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

1 comment:

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