Monday, August 29, 2011

How Does Youth Engagement Support Rural Economic Development?

By Craig Schroeder, Director of Youth Engagement, RUPRI Center for Rural Entrepreneurship

From my work with entrepreneurial rural communities across the country, I'm convinced that youth are essential to real and lasting economic revitalization. Young people add much more than just numbers to a community:
  • Many young people are entrepreneurial by nature with lots of energy. They start new businesses, and with the support of their community can transition existing businesses to the next generation. 
  • Young adults who move to your community are often well-educated, technology-oriented, and possess a variety of experiences, fresh ideas, and contacts that can be leveraged in a variety of ways to advance community and economic development.
  • Young families purchase many goods and services that benefit local businesses, and they support local schools, libraries, and health care services.
  • They build new or renovate properties to provide homes for their families, positively impacting the appearance of your community, property values and local tax revenues.

Here are just three examples of how investing in youth engagement can positively impact rural economic development:
  • Youth can be the spark of entrepreneurial energy that communities need to get on their feet and forge ahead, renewing optimism among adults as well. An example is an entrepreneurship program that encourages youth and young adults to start new businesses with the support of their community. In David City, Nebraska, an investment by the local community foundation in an entrepreneurship education curriculum several years ago resulted in a robust program for middle school to high school age students to develop their business ideas with the encouragement of the community. At the conclusion of a recent middle school entrepreneurship camp, I asked the participants how their experiences had impacted their views about staying or returning to their hometown in the future. Without hesitation, a 5th grade student responded, "You know, before this camp I didn't see many job opportunities here, but now I see a whole bunch of business opportunities!"
  • Many young people have technology savvy, which can be a tremendous resource for helping existing businesses compete more effectively in our increasing networked economy. Or, they may start new businesses that use technology as a backbone for bringing new wealth and jobs to their community.
  • For each alum a community attracts home, the actual impact on population is an increase of not one, but potentially three or more, as these young adults get married and have, on average, two children, as reflected in U.S. Census data.  I have met many young couples in my travels where one spouse was from the local rural area and married a total newcomer. They moved back to begin their family where they felt safe with good schools for their children.

Yet despite these tangible benefits, sometimes it is difficult to get decision makers to invest in youth engagement as an economic development priority. Their response is often, "We need to create jobs now!" I understand this perspective in the current economic climate, but I would argue that youth engagement is a strategy that can complement traditional economic development activities in addressing the real and systemic challenges many rural communities have faced for many years: out-migration, depopulation, and economic decline.

Youth engagement is a long-term strategy, but it can also result in short-term outcomes that build momentum in your hometown. One important tool we use to help local leaders understand the potential youth hold for their community is an assessment of youth perspectives about their hometowns, future education and career goals, and their desire to stay or return to their hometown. An outcome that often surprises adults is just how many youth would like to live in their hometown if there were good career opportunities available. Recent Center surveys including over 25,000 middle-to-high-school-age youth found that 50% are open to staying or returning home in the future.

The good news is that our research also indicates that if just 5% to 15% more young people return home on a sustained basis, they can stabilize population loss due to outmigration, and help to revitalize their hometowns with their energy and entrepreneurial drive. This is due in large part to the 3:1 exponential impact young families have on population and their contributions to economic revitalization, noted previously.

The youth survey can also help in assessing your community's youth engagement opportunities. Once you have evidence that young people are interested in staying or returning home, and what is motivating this interest, you can then work with youth to pursue strategies that will have traction and make sense for your community.

There are many ways to engage young people in your hometown. Some examples include considering their opinions and needs on local issues, investing in youth-led community projects and adding youth representation to local leadership. By partnering with local schools, communities can expand youth engagement with investment in youth entrepreneurship education and preparation for specific career and business opportunities locally.

How do you work with youth in your community? What are the challenges and opportunities that you see?  What questions do you have about this approach to rural economic development?

To learn more about how the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship can assist you in working with young people and attracting them home, please contact Craig Schroeder at

Visit the RUPRI Rural Futures Lab here.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Shining a Light on Rural America

By Brian Dabson, Director of the RUPRI Rural Futures Lab
Rural Futures Lab Director Brian Dabson greets President Clinton at CGI America.
An unusual amount of light has shone on rural America this summer.  I am not referring here to the baking sun, but to the number of sightings of intense and committed rural folks from across the country gathering at major conferences in the Midwest:
·         June 28-30: The first of these was the Rural Assembly, where 340 rural leaders and advocates from every corner of the U.S. met in St. Paul, Minnesota under the banner of “Building an Inclusive Nation.” This was a high-energy conference with 24 breakout sessions ranging from health care, transportation, broadband, education, immigration reform, and housing to philanthropy and social media. 
·         June 29-30: Overlapping this – in time but only marginally in representation – was the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) America conference in Chicago. CGI America was dedicated to finding imaginative ways to speed national economic recovery after the Great Recession.  One of 10 tracks was the “New Rural Economy,” where 50 invited participants with experience and expertise in entrepreneurship and economic development, community development financing, food systems, and philanthropy met to identify and commit to actions to create jobs and stimulate investment. 
·         July 25-27: The Council of Foundations convened 170 representatives from community and private foundations at its third annual Rural Philanthropy conference in Kansas City.  Here the themes centered on creating and capturing philanthropic services, influencing public policy, and building a new rural economy. 
Also this summer, the White House Rural Council began its work.  The Council, chaired by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, is charged with coordinating rural programs across the Federal government and making recommendations for investments in rural areas. The goal is to create jobs, stimulate rural economies, and improve quality of life. Cabinet members and senior officials from across the Obama Administration are conducting listening sessions in a variety of localities and feeding back their learnings into the Council deliberations. It is significant that Secretary Vilsack made an appearance at the CGI America and Council on Foundations conferences.
All of these gatherings appeared to be successful and energizing, even though they differed markedly in their approach, motivation, and style.  As one of few people who played a role in all three events, I am left wondering what they added up to when all has been said and done. 
The key lesson for me is that the convenings in St. Paul, Chicago, and Kansas City provided ample proof of the breadth and depth of knowledge, skill, and commitment that resides in rural America.  As a complement, the White House Rural Council is evidence of high-level government interest in rural America.  All of these efforts are undoubtedly part of what we at the Lab see as the new, positive narrative for rural America. 
But it will be important for there to be some tangible outcomes from all this talking and sharing. I thought three themes were clear from these summer gatherings, which resonate well with our thinking at the Rural Futures Lab.
·         We know that the human, natural, and produced assets of rural America are vital to the long-term prosperity and security of the nation. We must be wise stewards of these assets, providing food, energy, and other natural resources for the long-term and in ways that will create a better future for all rural Americans.
·         We know that rural people, organizations, and institutions have no choice but to look for ways of pooling resources and expertise to make things happen.  The new rules of the game demand regional collaboration, both to attract private sector investment and to make connections between rural regions and urban centers in order to achieve economic competitiveness.
·         We know that rural America is changing.  There are large shifts in the distribution and composition of the population – some places are growing, others are struggling to survive. The faces of rural America, particularly among the young, are becoming increasingly diverse.  If we are to make rural America an attractive place for the next generations to thrive and prosper, then we have work to do to convert our assets into opportunities and to make better use of our human and institutional resources. 
Perhaps next year, these themes should be those adopted by the Rural Assembly, CGI America, and the Council on Foundations so that there can be added impetus to both convey these messages to larger audiences, but more importantly to achieve action on the ground.   In that way, shining bright lights might help us see our future together rather than blind us to what is possible.
Did you attend any or all of these conferences? What do you think? How can we make best use of the ideas that emerged?  Do you have other ideas as to what is important to create a positive narrative for the future of rural America?
Brian Dabson is the director of the Rural Futures Lab.  Contact him at