Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Using oldtimer-newcomer synergy to solve rural problems

As I've been thinking and writing about social problems in rural contexts in recent months, one theme that has repeatedly cropped up has been the positive role that newcomers can play in effecting change in rural communities. While the tensions between oldtimers and newcomers often attract our attention (see some of my prior posts here and here), in both mainstream media and in scholarly works (e.g., Sonya Salamon, Newcomers to Old Towns (2003)), we may not be as quick to see the benefits that may be derived from the mixing of demographic profiles that often accompanies population churn, growth, and even gentrification of rural communities.

The plain truth is that in many historically static and homogeneous rural places, the oldtimers (long-time residents, usually representing several generations in the same place) simply didn't have the human and social capital necessary to initiate new programs and, just as importantly, figure out how to fund those programs. What newcomers have often brought is knowledge of urban programs that can be adapted to rural settings. But this has not made oldtimers obsolete; they have contributed local knowledge, localized social capital, and great passion for and commitment to their communities. The results have sometimes been remarkable.

One example can be found in my own beloved Newton County (AR), population 8,608. When I was growing up there, the town had one lawyer and a number of people with degrees in education (even then, many teachers commuted to Newton County schools from neighboring, more populous counties). It was in the late 1970s or early 1980s, I think, that the county got its first physicians in residence (as opposed to those coming over a day or two a week from neighboring Boone County). The state gave them financial incentives to work in our under-served rural county, and they ultimately became very attached to the place. Eventually, the female physician, Dr. Nancy Haller became the catalyst behind an organization called the Newton County Resource Council. The Council was formed in 1987, and it accomplished many things ovr the next couple of decades. Quoting from a February 9, 1997 story in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, it "created a low-income housing organization and a battered women's shelter . . . a program that has served homeless families, a day-care center to help working parents, an outdoor adventure group for at-risk youth, a scholarship program for single parents and parenting classes" and launched Ozark Ecotours, using local guides. According to a May 27, 1991 story in the Democrat-Gazette, the Council also built a picnic area and a city park with baseball and softball fields, and it helped set up a youth center, a used clothing store, and an emergency food distribution program.

Hard as it may be for urban and even micropolitan residents to imagine, the county had none of these services or amenities prior to the efforts of the Resource Council. Over the years, grants from both the federal government and foundations funded these programs. Unfortunately, the Council is now defunct, and I'm not clear why that happened. While some of the programs no longer operate, many do, and much of the physical infrastructure (such as the park and playing fields) are still in place. My point is, I cannot imagine how all of these wonderful things would have come about in Newton County had it not been for a newcomer such as Dr. Haller, someone who brought with her knowledge of amenities and programs that are taken for granted elsewhere, but that most Newton County residents never imagined having and, in some cases, would not have known existed. Haller worked with others in the community-- including oldtimers -- to accomplish so much.

I like to think that the Resource Council has provided not only material assistance to residents, it has expanded their imaginations and opened their minds to a much wider array of possibilities for their beloved community. Many times over the past few decades my own mother, a 4th generation Newton County resident, has raved about some Resource Council program or another. Further, the benefits that newcomers have brought to the county are not limited to the work of the Resource Council. I see many manifestations of oldtimer-newcomer cooperation when I read the weekly newspaper.

There is a law angle in all of this, too. In my recent writing about the social problems of domestic violence and youth drug use in rural communities, I have come to see how incredibly significant infrastructure such as a battered women's shelter and a youth center are when it comes to preventing and responding appropriately to these phenomena. The economic piece of it also matters, of course. Economic devastation and lack of opportunity fuel these social problems. Services such as the community food pantry and housing assistance help hold families together during economic downturns or when disaster strikes.

Back now to California . . . what sent me down this sentimental journey is a story in today's Sacramento Bee that echoes the theme of newcomer-oldtimer cooperation in rural places. It is headlined "Retirees help wring out a Delta city's red ink," and the dateline is Rio Vista, California, population 4,571. Here's an excerpt that gives a sense of the cooperation between long-time residents and newcomer retirees (living in a posh-sounding retirement golf community) who are working to solve budget woes there.

In Rio Vista, a Delta town perched on the bank of the broad Sacramento River, a singular circle of retirees is working hard to put the struggling little city back in the black.

And they're having fun in the process.

"Our expertise is only exceeded by our good looks," quipped Bernie Durman, 70, a veteran of engineering management.

Durman sat at a big table in a sunny clubhouse at Rio Vista's Trilogy, a golf course development for seniors. He was joined by other Trilogy residents: retired attorney Arthur Fox, 59; businesswoman Carol Turgeon, 70; and former municipal manager and consultant Bob Marchbanks, 71.

The four gathered to talk about their Citizens' Committee on Water & Wastewater Rates, a volunteer group galvanized last spring by a city proposal to double water rates. Since then, they've tackled a raft of other issues, from 30-year bonds to arsenic water filters to meter readers.

Gradually, a little grudgingly, City Hall has come to appreciate their efforts.

Read the rest here, and enjoy the Bryan Patrick's photos of some of the oldtimers and newcomers in Rio Vista (my terms, not those of the Sac Bee).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's a shame someone is disguising themselves as the Newton County Resource Counsil to investigate for a debt collector. If you'd like to contact them, the number they are using is 870-446-2090.