A new podcast from the Brookings Institution seeks to highlight the changes happening in rural America along with stories of diversity, renewal and innovation. 

Tony Pipa, senior fellow at the Center for Sustainable Development at the Brookings Institution, leads the “Reimagine Rural” podcast, while guests from communities across the country tell their stories in their own words. 

“The narrative that we often hear about rural America is one of decline or political divisions. And to my mind, there is a lot of innovation, a lot of creativity, and a lot of people working together in rural America. We’re not hearing about that,” Pipa told the Daily Yonder. “We’re not understanding how transformation happens in rural communities. And I also wanted to really emphasize the diversity of rural America and see if there were a set of themes that are common across a set of very diverse places that are at different places in their renewal.”

Pipa said he looked across the country for communities in which positive change and renewal were taking place, but that it might be at a different point for each community featured. 

In the first episode, Pipa highlighted Shamokin, Pennsylvania, a coal community where he went to elementary school. 

“It’s a town that’s been on a long, slow, steady decline since the 1960s, when anthracite coal left, because they were primarily an anthracite coal mining town, and that mining and the anthracite coal, then provided the basis for a lot of other industry like textile mills and other industry that was happening,” he said.  

“And so when anthracite coal left, over a long period of time, one by one, like the textile mills, they started to lose textile mills, and then the retail and the activity of what was happening in the town. And so they’ve been on a decline for almost 60 years.”

Now, however, through mine reclamation, they have pieced together 8,000 acres and turned it into a park for motorized vehicles like ATVs and motorcycles. 

“If you were to visit Shamokin today, you would see some areas, some bright spots in the town, but you’d also still see a lot of abandoned buildings or buildings that are in need of repair and things like that,” Pipa said. “So I was really looking for places where there’s forward momentum, and there’s a group of people who are working together to kind of create that vision and move forward. I wanted to show a diversity of places. And show off the diversity of rural America.”

Other communities that will be featured include: DeWitt, Arkansas; Globe, Arizona; Sunflower County, Mississippi; and Thomas and Davis, West Virginia. 

Throughout the episodes, Pipa said, a few themes developed: first, things need to start at the local level, he said. 

“I think you will hear that public investment is actually really important,” he added. “But it has to be the right type of investment. And that actually accessing that investment can be a real challenge. And so we need to rethink the ways in which investment is made available.”

Another theme is engagement with the community. 

“[I think] the benefits are to be shared equitably, that their sensitivity to two different populations, sometimes populations because of racial discrimination, or otherwise, and haven’t been a part of decision making,” he said. 

Other themes include the role of the private sector as well as a theme around the sense of hope for the long haul. 

“We have to be willing to be patient and invest patiently over time, but to make sure that the resources continue to be there over time, so that we’re giving communities as much of a chance as we can and well positioned to succeed,” Pipa added. 

In terms of listeners, Pipa said he hopes policy makers take notice of the podcast. 

“Many times Congressional members have a sense of the stories in their districts or their states,” he said.  “But this will give them a chance also to experience places from different places, from different states from different geographic areas, and to pull their own themes and to make their own connections to how that relates to the communities that they’re familiar with, and to give them new ideas for how policy can better and more effectively serve.”

In addition, he hopes the media members take notice as well as everyday residents.

“I’m hoping that we pop that stereotypical image that people might get in their minds of when we say the word rural who that is,” Pipa said. “Because there’s lots of different kinds of people who are doing very interesting things in their communities, and are working together in their communities. And I hope that sets us into a different discourse and dialogue, even politically, on what it means to be rural and the value that rural America provides to the United States as a whole.”

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