Aspen Ideas Festival: Rural realities, problems and opportunities

An Aspen Ideas Panel on the issues important to rural Americans.
The panel "Rural Realities" discussed the concerns of rural Americans. From left to right: Kelly Ryan, Rob Riley, Molly Hemstreet and Melissa Block.
Riccardo Savi | The Aspen Institute

How do you define rural?

That was the question asked of three speakers at an Aspen Ideas Festival panel, June 29, 2017.

For Molly Hemstreet of Morganton, N.C., rural is about return.

After leaving her small community for college, Hemstreet was one of the few young people who felt compelled to come back, seeing a future there. Now she's the founder of Opportunity Threads, a textile business focused on sustainable production.

"It's also about looking at our heritage and our manufacturing and not putting that aside," she said.

Rob Riley's rural takes the form of the largest intact forest east of the Mississippi River. Riley works for the Northern Forest Center based in Concord, N.H., and finds comfort in working outdoors.

"You know when you're home. It feels right, it smells right, and that's why I do the work I do," he said.

For a long time, rural in central Wisconsin meant working for the paper industry, said Kelly Ryan, CEO of the Wisconsin Rapids philanthropic group Incourage.

After that industry left the area about 40 percent of total employment was lost.

"But today, 17 years later, manufacturing still comprises about 35 percent of our total employment. We are growing manufacturing jobs," Ryan said, adding that agriculture is also thriving in central Wisconsin.

Ryan's rural is about helping communities realize that their identity is more than just the industry they're known for.

"We can change and shape a new narrative, and value all of the human beings that live in our place," she said.

Hemstreet, Riley and Ryan discussed how attitudes and conditions in rural areas have changed over many years, and how they can all work toward a brighter future.

NPR special correspondent Melissa Block, who has been traveling to, and reporting from, smaller communities around the country, moderated the panel.

To listen to their conversation, click the audio player above.

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