We all know the tired (but sadly true) story of the geographic inequality facing our rural areas. After all, almost all of the nearly 20 million jobs added between the Great Recession and Coronavirus were in metropolitan areas. If cities were removed from the equation, many economic indicators would have remained at recession levels throughout rural America.
This geographic inequality exacerbates all other inequalities. This can be seen in the well-documented challenges facing rural women, queer people, and communities of color. While marginalized groups face pronounced challenges everywhere, these are especially acute in America’s small towns, where people of color are, “more likely to rate their quality of life as fair or poor, have difficulty accessing the internet, and struggle to pay off an unexpected expense.”
As a result, every year sees more and more young people leave their rural home towns for the same six megapolitan areas (and countless smaller metros) all across the country. At the same time, rural tax bases retract in a way that further threatens their survival. The outcome of this is a dynamic in which the rural 90% of America’s land mass is forced to face Herculean challenges without qualified young leaders (or their tax receipts).
I think much of that can be attributed to the fact that not everyone recognizes the extraordinary—and often unrealized—opportunities that exist for those of us who want to stay “home” and reverse those trends. In my case, that meant responding to my county’s public notice that several powerful public boards faced chronic vacancies.
I ended up seeking a seat on the Page County, Virginia, Economic Development Authority, a board with an incredible influence on any economic decisions that come before the county—particularly those which have to do with creating good-paying job prospects for residents in need.
Doing so has been one of the best decisions of my short life. It started with my unanimous appointment by the county board of supervisors, and it has taken on increased significance with the realization that I became Virginia’s youngest government official at the time of my appointment. This is something that I have sought verification of with state officials, Virginia professors, and media organizations. What I’ve learned is that I’m one of a few 18-19 year olds in a government position in the U.S., other than young people in positions that are set aside exclusively for youth or student advisers.
Related: The Small-Town Mayors Series
Being the state’s youngest government official guaranteed that I was even more encouraged to make a difference. I’ve been thankful to have that opportunity on multiple occasions since assuming my role on the board. I have already been able to get that board to pursue a program to fund work certifications for low-income people, enabling them to earn higher wages and more secure employment.
Additionally, I have been working toward the establishment of countywide programs regarding everything from using renewable energy as a way to pay for universal broadband to creating a free clearinghouse/hub of potential grants for myriad local nonprofits.
Throughout this experience, I have maintained connection with my 24,000 constituents via my own local news column exploring rural issues; I have also tried my best to leverage connections with local leaders and civic organizations (several of which I am involved in).
In just the first three months, they have already given me the chance to work on those great initiatives, and it is humbling to see those programs morph into full-fledged efforts on behalf of the public. I am thankful to everyone at the EDA—and in my county—for giving me the opportunity to have that kind of potential impact!
That is why I encourage everyone to seek out the public service opportunities that exist in their home communities. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to go far to change the world. In fact, the closer you stay, the more fulfilling your work may be!
Jack “Alex” White is the founder and the director of the Rural Leadership Initiative, a 501(c)3 organization that created the first-ever stipend for rural students at top colleges to pursue nonpartisan public service internships in small towns across the U.S. Alex writes a local newspaper column on rural public policy for his hometown paper, the Page Valley News. He’s currently working to create his own publication—The Review of Appalachia. He is a first-generation, low-income college student who attends Harvard University.