Periodically we will present commentaries on topics of interest to community and economic developers across rural Minnesota. Below is a list of all commentaries with the most recent listed first.
Has Rural Minnesota lost its Rural Voice?
Last month a policy colleague of mine from the Twin Cities contacted me and asked a question that took me back on my heels. Specifically he asked if I could identify the creative voices and organizations developing new and innovative thinking to address the challenges and opportunities facing rural Minnesota. He wanted to know who are the influential voices in the Minnesota legislature on rural policy issues. And most importantly, if there were any organizations rising to the challenge of amplifying the "rural voice" as Minnesota becomes more and more urbanized.
While on the surface the question was rather simple and straightforward, my answer was anything but. Rather the question reminded me that it was no more than a decade ago when there were many organizations that tried to fill that rural policy and advocacy void. In fact, rural advocates were all around us. Not that many years ago Minnesota hosted an annual "Rural Summit," where rural residents, advocates and legislators would gather together to share ideas, discuss best-practices and develop ways to move our whole state forward. And the legislature didn't need any lectures from outsiders to help then better understand rural issues, as there was always a strong group of farmer-legislators from southern and western Minnesota and a strong contingent from northern Minnesota to keep their urban colleagues informed. Unfortunately today the number of rural districts continues to dwindle and the last farmer left the legislator several years ago.
Today there are still rural organizations and advocates, but without question our collective rural voice is fragmented. Concerns about rural health care are advocated by the Minnesota Rural Health Association; the concerns of rural towns and cities are addressed by the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities; and likewise, concerns of rural school districts are addressed by the Minnesota Rural Education Association. But if it is true that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts, then where are the organizations that facilitate these voices and help unify and amplify their message? Equally important might be the question, are such organizations even needed?
Personally, I was always struck by the reality that with such a large and diverse rural land mass that Minnesota never had a state office or state agency that was dedicated to addressing rural development or rural policy issues. For example in Illinois, the Governor's Rural Affairs Council which is headed by Lt. Governor Sheila Simon recently completed a two-year effort to create a new rural development policy for the state. Working with regional universities the Governor's Rural Affairs Council is now in the process of implementing the recommendations from their recently completed study.
Similar examples can be found elsewhere. For many years the Texas Office of Community and Rural Affairs served as a focal point for the development of rural policy and the distribution of federal funds through the Community Development Block Grant Program. Today, the recently renamed Texas Department of Rural Affairs not only distributes the CDBG funds to rural communities, but also houses the State Office of Rural Health and the distribution of federal funds to rural hospitals as well. Similar to its neighboring state of Illinois, the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs is also headed by their Lt. Governor (Becky Skillman). More importantly, one would be hard-pressed to find a state agency with a wider array of programs and initiatives designed to address the needs of its rural communities and businesses. From its Young Entrepreneur Program to their Hometown Competitiveness Initiative, the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs is a highly connected and networked organization dedicated to the betterment of its rural places. And just like its colleagues in Texas and Illinois, the Indiana Office hosts an annual Rural Summit designed to bring rural advocates, legislators and residents together to strengthen the fabric of rural Indiana.
So you can see how my answers to this colleague's questions seemed a bit weak and tepid. The reality is that over the years the rural voice here in Minnesota has become simultaneously weakened and fragmented as various rural groups focused on specific sectors or industries with little coordination. And while I am not suggesting that Minnesota should establish a new state agency, I do believe that a key missing piece in our advocacy for rural Minnesota is that unifying organization to help amplify the rural voice for all. For those of us who sang in our college or high school choir, you know what I mean. Regardless how strong our individual voices may be, our collective voice is both amplified and strengthened when the director brings us all together.
Geller is professor & head of the Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences at the University of Minnesota, Crookston. He also serves as the director of the federally-funded EDA Center at UMC. He can be reached at email@example.com