Monday, January 30, 2012

Reaching Out on Rural & Regional Issues: (An Online) Work in Progress

By Timothy Collins, Assistant Director, Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, Western Illinois University

The Upper Mississippi Valley Rural Partners LinkedIn Group, which I helped to found in 2010, is an ongoing experiment in social networking and regional cooperation. The group was to be a foundation for a regional information exchange that inspires people to act. Results so far have been mixed.

The online partnership emerged as part of the Partners for Rural America - North Central Convening held in May 2010. The meeting’s broad but fixed agenda was based on USDA priorities, but they did not suit my passion for sustainable land use and my desire to do research on the relationships of Mississippi Valley’s people and ecology.
Backwaters of the Upper Mississippi River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge
in northwestern Illinois shimmer on a late spring morning in 2011.
It turned out that a small group of like-minded participants was interested in forming some sort of regional partnership focused on the river. Gary Becker, Executive Director at Local Government Institute of Wisconsin, got us started with the LinkedIn site as our meeting was in progress. We had picked low-hanging fruit, with something tangible to report.
Everyone knows what it’s like to leave a meeting energized and full of good intentions. We also know that returning to work is a reality check. We have our commitments (often over commitments). We have our habits. Breaking out is so very hard to do.
In this case, I decided to make a commitment to do something that takes little time: seed the site with an item or two each month. I won’t deny a bit of self interest. First, it forces me to keep up with my reading. Second, when I write one of my regular essays for the Daily Yonder on watersheds or land use, I have an outlet for letting people know about it.
On another level, the LinkedIn site offers exposure to the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs in its policy role of disseminating information. This function is part of my job and meshes nicely with my life’s work of trying to understand and do something positive for rural areas.
Screen shot of the Upper Mississippi Valley Rural Partners LinkedIn site.
The Upper Mississippi River Rural Partners site experiment raises two sets of questions. One concerns the collaborative goals of the 2010 Partners for Rural America regional meeting. In its jargon, the website promised:
As each team works on specific projects, they remain part of the greater whole allowing synergistic regional activities to develop that may cross the topic silos. The [steering committee for the] North Central Region also concentrated on resources already available to build new partnerships and coalitions, helping to achieve immediate and near‐future deliverables. As the projects develop, additional partners and resources will be identified and included.
In response to this stated mission, I wrote an essay in the Daily Yonder (sorry for the shameless plug) asking three questions:
  • Will the partnerships built at the regional meetings grow and persist?
  • Will they be able to create the opportunities to stem the loss of people and jobs in rural areas?
  • Ultimately, will federal and state governments be willing to provide targeted resources to the partnerships to make this happen?”
Beyond the existence of our LinkedIn group as an example of persisting partnership, the answer to these might not be too positive. Frankly, I don’t know. A fourth question, the most significant of all, has emerged since 2010: What happened to federal leadership?
The other set of questions emerges from the Upper Mississippi River Rural Partners LinkedIn site itself:
  • Is the site providing useful information to its members? What types of information do members want?
  • Has the site empowered people to act? If so, how?
  • What spark will it take for the site to become part of a larger, more active network of people interested in the region and the sustainability of its landscape?
In a small way, the site is something positive. It has more than 90 members from all over the world. Would more contributors be a good thing? Maybe. Then again, maybe the more leisurely approach of an item or two a month might get more attention from members because we are all inundated by the amount of information we deal with each day.
Sounds like a topic for a poll when I get around to it.
Does your rural organization maintain a web presence? Does your experience with social media help or hinder your professional relationships? What can we do as rural advocates to best use social media?
About the Author
Timothy Collins has been assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs since 2005. His roles include research, policy, outreach, and sustainability. He has authored more than 125 publications, reports, and essays on rural issues, including environmental policy, development, sustainable land use, and education. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.
Norma Jean, a circus elephant struck by lightning in 1972,
rests under this monument in the Mississippi River town of Oquawka, IL.
All photos provided by the author.
Visit the RUPRI Rural Futures Lab here.

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