Last week, I had the privilege to participate in the National Rural Assembly’s 2011 Gathering – “Building an Inclusive Nation”.  Even though it was only a brief (two days’ worth of time) conference, I was blown away by the breadth and depth of expertise and passion of conference participants.  From Dee Davis’s opening, through “Speaking Truth to Power”, a discussion on the Future of Rural America, and closing with Dee Davis’s Call to Action, I was continually inspired.

But, being the devil’s advocate that I am, I always have to ask the dreaded question: “So what?”  So, what does this mean?  So, what benefit does this bring to rural communities in Michigan?  So, what is the Michigan Rural Network going to do with any of this inspiration and information?  While I fully admit that I do not have all the answers to all the questions, I do think that we in Michigan can gain some insight by looking at some of the topics covered by National Rural Assembly speakers.

“Rural” is changing

The face of rural America, and of Michigan, is changing.  People of color are making up a higher percentage of our population than ever before and this is showing in rural communities as well as micro/metropolitan areas.  Young people, especially young people of color, need to be engaged and brought to the community development table in meaningful ways to ensure a bright future for all of us.  Rural America is also no longer defined solely by its identity with commodity agriculture. While commodity agriculture is indeed important for all of us, there are many other types of communities whose identity is being shaped by other forces, sometimes encompassing several communities within a geographic area: tourism, ecology, alternative energy, place-based amenities, etc.  As Karl Stauber wrote in his article “Building a New Rural America“, we must “help rural communities and counties think regionally to compete globally.”

Broadband is still in the crosshairs

During lunch on Day 1 of the Rural Assembly, we were fortunate to hear from Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Mignon Clyburn.  I encourage you to watch her entire keynote address.  The point she made, and the point we continue to discuss here in Michigan, is that yes, most people do have access to broadband.  But what about those that don’t?  The areas that currently do not have access to broadband are almost exclusively rural.  Rural communities face unique challenges in obtaining service – access, deployment, AND affordability.  With the upcoming potential merger of AT&T and T-Mobile, broadband and telecommunications issues are going to continue to be major discussion points in regard to rural access.  The Rural Assembly has a Rural Broadband Policy Group that has drafted a campaign paper on Broadband; click here to read it in full.

Last week, the Michigan Public Service Commission partnered with Connect Michigan to produce an assessment of broadband availability and usage in Michigan.  The report mentions service gaps specifically in rural areas; you can read it here.

Sound transportation policy is necessary

Rural areas are extremely dependent on personal automobiles.  But what happens when rural residents can’t afford to purchase or repair an automobile or when elderly residents no longer are able to drive themselves?  Do they deserve less access to services or to lose their job because they can’t get there?  The Rural Assembly’s Transportation Group has drafted a campaign paper on Transportation; click here to read it in full.

Here in Michigan, MRN is actively involved in Trans4M.  Trans4M’s goal is to make Michigan communities more livable and our economy more robust through transportation policy reform.  The Rural Network strives to ensure that rural voices are included in transportation planning at as many levels as possible.

So, what does all this mean?  It means that we do still have a lot of work ahead of us.  As Dee Davis says in the closing:

As we move forward, we’ve got to think about how this story turns out. We need to engage with each other and find that purpose – find that purpose and keep going. We’re going to have to find a way to help each other through this [and] create the purpose in ourselves to move this thing forward.” 

What is your purpose and part in working with rural Michigan?  What story do you want your community to tell?  What do you want to build?

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