Anyone familiar with the challenges and opportunities that come with living in small-town America will find a bit of their experience reflected in the stories of rural Minnesota.
Declining population, the loss of jobs, the movement of political power to urban centers – these difficulties that confront much of rural Minnesota are part of the national rural conversation, as well.
Minnesota Public Radio has been covering the rural sections of the state for more than three years as part of their project Ground Level. Now MPR has compiled some of their reporting on rural Minnesota into an e-book and website, Fighting for an American Countryside. The book and site contain the stories of reporter Jennifer Vogel, plus photos and videos from photographers Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber.
The video above is a good introduction to the project. It’s a visually beautiful piece that might be best described as mournfully optimistic.
There’s grief for the rural towns that have been in economic decline for generations. And, as seems inevitable when Americans talk about the places and people they love, there’s a bit of exceptionalism. (“Small towns are the heart and soul of America, it’s what this country was founded on,” says one resident of Milan, Minnesota.)
But it’s the hard-nosed realism that sets this web, video, radio and e-book series apart. Not every small town is going to survive, says a Montevideo resident. (To which we might add, not every large city necessarily is, either). The small towns that do make it are going to have to figure out a new way forward. And that’s where the book and website take off.
Examples of that new way forward include adapting buildings that lie empty in small downtowns, embracing immigrant communities that are reversing population decline, growing new businesses that take advantage of local assets and people. The challenges are many, the work is hard and success is far from certain.
The stakes are high for Minnesota’s rural communities. But some say they’re just as high for urban America, too.
“If we lose the people who care about rural America, what we lose is the capacity to sustain the landscapes that give life to everything else,” says Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin of Northfield in the MPR video. “The cities themselves can’t supply their basic needs without having that landscape healthy and populated. … The survival of rural communities is the survival of cities.”
In other words, if any of us is exceptional, we all better be.
Fighting for an American Countryside contains all the background you need to understand Minnesota’s rural issues as a microcosm of the nation’s larger rural challenges. But what I enjoyed most are some of specific voices in the short video vignettes that accompany the web version of the e-book.
Here’s just one, Patrick Moore of Montevideo:
“Community is when the person you least want to be with shows up. I think in small towns you don’t have this luxury of separating off into your little neighborhood where everybody thinks alike. You have to grapple with differences and ideologies and opinions and religions to make stuff happen.”
Now there’s a basic need that’s in awful short supply. If rural communities can help supply even a pinch of that ingredient, all of us are going to be a lot better off.
Tim Marema is editor of the Daily Yonder.