listen at this event than I am to talk. 

JK: What do you hope to accomplish with your presentation? 

RR: I want to kick the current fatalism about rural areas to the curb and ask: What if everything you are being told about the demise of rural living is wrong?  What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail to bring all these folks who say they might want a more rural life into the fold?  I want to spark a dialog that helps make this conference a milestone in new thinking about the future of rural strategy in the 21st century.

JK: You founded Collective Strength.  What are its core intentions?

RR: At our core, we have the heart of an activist, the brain of a CEO and the voice of mediator. We’re in the business of “pragmatic encouragement.” 

We set out to do one thing better than anybody else: market research, messaging and strategic planning for people innovating around the idea of economic, environmental and personal sustainability. 

Our clients are typically in the non-profit and public sector realms who are doing innovative work and need to talk about it without getting defunded or marginalized before they are even out of the gate.  Our work is designed to help create momentum.  Often, our clients are policy wonks or community groups or planning/engineering/science geeks that have brilliant ideas that could really change the world — but they aren’t the best at communicating. That is where we come in. 

 

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