Opportunity for Introspection
This year’s Midwest Rural Assembly (MRA) was combined with the National Rural Assembly, providing a different context and opportunity for MRA participants. With National Rural Assembly attendees convening in Saint Paul, Minnesota, around an agenda and program already jam-packed with information and discussions around the issues identified in the rural compact, the MRA provided an opportunity for regional participants to reflect on the policy and practices at work in the Midwest.
Gathering prior to the opening plenary of the National Assembly, MRA attendees focused on the beginnings of a Road Map for the future. They came from 12 states and one Canadian province. In building their Road Map, participants sought to identify successful policies and programs at work in their communities to improve education, the stewardship of natural resources, the health of our communities and community investment. The Road Map helped to guide these discussions and provided some context for how participants could best focus their time within the National Rural Assembly.
Building an Inclusive Nation through Meaningful Inclusion
Meaningful inclusion is one of the Midwest Rural Assembly’s top three priorities; aptly, this year’s National Rural Assembly had a similar focus on building an inclusive nation. Increasing involvement of key regional populations that are often under-represented in networks and gatherings of this kind – such as First Nations, youth, and New Americans – is an important component for building an inclusive nation. Equally as important – and with often far greater effect – is the need to create a supportive rural atmosphere that integrates and appreciates differences, and to share these success stories with other communities. Engaging these under-represented populations in the initial planning and decision-making, and supporting efforts in our own communities to create supportive physical and emotional environments, is essential to ensuring prosperous rural communities into the future.
This year’s joint gathering provided Midwest Rural Assembly members the opportunity to observe how Midwest Rural communities differ and align with rural communities across the country. But while Midwestern attendees surely did observe these comparisons during the three-day gathering, they also found themselves to be far more than observers in the on-the-ground work that is building prosperity in our rural communities. A small sampling of these successful policies and practices at work in the Midwest, shared at the MRA gathering, are highlighted below.
Investment in Our Communities
To fight poverty, create wealth and build sustainable communities, everyone in America needs access to a safe and equitable system for saving, borrowing and building capital. To fully participate in, and contribute to, the American economy, rural communities need public and private investment, access to philanthropic resources and the tools to develop their own community-controlled assets.
Greater Milan Initiative
Sustainable Energy Utility
Collaborating to reduce energy burden
Milan, Minnesota (population 300) is located in northwestern Chippewa County, approximately 140 miles west of Minneapolis. In July 2009, after a series of community meetings that identified the importance of energy efficiency and conservation to community well-being, the Greater Milan Initiative (GMI) committed to the development of a Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU), an innovative model being explored in other parts of the country, to expand the energy conservation resources available to the Greater Milan community.
A Preliminary Planning Team was selected to begin developing the SEU with the assistance of the Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy (CEED), a program of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). In 2010 an official SEU Board was established consisting of community business leaders, residents, the Mayor and an area energy expert.
Since its inception, there has been a cadre of committed community volunteers that have forged relationships with area research entities, government officials, utilities and nonprofits. The effort has been focused on bringing the advantages of the green economy to small rural towns that are currently being bypassed. Visionary leadership has been shown by Milan residents in forming their SEU, with the intention of being a model for the numerous small towns across Minnesota.
Key goals for the collaboration have been to: 1) build community leadership and a point of contact for community members for reducing their energy use and costs; 2) identify local community priorities and utility resources for reducing energy use; and 3) establish a community-controlled financing/revolving loan fund to cover the upfront expense of efficiency technologies and upgrades.
Quality in Education
Every child should have an equal chance to learn, excel and help lead America to a better, brighter future. Education policy should recognize the distinctive challenges and opportunities for rural schools and reflect the unique needs of those students, families and educators.
Minnesota Campus Compact
Community Investment at Macalester College
Educational return through local bank investment
Colleges and universities are relatively large institutions that have multiple opportunities to invest their liquid assets. Whether it is fixed-income endowment investment or any number of cash accounts tied to the operation of the institution, targeting deposits to support local bank lending provides a way to engage in socially responsible investment at the local level that is totally risk-free. Minnesota Campus Compact - a state coalition that leverages the collective assets of higher education institutions and communities to build partnerships and educate students to develop creative solutions to pressing public issues – has helped create socially responsible investment with education return.
The purchase of insured Certificates of Deposit from local banks that invest in the local community, results in market-rate financial return, social return emerging from support for local families and locally owned businesses, and educational return, as students and staff learn from the example of their institution that to live their values each day through the decision they make. Additional educational outcomes can result from partnerships with banks that include academic components. One example can be found at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.
One student at Macalester was so inspired she developed an independent study on the possibility of investing Macalester’s finances in the local community. By placing the college’s accounts in a community bank, the student found that Macalester could help fund businesses and mortgages in low-income communities without putting the college’s resources at risk. With the help of an energetic alumnus, the student-alumnus team proposed the idea as an educational opportunity for students. After considerable effort from both the community service office and the chief financial officer, the college moved $500,000 to University Bank in August 2007. This collaboration between the college and the local bank goes beyond supporting local business and low-income community members. The bank is currently establishing student internship opportunities both within the bank and the businesses they support, and faculty at Macalester are designing classes that explore neighborhood demographics.
Stewardship of Natural Resources
Eighty percent of our country’s land is rural. It is a heritage and a trust. We all have a responsibility to protect the environment and develop and sustain our natural resources in ways that strengthen rural communities for the long haul. Good environmental practices and responsive public land management provide the opportunity to promote energy independence, grow healthy food in a sustainable manner, mitigate climate change, and develop stronger natural resource based economies.
Prairie Sky Biomass
The Madelia Project
Producing renewables and revitalizing community
The Madelia Project is centered on the concept of evolving a rural community into one that promotes a sustainable mindset through the establishment of a bio-based industrial park that utilizes agricultural crops grown in the region for renewable energy and value added processing. The bio-based industrial park would process, manufacture and package a variety of agricultural crops. The Madelia Model vision enhances the base agricultural system by promoting crop diversity, develops new, local market opportunities, and provides local processing to add value and multiple benefits to local agricultural producers. In addition, it establishes and supports an agricultural system that builds a ‘local community’ mindset first and a ‘feed the world’ mindset second.
The Madelia Model focuses on a 25-mile radius around the city of Madelia in south-central Minnesota. This model would carry through an underlying theme of sustainability. Crops would be grown in a sustainable way; manufacturers would be committed to sustainable practices and the end users of the products would be committed to sustainability concepts. In addition to jobs, this concept supports the development of viable rural communities that are less dependent on government, provide additional ecological services, and promote a social atmosphere of community.
With inherent and abundant agricultural, forest and renewable energy resources, the Midwest region finds themselves uniquely situated to take a leading role in bio-based industry. The development and implementation of high performance bioindustrial systems in the area can result in multiple environmental, economic and community gains, including:
- Competitive advantages for businesses and communities
- Agricultural diversification
- Rural revitalization
- Land and water quality improvements
- Reductions in greenhouse gas emissions
- Biodegradable products and wastes
- Reduced dependence on fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources
Health of Our People
All people in America deserve access to good, affordable healthcare. If we want small towns and rural communities to contribute to the well-being of the nation, we need rural healthcare systems that work. These should include preventive care, health education, and both community-based and high-tech delivery systems.
Sauk Centre, Minnesota
Holistic health care through communal living
VictriVillage, A Planned Community for Military, Veterans, and Families, is currently under development in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. Located on the former location of The Home School for girls, it includes 128 acres and twenty-four historic buildings. VictriVillage is an opportunity to purposefully bring together the traditional tenets of community living and the transformative power of comprehensive behavioral health services to maximize the full human potential of the men and women who have served our nation and their families.
It is the mission of WestCare to empower everyone with whom they come into contact to engage in a process of healing, growth and change benefiting themselves, their families, co-workers and communities. As men and women begin to return home facing reintegration and employment issues, some less than whole in body, mind and spirit, the dream to establish a "planned community" to provide a welcome home and a path for reentry to productive civilian and family life was born in the hearts and minds of members of VICTRI, Gold Star Mothers and many others. They envisioned such a sanctuary and healing place on the future site of VictriVillage.
Program phases are: Healing and Recovery Services, Education and Employment, and Family and Community Reintegration Services. Healing and Recovery Services include: Crisis Counseling Substance Abuse Education, Addiction Treatment, and Case Management, Peer-to-Peer Counseling, Inpatient Psychiatric Referrals, Medication Management, Education, and Health and Wellness. VictriVillage is an exemplary illustration of a community effort to bring quality of life to rural living, specifically for our veterans, creating a safe place to find healing, health and happiness – a place to live, a place to learn and a place to "uplift the human spirit."
The MRA is not just an event, but a network of rural leaders who share the goals of more sustainable and vital rural communities. Coming out of the 2011 MRA, we found that there is support for continued communication and sharing among participants, and we are proposing to continue to grow these connections in 2011. The network’s strength lies in its power to connect people, purposes and places. The network’s strength lies in its ability to empower leaders to make a difference in their own communities, by providing them the tools, education, shared experiences and, most importantly, the relationships that are needed to sustain these leaders. The network’s strength lies in its capacity to bring together rural policymakers and officials with rural community advocates and leaders to create an influential voice for regional and national rural issues.
To further the development of the Midwest Rural Assembly as a viable rural network, we must proceed with clear purpose and intentionality. While simple in scope – to sustain rural leaders and bridge rural development practices and policy – in practice this directive is much more expansive. Specific issues of concern are wide-ranging, interlinked and constantly changing, but can be expected to include:
- youth attraction and retention
- tribal food and energy sovereignty
- the impact of climate change
- clean energy
- the role of education to rural quality of life
- regional food systems
- rural infrastructure, including transportation and water systems
- immigrant integration and entrepreneurship
- rural broadband
- rural health care
Provided adequate funding is available and attainable, the Midwest Rural Assembly will continue to move forward as a network that organizes and sustains rural leaders to engage in the important issues and opportunities that face rural communities throughout the Midwest. Together, as a supportive network, we can derive great solutions and build a road map that sustains rural communities as great places to live, work and play.