Rewriting the rural narrative

by David Hill
Editor
 
Thoughts about how rural northwest Minnesota communities can attract people may be spinning in the heads of many leaders following a presentation on Rewriting the Rural Narrative Tuesday, Feb. 7, at the Ralph Engelstad Arena in Thief River Falls.
About 90 people attended the presentation, which was sponsored by the Northwest Minnesota Council of Collaboratives and Tri-Valley Opportunity Council, and featured Ben Winchester, a University of Minnesota Extension Research Fellow, and Christopher Ingraham, the Washington Post reporter who moved to Red Lake County following a widely publicized story proclaiming it to be the worst place to live. 
For years, perhaps decades, headlines have proclaimed the slow, agonizing death of rural America, but Winchester said, the data show just the opposite taking place. In addition, he talked about ways in which rural residents can change the hand-wringing, worrisome account that has become a self-destructive narrative of rural America.
One of the more worrisome challenges rural residents see is the out-migration of 18 to 25 year-olds. How often have residents heard if young people leave our small towns will die? Winchester gently asked what are we losing? 
Winchester said data also show a couple of interesting things happening. For example, more individuals over the age of 30 want to live in rural areas and more are moving to rural areas. Frequently, these individuals are rejecting the crowded conditions, expensive housing, safety and infrastructure issues that trouble urban areas. This is happening to the extent that rural areas are showing growth. Since 1970, the rural population has increased by 11 percent. Urban areas may be growing faster, but many rural areas are showing growth, none-the-less.
But wait, what about school consolidations, and the closings of hospitals, post offices and downtown businesses?
Historically, a great deal of change has taken place over a relatively short period of time. In the past 100 years, roads and other infrastructure have improved; the G.I. Bill made it possible for many rural residents to get an education; birth rates have changed; and methods of communication have brought the world to our doorstep. Winchester said it’s important to not beat ourselves up over changes, or more importantly, equate change with decline. Rural areas are changing, not dying.
Winchester urged those at the meeting to get control over their narrative – their story.
He suggested making sure the amenities and infrastructure that supports their expectations are in place. He suggested hosting bridging events – or events that introduce new people to  the community to the services and amenities available in the community.
It also could be as simple as making sure visiting reporters see the improvements and hear their story.
Christopher Ingraham has become the poster child for eating crow. For those unfamiliar with his story, Ingraham described how he ended up calling Red Lake County the worst place to live and the “exceedingly polite backlash” that followed.
He said when he visited Red Lake County he was reminded just how big this country really is. He was also greeted by about 50 people and a marching band.
In a follow-up story, Ingraham said after he left, he couldn’t stop thinking of the places in Red Lake County he’d visited. He also wrote, “Life along the I-95 corridor was starting to lose its charm.” He was commuting to D.C. most days, spending roughly 15 hours or more each week stuck in traffic. 
Ingraham, his wife, twin sons, dog and cat were also feeling increasingly hemmed in by their small home. They discussed their options for some time, before they made their decision. When he broached the topic of telecommuting from Red Lake Falls to his bosses, they were less concerned than he thought they would be.
According to GlobalWorkplaceAnaytics.com, roughly 2.8 percent of the workforce now work from home at least half the time. 
With improved communication, Winchester said we now live in “the middle of everywhere.” He wondered whether there was an opportunity to welcome and get to know people in our community who telecommute.
Today, Ingraham has been absolved of his sin and he and his family warmly accepted into the community of Red Lake Falls. He and his family have also experienced many opportunities found only in a small communities. He said his wife has taken greater advantage of these opportunities. He described his wife as more outgoing, while he used his wife’s description of himself as “dead inside” when it comes to socializing. But that only served as another interesting narrative and example of the need for a community to reach out to, or extend a welcoming hand to newcomers.
His big take on his experience – “people want what you have.”
Now what? Thoughts about what area residents could do to “rewrite their rural narrative” are most likely spinning in their heads. They’ve already taken the first step.