Years ago, when I was still relatively new to the world of economic and community development, I was talking to a dear friend, well I was basically venting to a dear friend, about the lack of attendance at a public meeting I hosted the night before. This public meeting was held to gather public input on a community economic strategic plan. I was so disappointed when yet again, out of a population of 6,000 plus I had about 10 people attend. I had done newspaper ads, flyers, email invites, and person to person invitations (it was before social media was available). My friend, made a profound statement and said it was the Seinfeld Theory at work… and my response, as I’m sure many of yours is… What is the Seinfeld Theory?
The Seinfeld Theory, is a simple way of stating that the majority of community members would prefer to be at home watching reruns of Seinfeld then attending a meeting. People are tired; they have worked throughout the day, they are stressed about money and putting food on the table, they have gone to several events for their kids… they are TIRED! And, I get that. There are times I’m so tired that my bones ache. However, I still manage to pull my weary self-up and go to Council meetings, attend a Chamber Function, participate in a community planning session, read the minutes of the Commissioner meetings, read the local newspaper (and regional ones), watch the news, and be informed of what is going on in my community, region, State, and Country. I see that as part of my role as a US Citizen. It is your responsibility to be informed of what is happening around you, no one else’s.
The last few days, I’ve seen so much negative banter on all venues of communications. In person, a dear friend was appalled that I said, maybe it’s not going to be too bad; talking about President Elect Donald Trump. I, who did not support Trump or Clinton, was at the mercy of her rant. Mostly because I was a safe place for that rant to happen, but because she knew I shared her concerned of the future. And, I do…I am concerned with our future.
I’m am deeply concerned for the future of Rural America as we continue to see this change in population demographics. With an aging population across the United States, our rural communities are suffering more than ever. The disconnect between rural and metropolitan has become a deep crevice that I wonder if it will ever be bridged. The continual attack on the fabric of natural resource and agriculture based economies gain ground as the connection continues to dissipate. A way of life is being destroyed because of Community Apathy and the Decline of Civic Duty; too many people stay at home and look for someone to give them the solution instead of being engaged and working for a solution.
I had the pleasure to speak at the Montana Young Professional Summit this last summer in beautiful Great Falls Montana. This is by the US standards a rural community, but by Montana Standards Great Falls is one of the 7 largest cities in Montana. Young Professionals from across the State were in attendance and a question was asked “How do we address the issues happening in Rural Montana”. EXCELLENT QUESTION… my response… “Be Engaged!”. The generational transference of leadership has proven to be a difficult for many in rural areas. As I approach 40 (GASP) I continue to be one of the youngest in the room; and that has been the case since I was 23. Something is broken.
Are we not conveying to the younger generations the opportunity and importance for involvement? Are we discouraging them by being to set in our ways? Is there a fear of change that has prevented the generational transfer? Or, is there a fear of failure preventing the youth from stepping into those roles? Have we become a society that is so focused on making sure we can buy the newest cell phone or the right brand, that we forget that we can make life better for all with a bit of elbow grease, and giving some time back? Have we attacked and made those who are engaged so embittered that they are no longer willing to lead and give? Have we created a monster of despair in Rural Communities because we no longer care?
Across the nation, we see more and more people remove themselves from Community Engagement. Many hide behind “I’ve worked all day and need to spend time with my family” or “I have XYZ to do with my kids tonight”. I appreciate when I get the truth of, “I just really don’t want to go”. Chambers, Churches, Civic Organizations, Fundraisers, Community Events, you name it… it is all in decline- yet as a nation we will spend hours watching Hallmark Channel over the next 6 weeks, being envious of the idyllic communities portrayed. Instead of dreaming about the perfect community, why not engage and help plan for the community you are in?
As I challenged all those Young Professionals in August, I am challenging all who read this to start going to your Town Council and Commissioner meetings, participate in community planning efforts, and join the Chamber or other Civic groups (Lions, Kiwanis, School Board). My challenge to all of you is to understand the importance of being engaged on the local level. We all have misgivings about the future, but in my humble opinion if we want true change, we need to start at home and in our local communities. This doesn’t mean posting about it on Facebook or attending a fundraiser once a year.
I mean engage. Learn when the Chamber of Commerce is hosting their monthly meetings and help find economic solutions to our distressed communities by going to your local or regional planning sessions. Instead of complaining about a lack of a service on social media or an issue you have, be informed and go to the annual meetings of organizations and address the concern face to face. If you have an issue with the way the Town is being operated, get on the agenda and CIVILLY give constructive criticism. Just know that if you are going to criticize you should also be prepared to know the facts, and come with a better solution or at least an idea to make it better.
It is so easy to judge from the comfort of your couch but why not come and give suggestions. Some ideas may not work or be the route chosen, but the synergy of a group of people doing affirmative inquiry and building off each other’s positive ideas are astounding. I’ve seen where communities have been so successful in building themselves back from devastation because the PEOPLE were engaged. It’s not always easy, and there will be times when no one likes each other, but keep coming back with respect for each other and differences of opinions, build on the areas that you do agree with, and change can happen. It won’t be over night and it won’t always be pretty but you will be thankful in the end.
If you are retired, volunteer to mentor a Start Up business. If you are just starting your career join a civic group and give back to the Community. If you are still in High School, ask a parent or relative where you can volunteer. Residents should attend your Town Council meetings occasionally to learn what is being discussed and the reality of situations. And all residents need to stop listening to the rhetoric of fear mongering and learn what is truly happening by talking with those who are involved directly or better yet be one of those directly involved. If you are a business owner, support other businesses when they have a sale or a mixer, or a grand opening. You’d expect them to come to yours so cross support and promote! If you have a fundraiser for your organization or benefit, then pay it forward and go to others. If you have kids, bring them! Let’s start installing community civic duty back into our youth now and show them there are opportunities in our community before they leave high school.
I encourage youth to go to college or a trade school, complete an apprenticeship, live abroad, travel, whatever they want to do; but I also encourage them to know about their community enough that they can come home or come home to another rural community. As we move into the largest generational retirement in our history, the rhetoric about needing to create jobs will become a thing of the past. Communities need to start working together, rural and urban, to build bridges to support one another. For neither rural or urban areas, can survive without the other. Rural provides so much of the resource the urban utilizes and vice versa. It is a two-way street and all of us are in it together. We just all need to stop watching reruns and join around a table.