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Deb Brown and Becky McCray of SaveYour.Town are gathering data on the needs of rural communities that they believe will transform conversations about the challenges and futures of small towns.
“We’re looking to see how well-publicized issues like drug abuse and poverty rank versus other challenges, whether small business lending gets rated higher than the lack of usable buildings. … Those are just a few of the highlights we’re watching for,” said McCray.
Now in its third biennial run, the Survey of Rural Challenges asks for input from rural folks on two key questions: community challenges and business challenges.
Each question is followed with a series of requests for “help” from the folks at SaveYour.Town, such as, “Help, no one shops in town! How can we get people to shop local first?”
“Each one also has an open-ended answer, where you write in some other problem,” McCray said. “Those are always fascinating. People give us a ton of information there about what’s going on in their communities.”
The survey also asks a few demographic questions to help surveyors better understand the worldview of respondents. And, new this year, the rural gurus are working with a community-development specialist at Oklahoma State University, Dr. Dave Shideler, who suggested a third main question: “What things are you trying?”
“He said there’s very little research about what people are actually trying in their communities right now and how that is going,” McCray said. “That’s not going to be super-rigorous or something we’re really going to do a massive analysis off, but it will be a first baseline of some information about what are people trying in their communities and how is it working for them?”
At the end of the survey is an opportunity to share anything else respondents feel is important.
“The checklist gets them thinking about what their challenges are, and then they’re free to add the information that really matters to them,” McCray said.
The Survey of Rural Challenges isn’t intended to be a scientific survey with participants selected at random to reflect the opinions of the overall population. Initially, the survey was designed to help McCray, founder and publisher of SmallBizSurvival.com, a rural small business blog, determine the topics of highest interest to the rural entrepreneurs she seeks to help.
McCray and business partner Brown promote the survey at speaking events and digitally through their websites, social media, and email, and through affiliates like Dakota Resources in South Dakota. The survey is open to all, and participants are self-selected. But the nature of the questions means they are hearing from people who are familiar with rural issues and interested in the future of small communities.
“In my first files, it says ‘Topic Survey.’ Then, I released the results, and people were really excited, because it is not often that people ask what you actually want to hear about,” said McCray, a rural entrepreneur and cattle rancher who lives in Hopeton, Oklahoma, a community of 30 people.
The survey has helped McCray and Brown be more attentive to the needs of rural people.
“People think we’re brilliant, because we talk about what they want to hear, but really they’re telling us what they want to know,” McCray said with a smile. “It makes me so happy to know that we are answering the questions that rural people actually want to know about.”
And it’s affecting the greater dialog, too.
After the 2015 survey, which garnered 227 responses, McCray attended a meeting in her home state of Oklahoma at which the California director of rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed a slide with the findings of her survey.
“It was really exciting to see that rural developers are picking up and sharing exactly what rural people want to know,” she said. “Since then, it’s been picked up by various media outlets in small ways, and people do read them and share them.”
The survey has been taken by rural folks across the United States, as well as Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The 2017 survey yielded 250 responses. In its first week, 228 people responded to the 2019 Survey of Rural Challenges, which is available in English, Spanish and French. Once the survey closes July 30, McCray and Brown will spend a few months sifting through responses before they release an official report and social media infographics this fall. One Canadian province official requested that they single out that region’s data for him to study more closely at the close of this year’s survey.
“I was very pleased that we were able to reach a lot of people in Canada, too, because we have a lot of similar issues that don’t stop at some imaginary border line that’s drawn on the ground,” McCray said.
And, as the survey’s footprint has grown, so has its significance.
“There are multiple levels of goals now,” McCray said. “It tells me what to focus on, but there’s this side goal of helping everyone else who serves rural communities to also cover what rural people actually say they need, instead of showing up with presumed answers. If we can influence even one more group of people that serve rural to serve rural’s unique needs, according to rural, then that is a huge benefit as well. Then I’ve influenced a positive trend for lots of rural people.”
Plus, it’s inspiring a bit of oneness among people from various rural parts of the world.
“It’s a sense of building community,” McCray said. “When you read the list of challenges and you say, ‘These feel similar. I can identify with this’ … there is a sense of community that you are not alone in having challenges in your town. … We’re all in this together. We’re just in different towns. When you answer the survey, you put your voice with other rural voices and you … get to have your say.”