The garbage of national politics is fouling the quality of life in our communities. Can rural places draw on old strengths to create a new way forward? And what’s going to happen if we don’t?
The polluted political and economic struggles in Washington, many state capitals and communities across the country have fragmented our country. Maybe Congress has seen the light in some ways, but budget cuts that affect the poor and unemployed in the midst of a continuing recession chip away at our faith in each other, our communities and in our country’s capacity to endure.
Call it The Twilight of Common Dreams (Todd Gitlin, 1995) or Bill Moyers’ recent clarion call warning about the impending demise of the Republic, we are in deep trouble. The appalling poverty in many rural communities, accompanied by the depression and anger of many rural residents is symptomatic of a nation that is certainly crumbling around the edges and looks as if it is crumbling at its core.
The vitriol across the political spectrum at the national level cannot help but filter down to communities, especially places where opportunities and quality of life have been eroding for decades. Rural communities (and urban ones for that matter)—whether dying or just managing to get by—are hotbeds for suspicion, dissent or alienation.
Why? Many people, conservative and liberal, are struggling to get by. They feel vulnerable and fearful when they see their way of life threatened and their communities functioning less effectively or even dying. Whether liberal or conservative, we may have different approaches to issues, but we share those issues and their potential opportunities.
If you look at history, rural community sustainability or quality of life, if you will, always seems to be at risk in one way or another. We live in a dynamic but hardly coherent world where individuals and communities are constantly affected by events out of their control. Under these conditions, it is easy to create suspicion. Rural America does face some real threats, as it always has. But paralyzing fear is the stuff of crackpots’ dreams.
It may seem challenging, but the possibilities for a good quality of life are there. Rural community sustainability focuses not only the ecosystem surrounding the place but includes other factors that are central to the local context. Those can include the presence of immigrants, an aging population and persistent poverty. Also involved are institutions such as schools, local government and organizations that may suffer from scarce human and financial resources. And then there’s the decay of physical infrastructure. These may be signs of imperfections and even decline, but we have a choice to make them better.
But that choice may be difficult. Rural places are fragmented by the geography of the workplace, which forces people to drive long distances to work. Government and business devolution lead to reduced economic and social activity. That can lead to less technical assistance and a loss of social services.
The beating that many rural communities have taken over the years is frustrating. For example, the statewide Rural Life Poll conducted by the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs in 2005 and 2010 found high levels of psychological depression among rural residents. Are the daily struggle for existence and the lack of opportunities manifested by heightened negativity and possibly loss of empowerment? Maybe. But these same polls suggested there is solidarity and determination in many Illinois rural communities.
While I believe our nation is in a downward slide right now, the big question is whether it will continue and if there is anything to be done. The larger, conflicted patterns increase the risk that we are losing faith. I hope I am wrong about this.
For a long-time student of government and economics, it is evident we live in a time that is incredibly distressed. Constant messages of fear and hatred pit groups and people against each other for the gain of a few. Government can work to promote equality of opportunity, and businesses can do much more to be socially responsible. But the current reality doesn’t really reflect these possibilities. As the wider fragmented and vitriolic rhetoric trickles down, it is sometimes difficult to be optimistic about local affairs.
Rural community development practice is no panacea, but it can offer ways to bridge our differences because conflicts can be guided into positive outcomes. The term “practice” is appropriate. Community development is both art and science based on understanding of what people want and need in their back-yard personal relations. It can promote unity of purpose about the common good by building or rebuilding trust.
Development opportunities for rural communities in the face of resource scarcity and loss of community and personal empowerment are more than dreams. Creating these opportunities is based on linking the best of past and present in places with willingness to share positive choices that build a better future.
Rural community development practice can be valuable because of its basic paradigm of democratic action. Democratic processes are crucial to processes of discussion, decision-making and action in rural settings. Local democratic principles, even if imperfect, extend beyond local government into the workings of groups and organizations.
In the long run, devolution of government and the economy could be a blessing in disguise for communities willing to tap into old values and use them to build new places. If people are opposed to big government—and many rural residents seem to be—then the task of community developers may well be to define our art and science more effectively so that it appeals to the needs of people who live in smaller places and who want to have more control over their destinies.
Perhaps E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful philosophy and other similar approaches offer an opportunity to transform negativity into positive, sustainable actions. Rural American communities have historically valued individual self help and local associational activities. They still do. Almost anytime you visit a small town, you will see a collection being taken up for someone who is in need.
We don’t have to look far for other ideas. Perhaps we need to think of community development techniques that are already part of our growing list of sustainable practices to build places with a higher quality of life that is more in harmony with the environment and related social needs. Examples include building small, green businesses (“earthtrepreneurship”) that are based on local foods, conservation and reclamation and developing alternative energy sources for local use. At the same time, we need to work with communities to enhance local government and build voluntary community associations that support and improve the quality of life.
For the places where people are willing to work together, the possibilities are endless. It’s a matter of conscious choice to create ways to overcome community divisions and move forward.
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.