In Macomb, Illinois (pop. 18,500), local residents, businesses, and leaders have worked together to keep the center of town vibrant.

[imgcontainer] [img:collinsmacombsbusy530.jpg] [source]Timothy Collins[/source] In Macomb, Illinois (pop. 18,500), local residents, businesses, and leaders have worked together to keep the center of town vibrant. [/imgcontainer]

In the thirty or so years that I have been practicing rural community development, I constantly marvel at how my life’s work is a continuing process of learning and unlearning, discovery and rediscovery in response to a world of daunting changes.

The idea of rural community is slippery but incredibly important, if it is based on the place where we live and interact with people. But in a rapidly changing geopolitical economy, local relationships may or may not be important to individuals. Perhaps the place where people live should be important, and I like to think it is, but I am constantly reminded that although people live in a place, they may not engage in any meaningful way with others who live there.

These musings flow from my participation in the joint meeting of the Community Development Society and the International Association for Community Development, held July 25-28 in New Orleans. As I learned, or perhaps relearned, from some colleagues from the United Kingdom, the very notion of community development (CD) needs to be rethought in a rapidly changing world.

The practice of rural CD is increasingly a challenge. “Community” has become harder to define, and, even more importantly, harder to live out. As a result CD practitioners from the UK and elsewhere are uncertain about their own futures as well as the futures of community. They are asking hard questions and considering ways to challenge traditional CD practice, as well as the global forces that undermine places and human spirits that inhabit them.

While the UK is much smaller than the United States, with a different form of democracy, the entrenched problems that CD practitioners and researchers face there seem frighteningly similar and just as insurmountable. A recent survey by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found four main concerns among citizens across the UK:

1) Decline in community and neighborhood 2) Selfishness 3) Consumerism 4) Loss of shared values.

[imgcontainer left] [img:collinsCD-glasgow320.jpg] [source]Jeff J. Mitchell for Getty, via The Guardian[/source] Boys playing in the Govan district of Glasgow, Scotland. [/imgcontainer]

Other issues noted by the survey included the decline of family; young people as victims or perpetrators; drug and alcohol misuse; the corrosive effects of poverty and inequality; crime and violence, including child abuse; and immigration and responses to it, such as competition for scarce resources in a declining economy.

The tenacity of these social problems is frustrating. Add in the sweeping global economic and political forces that leave no place untouched, and you might get some idea of why CD practice has become so complicated, especially in rural communities with limited capacity and resources to deal with change.

CD practitioners know that most people understand their personal and community situations but aren’t sure what to do about them. CD is intended to build “community capacity” democratically, that is, to help people deal with problems and take advantage of opportunities where they live. There are tremendous opportunities to practice the art and science of building local democratic processes: the heart of community development. And citizen participation is crucial to building places, even when communities are incredibly fluid or marginal in the global economy. Conditions in many marginalized communities do make participation difficult: the subjects of power and powerlessness — not only of people in communities, but also of community developers  themselves — resonated through discussions at the conference.

My colleagues from the UK wondered if models from social work or education and community organization might help meet the challenges communities face. But they also wondered how any practices can be effective when people are pressed for time and energy because of long hours and low wages that undermine involvement.

In addition, it seems that policy makers (as well as the shakers and movers behind the policy makers) either misunderstand the need for strong communities on the regional and national stages or don’t consider them all that important to the global economy. Policy makers need to be sensitive to differences among communities, as well.

[imgcontainer] [img:collinspovertymap530.jpg] [source]Daniel Lichter and Domenico Parisi, via Sociological Images[/source] Rural census blocks (2000) with poverty rates higher than 20%. [/imgcontainer]

Meanwhile, we all need to be sensitive to broader issues. In other words, we need to think outside our own back yards. Though people in many places are powerless to change the larger public, private, and global forces that affect their daily lives, we need to take charge of the things in our communities that are under our control.

So, what can rural communities and community developers do in the face of constant global change? How can we bridge the differences among communities and empower both “the people” and the policy makers, whose roles demand a broader perspective? How can CD create commitment to community among people?

My colleagues from the UK offered several ideas that could be adapted to the rural U.S. Here are two:

1. Community developers need to work out local initiatives for full inclusion of both people and places. To me, this implies not only the need to include immigrants in community decision-making but also a recognition that geographic discrimination now excludes rural residents from their full rights as citizens to excellent schools, health care, and other state and federal government services.

2. People must demand that local governments build community participation and capacity. This sounds to me like the need to form a movement, one that assures local and state governments become more open to democracy, not only in terms of transparency, but in terms of their efforts to bring more citizens into the process at all levels of government — the essence of Lincoln’s government of, by, and for the people.

So, let’s consider community revival and local and state government renewal as important components of sustainable rural revitalization. The impacts of geographic inequality can be every bit as debilitating as a natural disaster. The erosion of people and rural places is a human-created disaster that demands attention based on social, political, and economic justice.

[imgcontainer] [img:collins-school-graffiti530.jpg] [source]Timothy Collins[/source] A too typical example of degraded rural community: graffiti on an abandoned school in Vermont, Illinois. [/imgcontainer]

A new role for rural CD is out there for the taking if practitioners and researchers are willing to ask the right questions and doggedly pursue answers from those who are responsible for the well-being of the nation’s rural communities.

My thanks to Sue Shaw, 2009 Churchill Fellow and rural CD researcher and consultant; Dave Beck, director of marketing, Faculty of Education, University of Glasgow; Rod Purcell, head of the Department of Adult and Continuing Education, University of Glasgow; and Keith Popple, Professor of Social Work, Faculty of Health and Social Care, London South Bank University, for the conversation and companionship at the conference that helped stimulate this column.

Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

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