KC Belitz: Local leaders help communities dream bigger

Originally published in the Columbus Telegram

James Gimpel gets it. He’s a Nebraska kid, so he gets it. He has experienced the power of “rural,” so he brings that knowledge to his work as a professor and researcher at the University of Maryland.

I am now a fan of Dr. Gimpel after being forwarded his recent interview with the Daily Yonder, an online news outlet focused on rural issues.

Consider this quote that James shared in the piece, posted last week: “The death of small town America has been greatly exaggerated. People read the rural poverty porn pieces written about some terribly sad-sack dying place in coal country and think all of rural America is like that. But get out a little. There are lots of small towns that are doing quite well. That doesn’t mean they are booming. But you don’t have to be booming to be doing well. And some, by the way, are booming.”

That narrative squares exactly with what we see in the Nebraska Community Foundation network, across the rural parts of our state. I’ve been given the opportunity to “get out a little” and see small towns in Nebraska. Some are booming, almost all are great places to live and doing just fine and, yes, some aren’t doing well at all.

Here’s the thing: the critical knowledge you get from visiting these communities, and what you don’t always hear in the national rural narrative, is that these towns get to make that choice for themselves!

In almost all cases, that choice comes down to local leadership and their collective vision for the future. Do they see an abundance of future opportunities—or do they wish for the past?

Over a quarter century, NCF has helped rural Nebraskans see abundance and dream bigger. As I’ve shared in past columns, the opportunities in front of rural Nebraska right now are brighter than at any time in the past century. Part of the reason is Americans’ ongoing search for safety and stability. Here’s how Dr. Gimpel puts it in the Daily Yonder piece:

“Where does the pressure for progressive change come from? From the places where there is deep discontent and unhappiness with the way of life—large, dense, core cities. We have seen this over the last 18 months. Repeatedly. Much of this country’s recent social unrest has happened in cities . . . If you live with such unhappiness all around you, it makes you want to try a radical new solution.”

While his lens is political, Gimpel’s statement applies to life beyond politics just as easily. Simply put, we have what they want. Americans are on the hunt for contentment and joy, and it’s been harder to find. His research shows people in rural places are far more content and rural Americans will, in fact, make sacrifices just to stay there. Yes, some people have to move for a job or other circumstance, but Gimpel’s research shows most don’t move from rural places until they have to. The feeling of attachment to our place is much higher in small towns than it is in large cities.

Very different from what we often hear, right?

The more these stories are shared, the more people will become aware of the advantages of places like Greater Nebraska and want to join us. And just as important, the more we all take stock of our assets through avenues like the recent Transfer of Wealth Study, the more we can become advocates and promoters for our hometowns.

The more these stories are shared, the more people will become aware of the advantages of places like Greater Nebraska and want to join us.

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