Rural Voices: ‘Different Than I Expected’

Sarina Otaibi has lived in Granite Falls, Minnesota, for three-and-a-half years – long enough to earn a spot on the city council, start converting a decommissioned church, and found a cooperative brewery, besides working full-time for a water-quality nonprofit. Otaibi grew up in Saudi Arabia and said she found a few surprises (mostly good) when she moved to her mother’s hometown on the prairie.

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A temporary job attracted Sarina Otaibi to move to Granite Falls, a town of about 2,900 in southwest Minnesota.

She expected to stay about 10 months.

Three and a half years later, Otaibi is permanently employed by Clean Up the River Environment (CURE), an environmental organization that focuses on climate, energy and water issues. In her spare time, she won a seat on the city council, got elected president of the local historical association, and serves on a statewide preservation organization.

And she also bought a decommissioned church that she plans to convert to community use.

The progression from visitor to resident seemed natural to Otaibi.

“I just became more a part of the town, involved in different organizations,” she said.

Otaibi had a head start in putting down roots in Granite Falls. Her mother grew up in the prairie town. But Otaibi was raised in Saudi Arabia and was living in Washington, D.C., before her move to Minnesota.

Part of a series of interviews with people who will be participating in the National Rural Assembly, September 9-11, 2015, in Washington, D.C.

Read the first part of the series, a talk with Timothy Lampkin of Clarksdale, Mississippi.

With a passion for community and historic preservation, Otaibi said she thinks rural people have a harder time keeping their issues in front of funders and policy makers because of distance. She hopes her second National Rural Assembly (she attended the 2013 Assembly) will help her connect with like-minded rural advocates.

Otaibi hopes to convert a decommissioned church into a community meeting space.

What is your part of rural America like, and what are the key issues there?
Our region of Minnesota is kind of a lot of small towns. It’s prairie, with amazing river valleys. I’m lucky enough to live in the Minnesota River valley. When you get up out of the valleys you see a lot of corn and soybeans. …

My world is environmental work. [Water contamination] is due to big agriculture, and their relationship to water. Everyone would point to different [water] issues I guess…. There is an article in City Pages that does a great job at capturing the issue thoroughly, in case folks would like to learn more.

Another issue I would identify here is empty storefronts in the small downtowns. And old downtown buildings get torn down because of lack of money or use or capacity to save them… I’m a preservationist. But I don’t really like to focus on the negatives a lot. I don’t like to say we’re in a population decline. I don’t think that’s true. I think small towns look different as the world changes in general.

Another key issue is broadband. I have friends who live out in the country and struggle with accessing decent broadband. And access to that should be a priority in rural areas, because of the opportunity for economic development it provides. But there’s not enough funding.

And the decreasing of family farms is another huge issue. Which is related to the lower population and the environmental issues.

What do you wish the rest of the nation knew about your community?
I wish the nation knew that each of the small towns in this area is pretty different. We’re not all the same. So generalizations don’t really work. They all have different industries, different people. The way they see the world is very different when you go from town to town. They all have their own personality. They say that about cities: different neighborhoods have different personalities. But when they think of rural Minnesota they think we’re all one type of people. That has been a big learning curve for me. When I moved out here I found something different from what I expected. I never realized the differences in a small town. There is such diversity, it’s crazy. I wish people saw that more.

Downtown Granite Falls, Minnesota.

And [another thing I wish the nation knew is that] small towns have a great ability to help themselves. And there are so many people who are working so hard to fix or work on a particular challenge. There are so many groups and people in these towns I didn’t realize when I moved here, who are working on all the issues [I mentioned], and volunteer a lot of their time to work in groups to better their community.

What are the challenges and bright spots in your community?
One of the challenges is securing funding. It’s hard. It’s not the same network you would have in a city. Even working for an environmental non-profit out here you don’t have the same opportunity as a non-profit would in a city, in terms of face time with the foundations. It’s hard to be at events and be a part of policy conversations to have your voice heard. All the travel and time and money it takes if you need go to the cities from out there is a real hindrance. That’s probably one of the greatest challenges. I guess I’d say there’s people who do the work, but we don’t have the [funding] capacity. …

But there is also a challenge of capacity within local organizations and leadership roles. The main reason I ran for city council was the lack of young leadership. I don’t see people in their 20’s or 30’s or even 40’s in leadership positions in organizations as much in these areas. I don’t see female leadership on city councils or county commission boards, and basically local governments. I am probably the second or third woman on city council here in Granite Falls, ever. It amazes me, because a large portion of our population are women. On the county board there are no females. I don’t understand why that’s happening. But I don’t appreciate not being represented. So [that] diversity is really lacking. I think that’s really widespread in rural communities.

There are tons of bright spots, of course. I feel like the bright spots are all of the successes we’ve had. [We’ve had] a lot of successful projects in Granite Falls, where one organization after four years was able to save a building and to leverage funds, lots of funds, to make that happen. It required the collaboration of more than one organization in the community. And surprisingly, the small city is rebuilding structures. I’m always amazed at how much stuff is happening in our town.

Sarina getting sworn into office with other new members of the Granite Falls City Council.

One topic I haven’t talked much about is the founding of our cooperative brewery, Bluenose Gopher Brewery, in Granite Falls. … Myself and friends opened it as a cooperative so that the brewery is community owned and not owned by an individual. We’re hoping it will be more sustainable.  … A project like a brewery and a cooperative attracts the attention of young people because it has that entrepreneurial spirit to it. It provides a great example of young leaders volunteering their time to work on a new concept for a project in a rural community that will benefit the whole community.  

What do you hope to accomplish at the National Rural Assembly? How could other rural advocates around the country help you in your work at home?
This is my second Assembly. I first attended in 2013 and I had an awesome experience. … My first introduction was the [Rural Arts and Culture Convening] the year before. I met a lot of people working on art and cultural issues at that assembly. I was able to see everyone again at the National Rural Assembly.

Photo by Shawn Poynter/Rural Archive
Sarina, right, talks with Michele Anderson of Springboard for the Arts at an a rural arts and culture conference in Ashfield, Massachusetts in 2012.

A lot of times working in these small communities you can feel a little bit isolated when you don’t talk about how it’s a lot of work. When you’re at the Assembly, you’re able to connect with other rural advocates from other parts of the U.S., to share stories, and see they have the same problems and challenges as I do. It’s sort of a therapy to go through that. And all the workshops and experiences there provide a lot of resources and connections I know I’ve used. I know that if I have a certain question or issue, I have someone to contact if I need to.

I’m excited for this one because I get to see people I haven’t seen in years who live in another state. I’m really excited about the [Young Leaders Day] – it’s all focused on policy and communications, which is basically my job description. I’m going to get a lot out of that. I’m speaking on the future generation panel and I’m sure I‘ll learn a lot from the other panelists during the discussions.

Other rural advocates could help with changing the narratives of rural America. I know [rural America] has its challenges, but people tend to focus on poverty and these stereotypes about poverty and race, and even political viewpoints that rural people have. Changing the narrative to a more positive [one] would be a huge help.

 

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