Am I Rural?

DivideEd: Defining Rural

Mary Doyle
Dec 30, 2019 · 5 min read

Inevitably, one of the first questions I am asked when discussing Rural on Purpose is, “How do you define rural?” It should be simple enough to answer, right?

It isn’t — it’s complicated.

In fact, it’s so complicated that there are entire websites to help you identify if you ARE rural. The U.S. Department of Health features a search tool called “Am I Rural?” and the Canadian Government has a similar search tool to help you identify if you are a small or rural community for the purpose of qualifying for financial supplements.

If you are interested in funding, policy information, research, or service provision you are likely to find very different definitions of rural. You may be considered rural for one purpose and not rural for another.

Borders and boundaries are subject to change over time as well; you could discover that your family farm is suddenly part of a Census Metropolitan Area (CMA).

“About 6 in 10 U.S. adults who consider themselves “rural” live in an area classified as metropolitan, according to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in 2017.”

Where borders and boundaries are necessarily physically divisive, the language and parameters used to define the boundaries between rural and urban can be psychologically divisive.

Rural or “non-urban” is often defined in terms of accessibility to urban areas, functions performed for urban areas, and level of development relative to urban areas. Most definitions are critiqued as being “what’s left over once urban has been defined,” in other words — rural by default.

While the existing definitions are problematic, they were each created to serve a particular purpose. Policy makers, funders, researchers and service providers have the limitations of funding availability, jurisdictional boundaries, a need for comparative data and implementation capacity. The key is to find a definition that best fits with your purpose.

My purpose

My purpose is to strengthen and empower rural communities as we explore what connects us, so that we can all live our best lives (wherever that may be).

(Divides start with dividing lines, so, defining rural with borders and boundaries is counterproductive in my work.)

The Merriam-Webster dictionary tells us that a “definition” is a statement expressing the essential nature of something.

I believe that the essential nature of a rural life is in the lived experience of the person being asked — and that’s different for everyone.

  • A farmer will define rural differently from a retired banker or an artist or a remote worker for a tech company.
  • A 7 year old will define it differently from a 17 year old or a 57 year old.
  • Someone who has never lived anywhere else will define it differently from a new immigrant or a new homeowner who has never lived anywhere other than in a city.

One definition doesn’t disqualify another.

Rural on Purpose has chosen to take a heuristic approach to defining rural, following a process of self-discovery that can be accomplished through story.

“How do you define rural?” becomes “What’s your rural story?”

By sharing experiences and memories, storytelling becomes the catalyst for identifying the “essential nature” of rural for that person.

Why story?

Psychology Today tells us that stories connect us and bridge differences.

“they create and display authentic meaning and purpose that others can believe, participate with, and share. This is the basis for cultural and social change.”

The science of storytelling tells us that whenever we hear a story, we want to relate it to one of our existing experiences. As a means of creating connection and understanding, storytelling can be a powerful approach.

Everyone has a rural story to tell. Whether it’s direct or indirect, short-lived or long-lived, as a resident, a vacationer, a visitor, a student, an adventurer, a worker — everyone has a rural story.

Defining rural in this way, with stories that can be both joyful and painful, invites discussion, and connects us a human beings.

I begin every presentation with my rural story. It’s important because my relationship with rural has changed and grown over the years, as I have changed and grown. As a child, rural was a safe bubble; as a teenager it was a cage; and as an adult today it is a calling. Our experience gives us our unique perspective and allows us to define “rural” for ourselves in a way that can be fluid, with room for growth.

Our rural story may be the only definition that matters when we are trying to solve big challenges that require diverse viewpoints. We live our lives on a sliding scale of wants and needs and it moves in both directions between rural and urban. Right now rural is struggling, and that matters to more than just people living in rural communities. Many people currently living in cities have their own rural story. When we trust that “good will” exists, and we open ourselves up to connection, we might just be able to build something that has a chance of working for everyone.

So the next time someone asks you to define “rural” — tell them a story (your rural story) and ask them to tell you theirs.

If a definition is “the essential nature of something,” you’ll uncover your own definition in the process.

And it will be Rural on Purpose not rural by default.

This is the second article in a series exploring the rural/urban divide. The first article focused on Point of View and narratives. The next article will explore Pathways.

Rural on Purpose is a social enterprise working with rural communities worldwide to envision and build a healthy, sustainable future — one that is both valued and valuable.

I would love to hear from you.

Mary Doyle

Written by

I build and pilot programs that support and promote entrepreneurship in rural communities.

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