What I Have Learned From Photographing 400 Towns in Iowa
Cody Weber

It takes leadership to change a town. Not the kind of leadership that repeats and amplifies the despair of that those who have given up. But the kind of leadership that seeks out grants to improve the streets, partnerships to shore up the community, and that invests in K-12 schools, community colleges, libraries, police, drug prevention, health care, parks, career centers, youth programs, and community organizations.

It takes zoning and code enforcement to ensure that buildings (even vacant buildings) do not end up looking like the ones in the photo.

If you read those two statements and say “I don’t understand the mindset,” then you’re probably right, because the mindset of helplessness and a laissez-faire approach is the problem. Towns need mayors and city councils that are proactive, that take control and take action. Change is not going to happen without a strong plan of organization, as well as lobbying and advocacy. When I watch the news, I never seem to see the rural mayors and town council members making any effort at the state capitol to lobby for community colleges or health care.

I think in today’s extremely complicated economic environment, a strong education is a must for anyone who is governing. Mayors of mid-sized and large cities might be attorneys or might even be a Rhodes Scholar.

And securing funding is one of the hardest parts of governing. There are a lot of grant sources, even for small towns in Midwest. Even if some of those grants are specific and small (i.e. installs of historic street lighting on Main Street), they are a starting place.

There are also often some well-off families even in and around desolate towns. I know of one declining town, population 1,000, that has at least two millionaires living on the outskirts. Unless your most successful families are willing to get on-board with the idea of supporting the greater good, I don’t know how any community is going to get anywhere. Could it be that in cities, public philanthropy is a bigger deal? Universities build buildings by naming them after the biggest donor. Animal shelters open new wings because of someone’s $100,000 or $1 million donation. There are those people who have those types of funds, even in rural areas. How you get them on your side, or how to leverage their investments for the best outcomes, are questions I don’t know the answer to. We need those people to see themselves as their town’s version of the greatest philanthropist, not their town’s version of Trump.

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