Monday, July 31, 2017

Optimism, out of (and about) rural Minnesota

The President of the University of Minnesota, Eric Kaler, published this in The Hill today, asserting that the rural brain drain is being stemmed, to at least some extent, in Minnesota. The lede and a further excerpt follow:
The challenge of the “brain drain” from rural America to the big city, in some parts of the country, is very real. But the Pew Charitable Trust’s recent report provides proof that it doesn’t have to be. 
The reality is that rural America can continue to prosper and grow, but only by using all of the tools and techniques available to rural communities. Higher education, particularly land-grant institutions, must be part of the equation. 
* * *  
Years ago the county extension agent, typically focused on agricultural issues, was a mainstay in states across the Midwest. In Minnesota, our University of Minnesota Extension, a college-like entity within the University of Minnesota, served all 87 counties (and still does) but again, with a focused effort to improve the productivity, efficiency and safety of agricultural producers. Today the focus remains, but with a multi-layered effort, using resources across the university to support entire communities toward their shared success.
* * *
University of Minnesota research quantifiably demonstrates, using the 2010 Census data as a benchmark, that some rural communities are actually growing their population of 30- to 49-year-olds. This cohort is not moving back to a dismal future at the peak of their earning potential. They are moving back to vibrant, exciting opportunities that enrich their lives, their families, and their communities.
Then there is this column/post from a few weeks ago on the blog Minnesota Brown, by Aaron Brown who writes from the state's Iron Range--we're talking Hibbing, Virginia and Chisholm.  (If you don't know anything about the Iron Range, an entertaining--and gripping--two-hour introduction is Charlize Theron's 2005 movie "North Country.")  Brown's bottom line is that his community needs to think more about the future and spend less time lamenting the passage of the good ol' days.   Here's an excerpt, starting with the lede:
On the Mesabi Iron Range, our society rests upon the achievements of this region’s fading youth. We speak of our ancestors’ hungry demand for better working conditions and pay. We memorialize their desire to build schools and small towns to elevate humans from the morass. Yes, we call this history and print it on our signs. 
But what are we doing to improve the working conditions and pay of a majority of the people who live here now? How will we raise people from the maw of an economy that chews them up?
And speaking of people, his focus is young people:
Listen to our young people. Not just your kid, but other kids. Poor kids. Kids without connections. Kids like I was, growing up on the junkyard out in Zim. If you listen, they talk about a future beyond what they see around them. They want more than the same job mom or dad had. They want a world that provides options and opportunity.
As illustrations of a different, robust, appealing future, Brown touts a new Iron Range Makerspace, Hibbing's Dylan Project, and the Borealis Art Guild (also in Hibbing).

Brown also takes up the pervasive rural-urban tension, associating federal regulation with the urban enemy (not in his mind, but he suggests it is part of the ethos of his region)
If some find pleasure in pitting our future against that of our state’s metropolitan region, so be it. I too have chosen to live here, not there, for reasons familiar to most reading this column. And if your ideology leads you to despise regulation, the Clean Air Act, or anything so much as whispered by a self-described “environmentalist,” well, our country allows you to hold and even shout those beliefs. 
But do not be fooled. Regulation kills far fewer jobs than apathy, shrinking demographics and opposition to market and cultural change. 
One of his overarching messages is that rural northern Minnesota will be just fine, thank you very much, and that it will be able to compete in the future.  In fact he seems to anticipate a rural gentrification of sorts, an influx of city folk who will come, whether the region actually welcomes and encourages them or not.
The cold fact is that our region needs people: workers, customers, students and entrepreneurs. We need more people than we can produce. Hardly our enemies, people who live elsewhere will one day enrich this region by becoming part of it. We can invite them. Or we can wait for our fresh water, cheap real estate, and drought-free environment to attract them independently. They will come. We might be in rough shape. We might be dead. But they will come. The only thing we can resist is our ability to accept and influence the inevitable change.
That passage reminds me of the story of Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post, a story now well known to Minnesotans.  Read more here.  (To be clear, Red Lake County is not in the Iron Range, but it is in northern Minnesota and, by many accounts, quite scenic).

But back to Brown's post.  One of his closing lines is the best, most uplifting, and inspiring of all (pithy, too!).
We must expand the meaning of the honorable title, Iron Ranger.

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