In recent years, more and more Americans have returned to the small towns and rural communities they were forced to leave. Thanks in part to the Covid 19 pandemic, 52 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 29 will be living with their parents by 2020, the highest percentage since the Great Depression, according to the Pew Research Center. Meanwhile, Census Bureau data shows that the growth and, in some cases, population of major metro areas have declined since 2010.
The author’s great-grandfather, Walter Howard, pictured here in 1978, lived the 96 years of his life in the farming town of Emmett, Idaho.
courtesy of Grace Olmstead
Many people move to help the family business, to support elderly parents or to share the joys of small town life with their children. In 2009 I moved from Fruitland, Idaho to the east coast to study and now live in Northern Virginia. However, when I was writing a book about the farming community I grew up in, I met many people who decided to return home as part of a larger mission. They fight rural poverty, rebuild a broken food economy and restore the health of neglected soils. Their vision of success has less to do with financial prosperity or personal comfort and more to do with the more challenging values of management, investment and caring.
When Benya Kraus, now 20, graduated from Tufts University in 2018, she decided to return to rural Minnesota, where her father’s family has farmed for six generations. When I was in college, I was studying international relations and thought I would spend the rest of my life moving to and from big cities, Kraus told the Center for Rural Innovation, a nonprofit dedicated to creating technology-related jobs and closing the opportunity gap in rural America. A difficult family situation shifted the internship to Washington and brought me back to Waseca. I saw how the city was planned for 2030, I saw the creativity of the city, I saw the momentum of new immigrant-led businesses on Main Street. I was hooked on this new side of Waseca that I hadn’t seen before.
Inspired by her experience, Kraus co-founded Lead For America, an organization that helps other Hometown Fellows return to the place they know and love, and spend two years building civic institutions in their communities. Through Lead For America, fellows find jobs in local governments or nonprofit organizations in counties, cities and towns where challenges outweigh available resources, according to the organization’s website. The organization provides participants with a stipend to cover living and housing expenses, which is primarily raised through donations from foundations and individual donors in the fellows’ homes and workplaces. Although the community itself has only been in existence for two years, Lead For America is asking fellow leaders to commit to serving their community for two more of the next five years, because they believe leaders must make a long-term commitment to the places they serve in order to create transformative change.
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In 2019, Taryn Denny returned to Redmond, Oregon, where he worked on affordable housing, urban renewal, and community building projects. In 2020, Miranda Page worked with Lead for America to address food insecurity and environmental inequality in southeastern Wisconsin, where she is from, and Araceli Gonzalez worked with Arkansas United to stand up for the immigrant community in her state.
It’s important to know things specific to where we live, Kraus wrote, to know our neighbors, to find inspiration in the way the vast rural sunset stirs the entire skyline, to practice humility by knowing the history of the people who worked this land before us.
Sarah Smarsh also wants more people to see rural America as a place worth loving. After writing Heartland, a 2018 memoir about her experiences growing up in rural Kansas, she launched the podcast Housewives to call attention to people like her who choose to stay or return to quieter parts of the country.
Dr. Veronica Womack, founder of the Black Farmers Network, Dooley County, Ga, 2018.
Network of black farmers
One of them is Dr. Veronica Womack, professor of political science and administration at Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia. She chose to stay in a rural collection of crescent Black Belt counties in the South to defend the land, history and people of the region. The author of Leaving for Dixie: Because of the underdevelopment of the Black Belt, she founded the Black Farmers Network, an online hub for rural African-American farmers to share their stories, products and services in an economy now powered by digital technology.
Another stay-at-home mom is Elaine McMillion Sheldon, the daughter of a coal miner who decided to invest her filmmaking skills in the Appalachian Mountains where she grew up. His Emmy- and Oscar-winning film Heroin(e) follows the lives of three women struggling with an opioid epidemic in Huntington, Virginia, while his Netflix film Boys in Recovery follows four men trying to recover from opioid addiction in a rehab center on a farm in Aurora, Virginia, USA. Smarsh sees housewives like Dr. Womack and Mrs. Sheldon as American odyssey heroines, who see value where others do not and return with an elixir of hard-won social capital to solve problems at home.
Moving to a small town after getting used to city life is not always easy. There are fewer jobs, and many community organizations in rural areas are in need of retraining and support. I interviewed young people struggling with the tendency to gossip and isolation of rural America. Everyone knows everyone, a graduate of the local high school told me. I want to get away from the drama.
Others – especially those who leave home to go to university or to urban centres where more left-wing people live – may feel alienated from the political, social or religious beliefs of their rural peers. The idea of a deep rural-urban divide is often exaggerated and based on stereotypes of race and class that do not take into account the diversity of rural America or the economic problems of many urban communities. However, there is no denying that the United States is politically polarized along geographical lines.
Without housewives, the division of America into red and blue will become even more apparent.
This is where homebrewers and those who share their values can help. Without it, America’s divisions will become even more pronounced, as we divide between red and blue, between winning cities and impoverished rural areas. America’s small towns need faithful volunteers – people willing to plant trees and clean sidewalks, willing to use their entrepreneurial skills and passions to maintain meadows and forests, farmland and abandoned main streets. These needs can only be perceived and met by thoughtful and committed residents, new and old, who choose to settle.
Returning home is not just good for ecological renewal or civic health. It’s also good for the returnees. As the philosopher Simone Weil wrote: Rooting is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. She added that it is through authentic, active and natural participation that we take root in society.
The challenges of 2020 have reminded me how much I miss being with my family and how much I want to be involved with the country and community that raised me. Farmer, poet and essayist Wendell Berry is right: No matter how much you love the world as a whole, you can only live fully in it if you live responsibly in a small part of it.
-The essay is from Ms. Olmsted’s new book, Adults: Restoring the Legacy of Places We Left Behind, which was released at 16. Mars in the Sentinel.
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