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It’s easy to write off rural America as a place in decline. This image is often reinforced by both the national media painting it with a broad brush, and politicians promising to bring rural communities back from the depths of despair.
While there are many communities that are struggling, there are countless examples of innovation and inspiration across the U.S. That’s why we’re excited to launch Rural Homecoming, a national celebration of rural communities taking place across the U.S. this October.
Rural Homecoming encourages communities to host or build upon existing events driven by local community leaders that highlight what makes each community special. This could mean high school alumni socials, community service days, historical remembrances, innovation days, or streaming of sporting events like local high school football games. Each will be unique to every community, collectively highlighting the innovation that makes them special.
We are providing tips on what these events could look like and how communities can organize these celebrations, including a customizable event invitation, press release and branded social graphics as part of a free online toolkit. It’s up to each community to decide how to design its homecoming events, but the goal is the same, to give current and former residents a reason to reconnect to their hometown.
For those who do physically return to their hometown next month as part of a Rural Homecoming event, we’re not expecting them to necessarily move back for good. But we do hope that Rural Homecoming will foster ways to stay connected in some way, and to give back to their community. Whether in person or virtually, we hope people contribute to a national dialogue on what being rural truly means. We introduced the hashtag #RuralHomecoming to track those conversations on social and we encourage everyone to get involved.
Rural Homecoming allows each community to demonstrate what makes its local region unique, whatever specific route it chooses to take. And collectively, Rural Homecoming will be an important way for this indispensable part of the U.S. to define rural America in a more accurate light – as a place of creativity, innovation and accomplishment, not decline and despair.
There’s a lot to talk up about rural communities these days. They are increasingly attracting young talent and entrepreneurs, especially communities that offer an outdoor recreation lifestyle and culture.
The University of Minnesota Extension, for example, has described what it calls a “rural brain gain migration” in that state:
High school graduates often leave small towns. They go to college. Or get jobs in the city. But census data shows that many come back to rural areas — often in their 30s and 40s. And they come with college degrees, work experience, professional contacts and children. Some lifetime city dwellers move to rural areas, too. They are eager to make a new life in a rural community. These educated and skilled residents moving or returning to rural areas are a part of the brain gain.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, improved workforce conditions in rural America, along with increased wages and better real estate markets, have accounted for attracting an increased number of newcomers. Communities can use Rural Homecoming to connect new residents, lifelong residents, and residents who are making their way back home for the first time in a long time.
Journalist Sarah Smarsh, who lives in Kansas and is the author of Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, has called out the negative media stereotypes about rural America.
“The story that’s told about [rural places] is largely a false narrative, and there’s great dissonance between the prevailing stereotypes and tropes about rural America and what’s actually happening on the ground,” she said at a Life in Rural America Symposium this year. “… Of course, there’s not just one rural America.”
As anyone who’s lived in both rural and urban areas can attest, there’s a lot to like about the rural lifestyle. The connectedness of a tight-knit community creates a sense of place and supports collaborative decision-making, and the natural setting can nurture active lifestyles.
There are challenges of course, but rural communities are holding their own, and we’d like to see a national dialogue on how they are responding to these challenges. Rural Homecoming is designed to help kickstart that conversation.
LaMonte Guillory is the chief communications officer for LOR, a family foundation that works to increase prosperity in the rural Mountain West. Nathan Ohle is the chief executive officer of the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP), a network of non-profit partners facilitating access to safe drinking water, sanitary wastewater and economic development in rural communities across the country.