The 2011 National Rural Assembly
The 2011 gathering of the National Rural Assembly "Building an Inclusive Nation", was held in the Twin Cities, Minnesota June 28 - 30, 2011. As a resident of a rural community, I was given a scholarship to attend sessions specifically on rural broadband policy and local philanthropic initiatives. There were many diverse topics discussed for the first two days, such as education grants, healthcare, broadband initiatives and policies, entrepreneurship, youth voices, infrastructure development, immigration reform, the Farm Bill, and affordable housing. The final day featured workshops to actually build skills for policy work, community sustainability, social media, and many more.
"The national strategy that will be decided in the coming months will influence urban and rural American life for the coming decades," addressed Niel Ritchie, President of the League of Rural Voters on the first evening of the conference. The many important and inspiring speakers throughout the week continuously resounded the importance of rural America and of the uniqueness of the present political climate globally. During the smaller pre-conference event, the Midwest Rural Assembly, one participant noted that "The world is in crisis and in times of crisis, some of the best ideas are thought up."
Other notable speakers at the conference included FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who addressed participants pledging a national broadband access strategy that will not forget rural areas; Captain Wayne Porter, United States Navy and Colonel Mark Mykleby, United States Marine Corps, who recently wrote "A National Strategic Narrative," controversial for its suggestion that national security focus on infrastructure at home rather than defense and protectionism; and Iowa senator Tom Vilsack, US Secretary of Agriculture and Chair of Obama's new Rural Council, who joined us via a recorded speech.
The initiative to "Build An Inclusive Nation," a nation of equality between those in rural and urban places, requires work on all fronts. Creating narratives and changing our messaging about the importance of rural America is needed. For example, "How do we change the role of urban universities beyond "Big Ag" and convincing our kids not to go back to their hometown?" was the topic of discussion in one Midwest Rural Assembly gathering. Positive messages about rural life were shared. "I don't seem to worry about crime my rural community because we take care of our own. We tend to collaborate; we don't have any choice," said a Minnesota policy maker in one small group session. "After all, this is a rural country; almost everyone is two generations or fewer from being behind a plow," said another participant.
Some of the discussions that I was a part of and found most interesting included
- Entrepreneurship: Discussion focused on how to create safety nets for business that struggle in small towns;
- Broadband: Internet access is like the railroad in rural places. If the railroad didn't go to your town, then your town probably didn't survive;
- Philanthropy: New legislation called the Rural Philanthropy Growth Act will likely become part of the Farm Bill renewal next year helping small town community funds to prosper;
- Native Communities: Traci Morris of Native Public Media in Flagstaff, Arizona told participants that "Native nation building is tribal sovereignty in action," and highlighted an inspiring, community-owned broadband project in Idaho.
As one would expect, references to budget cuts and the recession were present in almost every discussion. For many states it is predicted that sectors up against tax cuts are water and waste water, healthcare, and housing. Despite threats of underfunded programs, the gathering was very optimistic overall. On the opening night, a musical presentation by Billy Altom from the Association of Programs for Rural Independent Living in Little Rock, Arkansas, had the whole ballroom full of participants singing "Country Roads" by John Denver after his very moving "Truth to Power" speech about disability access to rural transportation. There was a lot of hometown pride in St. Paul that week from about 300 folks from all over the nation and I was really proud to be there representing St. Francis, USA.
Program information, including speakers, organizations, and handouts, can be found at http:/2011.ruralassembly.org.