“Are you around the campfire or up on the slopes of the mountain?” This question has been lodged in my thinking recently. 

Its origins are Paul Kingsnorth’s book Savage Gods. In it, he contrasts being around the campfire with being on the mountain to explore the tension of simultaneously longing for and rejecting rootedness to people, place, and tradition. 

For those of us born around a rural campfire in the late 20th century, the prevailing social and economic forces have not been kind to our communities. We’ve grown up with an assumption, and in my case and many others, acted upon it, that success in our lives will demand leaving. 

When you head to the mountain, there are things to be gained, the standard markers of success in modern America: credentials, elevated earnings, stuff. But there is also a chill. 

As with anyone who’s left home, I’ve descended and tried to join other campfires. Strangers have become friends and family, but there’s a sense that I can only ever linger at the periphery of other campfires, witness to the flames but never quite being warm. I am back home now, around the campfire of my raising, or close enough. 

This idea of being around the campfire or up on the mountain has invaded my thinking on things beyond the personal, particularly on philanthropy and development. Contrasts emerge, too simplistic, but persistent nonetheless: isolated, shrinking, neglected rural campfires and hyper-connected, powerful, progressive urban mountains.

There’s talk of rectifying rural blind spots, but, as someone working in rural philanthropy each day, there remains a one-way, top-down path, a stream of prevailing assumptions and guidance descending from the mountain to the campfire. 

In an illustrative example, those on the mountain ask, “Why don’t you convene all the organizations in rural community X working on problem Y so you can collaborate and develop action plans?” But, around the rural campfire, where organization is often singular rather than plural, this question makes no sense. There’s the school, and they’re pretty busy.

From the mountain view you can measure things and generalize about the rural campfire: the fire is this high and should be higher, you have too many or too few people sitting too close or too far away, this configuration or that may be better or worse. But, the periphery yields partial insights with limited usefulness. Regardless of the number of site visits, the answers won’t come from the mountains. 

The locus of action is always the campfire; the key decisions are made and the lasting change happens around the campfire. So, if the answers to a rural community’s questions aren’t coming from around the rural campfire, then they’re not the answers.

If they exist, the nonprofits, intermediaries, and anchor organizations that have evolved in harsh, resource-scarce rural environments are resilient, lean, and hungry to make change. The assumptions and stories being told, about needing to leave to succeed, are changing when those around rural campfires see viable paths forward and are equipped with the tools and given the trust to find their own way. It requires commitment, patience, and an unrelenting focus on empowering the next, increasingly diverse, generation of rural leaders. It also requires that those of us in rural areas foster an open and welcoming campfire to attract others who want to join.  

Among the complexities of pandemics, political polarization, natural disasters, demographic shifts, technological transformations, and economic upheavals, this is the question that won’t fade, as the first step toward meaningful action, “Are you around the campfire or on the mountain?”

Jerry Kenney is a program officer for the T.L.L. Temple Foundation based in Lufkin, Texas.

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