Seven out of ten rural young people in one survey said they had never been asked how they would make their communities better. That's a big mistake. Adults need to ask.
The story Trent McKnight tells begins when he and four other Cub Scouts in Throckmorton, Texas, saw an old photograph of the county courthouse.
It didn’t look like the courthouse that existed in the center of town. In the old picture, the courthouse had a majestic cupola. The real-life building didn’t.
The Cubs learned that the top of the courthouse had been removed. McKnight said that he and his friends decided then and there that the old look of the courthouse needed to be restored.
Years passed. Four out of the five Cubs from that troop have moved back to Throckmorton (pop. 812). And they have put the cupola back on.
McKnight told his story to a group of 80 rural Texans who came together for the day to talk about the “brain drain” — the drifting away of young people from rural communities. The meeting was put together by the always energetic Bobby Gierisch and Texas Rural Innovators. The program featured three speakers, and all had the same message:
People are more important to towns than things. Successful small towns recruit people not factories. Young people will stay home, or come home, when they have a genuine stake in decisions the community is making.
The Theater in Sweetwater
McKnight said a group in Sweetwater, Texas, visited grade school students a few years ago and asked them what they wanted their community to be. The 7th graders went around town with cameras taking pictures of things they thought could be made better.
It turns out that kids don’t think like kids, all about skateboard parks and bowling alleys. They think like citizens. Several speakers during the day remarked that, when asked, young people point out nuts and bolts kind of changes that a town needs. They point out junk that needs to be hauled out or buildings that need to be repaired.
The 7th graders in Sweetwater decided that the thing they most wanted was for the old main street theater to be restored. They are now in high school, McKnight said, and the Texas Theater showed its first movie in decades last year and held its first live music show this past May. (Check out the theater’s Facebook page here.)
“If you want young people to come back to your hometown, engage them at a young age,” McKnight told the “brain drain” crowd. “Now, if there is an opportunity to come back to Sweetwater, these kids are going to jump on it.”
For the past five years, the Rural Policy Research Institute has sponsored surveys of high school and middle school students in 39 rural communities in Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas. The results showed that “rural communities have persistently, if unintentionally, overlooked involving youth in the shaping of their own futures.”
More than 7 out of 10 young people surveyed said that no adult had ever asked them how to improve things in their towns. Still, 6 out of 10 said they would return if they were presented with the right opportunity. About half, in fact, said they had an interest in owning their own businesses.
The trick to bringing people back to town is to link opportunity to a place.
Julie Hodges said that the non-profit group Ogallala Commons sponsors community internships in the Great Plains counties that overlay the Ogallala aquifer. The Commons connects people to specific projects in communities. Interns have mapped an old cemetery, worked on landscaping and helped with a historical exhibit for a church.
Ogallala Commons has filled 100 internships in six states, Hodges said, and so far 14 of those interns have decided to stay in town.
From Llano Grande to Waelder
“We don’t believe youth are the future leaders,” explained Miguel Guajardo, who brought with him students from the high school in Waelder, Texas. “They are the leaders right now.”
Guajardo was a co-founder of the Llano Grande Center for Research and Development in South Texas, and he has brought what he learned there to a community in Central Texas. High school principal Mark Cantu has students working on a project to turn the old Ralph Bunche gym into a useable community center. They began by learning that Bunche was an African-American diplomat who won the Nobel Peace Prize and that the local schools were segregated at the time the gym now named for him was built.
In Waelder, a project to build a youth center has become a history lesson.
The day was washed over with suggestions for how to build a community. One of the best came from both Hodges and McKnight.
Hodges and McKnight worry about aging business owners. When the couple that runs the local insurance agency wants to retire — or must — does the business just close?
The two said they were working to link younger people to older business owners. Young adults can apprentice at an ongoing business. Then, when the owner decides to leave, there is somebody in house who can take it over.
“Don’t get into the savior mindset,” McKnight said. “Think one family at a time, and in a few years you’ll see the difference…We don’t have to die. There doesn’t have to be a brain drain. The opportunities are endless.”
Bill Bishop is co-editor of The Daily Yonder.