From Rural-Urban Divide to Rural-Urban Solidarity

What We Have in Common and Why We Need Each Other

By Laura Zabel

“Moving through that fear, finding out what connects us, reveling in our differences; this is the process that brings us closer, that gives us a world of shared values, of meaningful community.” ― bell hooks, Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope

Installation project by artist Haley Honeman as part of Springboard for the Arts’ Hinge Residency program in Fergus Falls, MN. Photo by Rick Abbott.

PART ONE — SHARED CHALLENGES/SHARED ASSETS

If you listen to the pundits and politicians, rural and urban places are two opposite worlds, with vastly divergent agendas and priorities. Indeed, the media during the 2016 presidential election campaign and the first year of the Trump administration has painted a portrait of a nation whose rural towns have almost nothing in common with urban neighborhoods. But this is a myth.

I am lucky to have work that is rooted both in an urban area (St. Paul, Minnesota) and in a rural community (Fergus Falls, Minnesota). Our work at Springboard for the Arts in both of these communities aims to tap into people’s creativity to help communities and neighborhoods build power and agency, imagine new futures and expand economic opportunity. We believe that local artists are a resource that can help communities think differently about their challenges; provide outlets for joy, healing, and connection; and turn ideas into reality.

Working with community leaders, organizers, and artists in towns and cities of all sizes offers an abundance of potential — much of it still untapped — for cultivating common ground between rural and urban America and can help us combine the creativity of each to help address our shared and pressing economic and cultural challenges. I have watched artists in rural areas bring together partners from historic preservation, economic development and public health to help their community explore the implications of redevelopment of a massive vacant state mental hospital. I have also seen artists in urban neighborhoods partner with small business owners to help them survive and thrive through a massive construction disruption. These experiences have taught me that we have more in common than we think and that there is a lot we can learn from each other.

Shared Challenges

In both urban neighborhoods and rural communities, we find economies that are built on extraction. Corporate consolidation of farmland in rural areas and low-wage fast food jobs in cities have more in common than we think. It turns out that cheap chicken nuggets are incredibly expensive to the quality of life of people in both rural and urban places. The rich get richer and there are fewer and fewer paths (farming, small business ownership, middle wage manufacturing jobs, etc.) out of poverty. These current inequities are rooted in the colonization and racism that has been baked into the foundation of our economy, with acute impacts in both rural and urban areas.

When we read stories in the media about these inequities, by and large these stories aren’t written by the people who live there, and they are overwhelmingly negative. From gun violence in urban Chicago to the opioid crisis in rural West Virginia, our news feeds are full of stories that dehumanize and oversimplify the problems our communities face. At their best, these stories romanticize and exploit poverty. At their worst, these narratives paint a picture of communities beyond rescue or hope of solutions. Rather than highlighting the people working to make these communities better, politicians use these narratives to further divide us. We need to find ways to return narrative power to the people who are most impacted by the challenges these places face.

The difficult economic conditions, lack of real investment and negative narrative combine in a way that tells our children that success means leaving their childhood homes. Whether you are a child of immigrant parents who worked hard to move out of the city to the suburbs or the child of farming family who is the first in your family to go to college, we tell our children that to succeed they should leave, that the place they grew up in isn’t worth their energy, time and intellect. That there is no place for them here.

The good news is that not only do we share challenges and inequities, but rural and urban communities also share assets. Those assets are often under-recognized and under-tapped. And they are far more important and powerful than we have been led to believe.

Shared Assets

Urban neighborhoods and rural communities are hotbeds of new ideas and new thinking. Yet most of the time, gatekeepers, funders and investors locate innovation in downtown high rises, sprawling Silicon Valley campuses or co-working spots with ping pong and beer on tap. If our goal is to create real solutions for the real challenges our communities face, then we need to invest in and listen to urban neighborhoods and rural towns for innovation and new ideas, because the people living in these communities are already doing the work, often with few resources and little recognition.

One idea that’s recently become au courant with foundations and investors is using cross-sector collaboration to tackle complex problems — the idea being that you can access more wisdom and power by combining forces. Of course, this has long been done in small towns and urban neighborhoods, where limited funding and support by necessity makes people entirely comfortable wearing many hats: barber shops serve as social hubs, the mayor owns the pizza place, and artists serve as community organizers.

Another business practice that happens naturally in underinvested places involves scaling. According to today’s trendy business philosophies, it’s better to learn and adapt in a small environment before trying to scale, since adjustments can be made more quickly, and a project’s successes and failures can be seen right away. Again, in underestimated local communities, this has long been the norm.

I have seen these assets work powerfully in both urban and rural settings. Our urban healthcare program started with $200 and a partnership with a community clinic. It has grown to encompass a whole network of clinic partners and health insurance navigation through the Affordable Care Act and has become a model for other communities to use. Likewise, a partnership with a rural public health agency that is creatively engaging the community in public health started with a community bike-decorating party that later evolved into a multi-year initiative that includes partners as diverse as the local school district, the Department of Natural Resources and the Superbowl Host Committee.

The best solutions, it turns out, come from a deep understanding of the context and cultures involved. Leaders and organizers in both urban and rural communities recognize that their constituents have unique challenges related to geography, isolation, and lack of infrastructure. The most effective solutions take into account the distinct characteristics of local cultures while also prioritizing human connection.

It’s illogical to assume that an Ivy League think tank is the best home for good thinking about rural America, just as it is false to assume that Silicon Valley can “app” its way to urban investment. The way forward for communities that have suffered from systemic neglect, underinvestment and extraction of resources comes from the people who understand the nuances, cultures and meaning of those places best — that is, the people who live there. The good news is that people in those places are coming up with innovative ideas based on their unique cultures and contexts every day.

I am so grateful to be able to have found work, relationships and love in both urban and rural contexts. Those relationships have taught me that a different story is possible, a story of young people returning to the places they grew up, finding a home for creative work and sharing ideas that people in all kinds of places can benefit from. Telling these stories ­– and purposefully tying together the innovations of our rural communities with the resilience of our urban communities — can help us chart a new path forward. I believe that this connection and interdependence is necessary for our democracy and public discourse. It is also necessary for our economy. To build urban and rural solidarity requires effort. Understanding our interconnected challenges and assets is a critical first step. But it is only the beginning.

This article is the first in a series that will explore strategies and share models from across the country that highlight ways to bring together rural and urban America to build a stronger economy for all. These stories will focus on how people and organizations are helping to reclaim our narratives, shift capital and ownership and create systems to share what works. In these neighborhoods and communities, we find ideas that favor local ownership over extraction and that counter the narratives that are used to divide us.

In the soil of rural and urban neighborhoods are the seeds of a new vision that can to turn our economy towards more sustainable and equitable practices. The seeds are innovation, creativity, joy, hope, and work — it will take solidarity, power and resources to help them grow.

Laura Zabel is the executive director of Springboard for the Arts and a 2018 BALLE Local Economy Fellow.