By Simon Stumpf
Earlier this week I spent a day with four innovators from rural America, including listening in on their discussion moderated by James Fallows, best-selling author, and writer for The Atlantic. In kicking off the hour-long conversation, Fallows noted that “almost everything about our economics, our politics, our culture now is described in shorthand as a divide between the biggest cities, and the smallest cities,” with rural and small-town America having shifted in the popular discourse “from areas that often have problems, to areas that are a problem.”
We at Ashoka have always believed that the people closest to any challenge are best equipped to solve it. The four innovators who joined Fallows in the discussion illustrate this powerfully. They are:
- Brandon Dennison, of Coalfield Development, who is diversifying economic monocultures in West Virginia and helping transform the workforce development field in the process.
- Regi Haslett-Marroquín of Minnesota (originally Guatemala) who has developed a model of poultry-centered regenerative agriculture and is now working to ensure the system is adopted internationally.
- Stacey Epperson, of Next Step in Kentucky, who is proving that manufactured homes can be the best, most affordable, and most energy efficient housing in the country.
- Denisa Livingston, of the Diné Community Advocacy Alliance of the Navajo Nation, who not only helped pass the first “junk food” tax in the country but created a model where the millions in revenues now fund hundreds of community health chapters’ creative projects.
Across these different industries, entrepreneur backgrounds, and corners of the country represented, some common themes emerged:
We’re all connected to rural America. Even though 20% of the U.S. population lives in towns of 25,000 or smaller, rural places and people provide almost all our food, fuel, fiber, and natural resources. As they say, without rural folks – miners, loggers, farmers, and the like – we’d all be cold, hungry, and without clothes to wear!
But conventional economic systems are linear and extractive, paying as little as possible for labor and raw materials. Over time, many rural people and environments become depleted and in many cases more insular.
In economic terms, rural areas, therefore, tend to be, economically speaking, poorer. And yet one of the most unhelpful (and untrue) stereotypes is that rural folks are ONLY poor and that they need the help of “outside” programs.
One thing we all can do is commit to a better understanding of what rural poverty looks like. Brandon, Denisa, Stacey, and Regi pointed to a few key themes here. Rural poverty often manifests as a lack of meaningful choices that leads to a lack of agency. For example, existing “affordable” housing is often energy inefficient so that living in poverty means spending as much as half your income (or more) on heating. And in the Navajo Nation, where the incidence of diabetes and nutrition-linked disease is high, it’s an almost total food desert (99% food desert).