I am so lucky to have lived most my life in rural Minnesota! It is an amazing place in so many ways and today it seems more and more people are realizing this.
Every day in central Minnesota we are surrounded by beauty, from fields of corn or soybeans edged by groves of trees just now changing color, to the beautiful sparkling lakes, and even the white cloak of winter. The landscape is not the only reason rural Minnesota is a great place to live. I realized just how good a choice this was for my family while I was at an event on the 4th of July helping to sell pies to fund the All-Night Grad Party. I remember sitting at the booth in the city park, watching the community band playing, while a softball game happened across the park and the carnival brought the sounds of laughing. It was a Norman Rockwell moment, and it highlighted to me that we haven’t lost the American small town, we’ve just forgotten to see it.
For many today, rural America conjures images of poverty and a dependency on the past. As with every stereotype, this is only partly true. There is poverty and sometimes even a desire to believe in a perfect past that never existed. Yet, rural America offers so much more than that! This is why, today, we are seeing more and more people moving back to small communities. Despite the image of small-town America as a place from which talented people leave, this is far from the truth, rural America is actually seeing a brain gain. People still move away immediately after high school, but more and more often individuals in their 30s, 40s and 50s are moving back to rural Minnesota. They are returning because they view rural Minnesota as a simpler pace of live with lower costs of living and greater security. Over 60% of them were not from the community originally. This means that hundreds of new people are moving to our community. It is our job to welcome them.
This return to rural towns seems to be part of a trend away from individualism and a re-embracing of community. I’ve heard it said that for the past forty years American society has been in revolt of the community. That in the 1960s Americans rebelled against the cloying atmosphere of the conforming community we had in the 1950s. It was an acknowledgement that while there is joy in being a part of a community, there can also be pain. Communities are notorious for demanding conformity. They are not always open to new people or new ideas. Communities tend to demand people to fall in line and to look like each other. This can be a huge negative in a community. However, it does not mean we should abandon the idea of communities.
When you have no sense of community, you feel adrift. I know this feeling well. I felt adrift most my childhood as we moved from one place to another, never really feeling I belonged. I believe this is why people are starting to return to the concept of community. It is an essential part of human society. It is necessary. We will always need to balance the rights of the individual against the needs of the community, but both are important. We as individuals cannot survive without community, indeed, we thrive when our communities are strong.
So how do we create strong communities? We build social capital. We become civically engaged. We invest in our community infrastructures, in our schools, our health care systems our support systems for those facing challenges, such as aging or entry into adult. We define a culture and a purpose. This does not mean we give handouts, instead we provide a system in which people flourish. Our nation is strongest when we have these systems of social capital in place.
In a recent conference I learned of five key things needed to develop the social capital of a community and help it thrive. It needs high levels of trust in the systems that support the community and in its elected officials, developed systems of education and health care, a strong culture with a sense of purpose, a strong social infrastructure leading to a vibrant civic society and investment in its physical infrastructure.
It’s time we begin to invest in the social capital of our communities, because without strong vibrant communities we are weaker, we are plagued by a lack security and uncertainty. A world devoid of community is not a healthy world.