Raise Your Voice for Rural Communities

It seems to me the only voices being heard in this world are from big companies, big cities and big government. The news blasted on my car radio as I drove across the prairie a few weeks ago, “the nation’s Gross Domestic Product growth has risen to a booming 4.1 during the second quarter of 2018 and consumer confidence is high as we go into mid-term elections.”  I wanted to yell at the car radio, “What about the news that is affecting rural communities!”

That brief tantrum brought a question to mind for me. Where are the voices willing to explore and discuss issues facing rural communities?

There is an online news feed called The Daily Yonder that understands rural and puts our issues in perspective, but I’m guessing since it’s not one of the national news mediums, not many are looking at it.  Jim Goodman, a writer for the Daily Yonder recently wrote, “In February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) predicted 2018 crop profits would hit a 12-year low. Dairy farmers’ prices have fallen 30% in two years, while pork producers have seen a price drop of roughly $20 per head. Overall farm incomes are down nearly 50% from 2013. Long before the trade war began, I and many other farmers feared we were in a farm crisis as bad as that of the 1980s. Now we know it will be even worse.”

The success or despair of agriculture will ultimately trickle down to us all in small South Dakota towns. Yet, how we as individuals and the collective community choose to raise our voices and prepare for those times of success or despair equates to whether our communities will thrive or die.

The small towns that are successful in South Dakota are focused on creating a new rural – a vision and strategy to thrive. These small towns and regions are exploring the strategic possibilities of community and economic development. Here are a few strategic ways communities of the new rural are choosing to thrive:

Initiating Community Conversations – Because of the culture and leadership structures in small towns, we often lack a voice to raise difficult and challenging questions on issues facing our communities. With little cost but plenty of leadership, thriving rural communities are hosting community gatherings to talk about the issues, surveying residents, commissioning housing studies, empowering citizens to take action, and elevating other issues of priority.

Educating the community – Local community and economic development organizations are providing easy-to-understand public education on issues that are at the forefront, such as housing, business, leadership, daycare, quality of life amenities and more. By presenting and sharing quality data, information, and even opinions this puts communities and their residents in a better position to understand and address complex issues in a local context.

Building local infrastructure – This strategy is not about sewer, water and streets even though we know that type of infrastructure is necessary. Thriving communities make a lasting commitment to developing an infrastructure of community engagement (citizen leadership) and economic development (leadership focused on business development, people attraction and quality of place). For example, a community that is committed to building local infrastructure may see value in employing a community and economic development specialist that will wake up each day ready to engage residents, build outside connections, leverage resources, and keep their finger on the pulse of the community and region.

Grow local voices – Thriving communities empower residents and local leadership to speak out for their community to elected officials, resource providers, funders, neighboring towns, national platforms and, most of all, each other. This strategy begins through community engagement, education, connections and regular communication. Growing local voices allows a thriving community to solve a wide range of issues that may be affecting them, such as broadband access or the ability to maintain healthcare.

Are you willing to raise your voice to explore and discuss issues facing rural communities? Creating a thriving rural community requires your voice, new strategies, and your commitment to creating change around the issues you are passionate about. I challenge you to find your voice and begin speaking up for rural. It starts in little ways, like sharing a new idea with a group at the coffee shop, saying thank you to a long-time community volunteer or sharing on social media #Iamrural. Go ahead, I give you permission to use your voice for the good of rural.

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It’s time we begin to think for ourselves!

I stood with a blue marker in my hand writing on the white flip chart paper as I facilitated a community group that was brainstorming all the factors that needed to be true to accomplish their purpose of building stronger community connections. As they named multiple statements, I wrote them on the flip chart – “strong communication, hosting hard conversations … and lastly, people must have their own thoughts and ideas.” The last statement had me curious and needed some clarity from the group. I asked for an example of why people currently aren’t thinking for themselves. A member of the group spoke up, “When the negative voices in our community start to make noise it pulls us away from our purpose and each other… pretty soon people start believing what is the loudest rather than search for the facts.” This breakthrough led me to do some of my own research to discover an answer to the question, “How can we help people learn to think for themselves?”

My research led me to a 2014 study by a group of University of Virginia researchers. Participants were asked to just sit in a room and think. Easy enough, right? The researchers quickly found the task of sitting alone to think wasn’t as simple as they assumed. Participants in the study struggled to sit with their thoughts for a limited time of 15 minutes. Left in a room with nothing else but their thoughts, participants could sit quietly or choose to receive one stimulus, an electric shock. Astonishingly, 70% of the male participants and 25% of the female participants administered electric shocks to themselves, rather than taking a few minutes to think.

It appears from the research that we may be living in a world of non-thinkers. Ultimately, this deficiency leads to a population who cannot determine the difference between fact and opinion.

We all face day-to-day problems in our personal lives and in our communities. These problems require us to think through a solution, whether it’s who to vote for, what job offer to accept, or how to deal with a negative community member.  These opportunities to make decisions should lead us to examine the facts, ask questions, seek counsel and take wise action.

If you’re someone who would rather receive an electric shock than think for yourself, then I invite you to consider these questions to start the process:

What are the facts? If someone is trying to convince you of something, then seek evidence to prove the facts being shared. Demand to be convinced and do some of your own research using reliable sources.

What do I value? (and Why?) You might be surprised to learn how many of your cultural values have been shaped by family, community, religion, schools, organizations, or employers. Write down a list of things you value as a member of those groups. Then decide whether you truly believe those values or not.

How can I resist peer pressure? If you have a lot of friends saying the same thing, resist making your decision based on peer pressure. Sometimes it’s best to not respond, because the more you do, the more others might try to convince you of their point of view.

What are the opposing viewpoints? One good way to form your own opinion is to make sure you’re getting input from a lot of different viewpoints, not just one person’s opinion. Document the viewpoints, give yourself time to sort through it, and then make your own decision.

How do my values align with this decision? Learning to think for yourself isn’t going to have much of an impact if you don’t act on what you value and believe. Once you’ve had time to think about things decide about how you’ll act and stick to it.

How do I track my progress? Keep a journal. Begin by describing a situation that is significant to you. Next, write in detail how you responded to the situation. Then, write how you will respond in the future.

If you’ve had a hard time thinking for yourself in the past, you might find that you’re swayed by other people the first few times you try. That’s okay! Changing habits of thoughts are some of the hardest habits to change. Give yourself time to learn how to resist other people’s opinions, seek out evidence and think for yourself!

I have you thinking now… don’t I?