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.
A New Message for a New Time
In October of 2012 my monthly column in Minnesota Valley Business magazine was titled "Has Minnesota lost its Rural Voice?" It was a column focused on the reality that rural Minnesota seems to have lost its champions; i.e., those legislative, community and nonprofit leaders who helped craft a message and agenda for rural Minnesota's economy, communities and well-being. Approximately 3 months after the publication of that column in January 2013 the St. Peter-based Center for Rural Policy and Development reinforced that message with the release of their latest report "Finding the Voice of Rural Minnesota."
In that report consultant Tom Horner conducted an extensive array of interviews with public, private and policy leaders to reach the same conclusion: Rural Minnesota is less effective in its advocacy in the legislature as well as government as a whole. But what is really leading to this diminished stature of rural Minnesota? Is it less relevant today? And if so why?
To these questions I would answer unequivocally no. With its abundant natural resources, recreational opportunities and food and energy production, rural Minnesota and rural America for that matter is still quite essential to the American economy. In fact, just based upon the agricultural and energy resources found in rural Minnesota alone, it is quite clear that it is vital to our economy and our way of life. After all, there were times during the recent "Great Recession" that the only saving grace in our economy and the American export industry was our thriving agriculture and energy sectors. And of course, this is equally true for rural Minnesota's growing renewable energy industry as well.
Another rationale often cited has been the demographic shifts in Minnesota, where rural places are being depopulated and as a result, rural legislative districts are getting fewer and larger. While this is partly true, it is not uniformly true. For example while there are over 40 rural counties whose populations peaked between the 1930's and the 1970's, there are over 20 rural counties whose population were counted at an all-time high during the 2010 census. So it is difficult to brush it all over with one broad stroke. But even if you wanted to make that argument, it is important to recognize that this process has been going on for decades and decades; and in fact, some of the most innovative rural policies ever legislated in Minnesota (e.g., school payment equalization or LGA) occurred in the midst of this demographic transition. So are we suggesting that somehow we have reached a demographic tipping point, where urban and suburban legislators no longer care about their rural cousins? I don't think so.
So let me posit three alternative hypotheses or explanations:
As I stated in my October 2012 column there was a time not too long ago when there were multiple organizations that were both competing and collaborating to trumpet that rural voice. Groups like Minnesota Rural Partners, the Center for Rural Policy and Development, as well as the U of M Extension were regularly convening groups, hosting summits and providing visible support for rural Minnesota in the state legislature. Today however, that visibility is not as apparent. Whether it is a change in the times, a change of personnel or a change in the mission, the organizational leadership providing that rural voice seems to be elusive. At the same time, we know that emerging leadership is the life blood of any community, organization or movement. And to be honest many of the old rural guard (myself included) need to help our younger contemporaries rise to find their voice. Evidence of that too seems hard to find, as meeting and after meeting seems to look more like a reunion with the same names, faces and positions. So at this point in time it seems clear to me that if that rural voice is going to be found and expressed in policy actions, it will be by that next generation of young and enthusiastic rural leaders. Accordingly, it is not enough for us in the "Old Guard" to step aside, but rather we need to give these emerging leaders a hand up.
And lastly, rural Minnesota needs to bring to the table new, fresh and innovative ideas and solutions. We can't keep treading out the same argument of parity. For in truth, rural Minnesota is not a victim. Rather, Minnesota and the nation as a whole has changed; and so must rural Minnesota. And that must be the content of the message of our rural voice.
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