This article appeared first in the Daily Post-Athenian in Athens, Tennessee.
Occasionally, the New York Times or another big news publication will run a glossy story prophesying the imminent decline of rural America’s small towns. One such story ran in the Times only last week, in fact.
These pieces usually unfold like this: Rural America is poorer, sicker, and less connected than the rest of the country, with fewer job opportunities and wealth to make us players in the global market. High rates of addiction and poverty make rural America beyond saving. If you live in one of these small towns, you should consider moving to the closest city so you and your children will have some chance at a good quality of life.
I’ve read versions of these stories for the last decade, ever since I started working for the Center for Rural Strategies. But even before I joined the Rural Strategies team, as a young person walking the halls of McMinn County High School, I had already internalized the message that small towns may be where you’re born, but they shouldn’t be where you end up.
Success means getting out.
Yet my 35-year-old self is still living in the same small town that raised me. By choice, I returned after college to raise my family here.
I don’t deny we’re fighting some of the demons associated with rural zip codes, but many of those demons are not of our making. They are the result of years and years of disinvestment by the public and private sectors, and of decades of wealth becoming increasingly concentrated in big cities and ivory towers.
Yet rural places and small towns still have a heartbeat because people still work, live, and worship in them.
I sure would relish sticking it to the Times and every other self-appointed prophet that presumes to announce the decline of my community or any other small town in the United States.
They measure our worth in dollars from thousands of miles away, but don’t seem to understand that you can’t put a price on the way we keep showing up.
I’d love to tell them about the school board meeting I attended on Monday night where my husband received tenure along with five other outstanding teachers in the Meigs County School System. Principals from each of the schools delivered open letters of recommendation to the school board and every letter reflected the deep love and dedication these teachers feel for their kids and their school.
I’d love to tell them about the Sunday school class I attend at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where more than 30 followers of Christ gather on the regular to grow in wisdom, in service to falling more deeply in love with the sacred light that dwells in our neighbors.
I’d love to tell them about the hundred or more folks I see at 6 a.m. at the Athens-McMinn YMCA each day, sweating and laughing together, sharing coffee in the lobby after a good workout. There are friends to be met and plans to be made in that lobby each day.
I’d love to tell them about how many of us are scheming and dreaming to preserve the coffee and fellowship we found at The Beanery in Downtown Athens. The little shop is set to close on December 29, but I’ll bet we can find a solution — big or small — that will keep us connected and caffeinated in the coming years.
I’d love to tell them about the multiple productions and arts experiences The Arts Center produces each year for thousands of kids and adults in our area.
If you have a creative spark (we all do!) that can be manifested in paint, song, dance, or any other medium, there is a place for you in the once tiny-grocery-store-turned-performing-arts-center on North White Street.
And I’d love to tell the Times that Athens and surrounding communities are taking steps to address the grief experienced by our neighbors who struggle with opioid and fentanyl addiction. We have a long way to go, but we are not without local leadership (see Stephen Dick’s piece from October 31 of this year).
As with any community challenge, the road to a solution is not linear, but then, neither is the human experience.
I’m not ready to cede the richness of this experience — of living in proximity and in mutuality with my neighbors — to those who don’t have it or don’t get it. It’s easy to lay bare the demons and deep challenges of far-off places.
But it’s harder and more rewarding to get close, keep showing up, and be part of the life of a place.
Whitney Kimball Coe is an Athens, Tennessee, resident who writes a weekly column for the Daily Post-Athenian, where this article was first published. She is the coordinator of the National Rural Assembly and director of national programs for the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder.