Stay or come back: Youth and the rural Midwest

You can't get very far into a conference like the Midwest Rural Assembly I've been attending in South Sioux City, Neb., before the Big Question rumbles to the surface: How Do We Keep Our Young People?

It's the plaintive cry of people who care about rural communities and see some of the best and brightest residents hit the road after high school graduation, heading for college and bright lights, generally never to return.

So it was a highlight of this gathering of some 120 community organizers, activists and government officials from around the Midwest when the organizers essentially put the question to a panel of five articulate current or recent college students who seem invested in a thriving rural community.

People have been kicking this question around for generations, but the answers this morning were instructive.

"If our small towns are going to survive in the 21st Century, we need to keep our young people around." That from Joshua Preston, from Montevideo in western Minnesota and a junior at the University of Minnesota Morris. "For the most part, young people want to stay in the culture they are familiar with."

The answer, he thinks is threefold. A job, the ability to tap into a global network and the capacity to create an identity. For an increasing number of young people that last requirement can involve the land itself.

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"There's something spiritually satisfying about putting my hand to the mud and seeing something grow out of it," Preston said. To the extent that's true, it means the next big obstacle to answering the Big Rural Question is getting land in the hands of those who want to use it differently.

Another of the panelists, Jonathan Buetler, programming associate at Renewing the Countryside and a native of northern Wisconsin, suggested keeping higher education local is a key. Why not treat education like food and put the stress on local, perhaps by restructuring community colleges to be a better pathway to four-year degrees?

Buetler, too, is enthusiastic about a back to the land move among young people. "The idea that we can make a living in agriculture is really inspiring."

To Julia Soap, who worked after college in a health clinic in a Texas border town, health care is the energizing force to stay rural. "Our communities deserve better."

There are a variety of subquestions that swirl around the debate. Are communities overinvesting in the bright young people who are bound to leave and underinvesting in the underachievers who don't? Is it better to get people to stay or to come back? In addition to Preston's list of three, others would add health insurance. Given the necessity to juggle income-producing endeavors in rural communities, the requirement to maintain a job with benefits can really limit flexibility.

Often unspoken are other potential drawbacks to rural communities, close-mindedness, intolerance for diversity, resistance to ideas from outside.

And those returning after an absence don't always fit. Debra Marquart, an English professor at Iowa State University, opened the assembly talking of her life growing up in North Dakota. "The shape you made upon leaving doesn't match the shape you make on returning," she noted.

They didn't come up with all the answers here, but there was commitment in the air from a handful of people who look like they'll make a difference.

As Preston said, "Passion unrealized is an injustice and robs us of leaders."