A New Tale to Turn the Migration Tide

The cliche is that Americans must leave small towns to attain anything worthwhile. Let's look at realities and come up with another story of maturation and success.

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Recently, I had the opportunity to travel abroad to support a Kansas grassroots organization that is struggling to preserve local heritage and way of life. As I boarded the plane that would be taking me thousands of miles from my rural Kansas home to another isolated community in the West Bank of Palestine, I spied an HSBC bank advertisement on the jetway. Beside a picture of an old VW Beetle piled with a family’s possessions and traversing gorgeous mountain terrain, a message says, “Every day 200,000 people leave the countryside for the city.”

For embarking passengers, the ad stirs up the emotions of anticipation and a desire to explore. Of course we understand that the people inside the car are seeking opportunity in a buzzing urban environment full of new sights and sounds, where they will inevitably take out a loan.

Depending on where a person comes from, he or she might have a completely different reaction to this message. Perhaps a viewer would think of a family that was forced off of their land by government seizure or bankruptcy, or someone who left their country home to find a job. For them, the ad would inspire nostalgia, memories of the beautiful countryside left behind, or resentment for the conditions that forced the mythical VW family — and real families, too — to leave their community.

In another ad, called “Bold Choices,” Willem Dafoe leaves small town America for bigger things, including sumo wrestling, shoveling elephant dung, world championship chess, or fashion design, shown here.

Americans have a history of bold exploration and discovery. That legacy is not just used to sell us bank accounts; it drives us to learn, innovate, and globalize. The exciting narrative of striking out on one’s own in the big city is especially strong among youth today.

Yet there are real, not imagined, negative effects of forced migration increasing around the world, consequences that are economic, ecological, and cultural. Each day, hundreds of thousands of people leave their small communities, never to return. Livelihoods and land are lost, educated youth find success in other places, and globalization centralizes economic power. Meanwhile, the benefits of living in rural communities are often overlooked, overshadowed by perceived drawbacks or “quaint” stereotypes. We as proud, rural communities must begin to create our own narrative of rural life. It’s time, too, to take a closer look at the big-city dream.

“Bold Choices,” an ad for Jim Beam whiskey, suggests that the decision to stay in a small town means balding and doing crossword puzzles in a diner.

Migration, in sociological terms, is typically pejorative. In many regions around the world, the choice to migrate is made under dire circumstances. And while the specific fluctuations of global population density vary, one overriding trend is clear: migration is happening in one direction, from rural to urban. This trend often turns out to have a negative impact on the people remaining in rural areas, if there are any. Land is being conglomerated, colonized, and commodified on a massive scale, not in the name of progress but because individuals and small communities can’t stand up against corporations and governments. The treasure-hunting story of urbanization diminishes the voices of people and communities that are struggling to preserve their traditional ways of life in the countryside.

Just ask indigenous people in the United States about the narrative of so-called “discovery.” Today, only a very fine line exists between globalization and American neo-colonialism on other continents. The sweep of urbanization and globalization disproportionately affects other war-torn regions of the world, but we are also diminishing our numbers at home in places that are very important to our nation’s systems of economic and social health: we’re depleting rural America.

The protagonist in the ad has decided to leave Appleton, Wisconsin, but which bus will he choose? Milwaukee or New York City?

In the name of progress, rural young people are encouraged to attend university and explore the world. Many don’t return, creating economic, social, and cultural strain on the communities that they leave behind. Also, a disproportionate number of young people from rural towns join the armed forces. In rural America, wages are down, farms are conglomerated, and crime and drug abuse are becoming growing problems. Urbanization is not only sapping population, it’s draining culture, creativity, and professional expertise from rural communities, too.

Despite all of these negative trends, rural living remains more sustainable, safer, and more participatory than urban living. It’s postulated that the great Mayan civilization was not annihilated by disaster but actually continues in our present time to live in the Amazon rainforest. Many Amazonian elders believe that their Mayan ancestors relocated within the forest because their standard of living was no longer sustainable. Research on the sustainability of cities supports this belief. As cities grow, we all — rural residents included — pay a price for the inefficiency and consumption of urban living. Consider just the infrastructure that must be built and maintained to support millions as opposed to just thousands.

Actor Willem DaFoe, who appears in the ad, actually hails from Appleton — and did live in Milwaukee for a time. The ad begins in the bus station; how about an ad where our hero is arriving not departing?

On a practical level, smaller communities are also more manageable. Law enforcement has a different role to play in rural communities because crime is prevented through informal, social structures of support and accountability. Rural places tend to be safer. They have more autonomous governing systems, which maximizes participation among individual members of a community. Positions of leadership are more accessible to a larger percentage of a rural population than such roles are for city dwellers.

How do we reverse the rural-to-urban migration, reaching beyond mere economic incentives and transforming our cultural narrative to inspire a nation? Trying to imagine what message might stir up strong emotions for me when I travel back to my rural home in a few months, I’m reminded of seeing Bedouins in the Negev desert. Return to my hometown in a few months, maybe I’ll see an advertisement that says “Millions of people today still live as their ancestors did thousands of years ago.”

Mallory Knodel works from her rural hometown in St. Francis, Kansas, as an activist for social justice at home and in places around the world with the help of the Internet. She can be reached at [email protected]

 

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