A dominant narrative in mainstream and social media suggests our nation and state has lost its sense of community, that partisan and ideological rancor hopelessly divides us, from Congress to our holiday dinner tables, and that we have little interest in helping each other. A notion that a spirit of meanness pervades our rural regions is particularly prevalent, and indeed there are enough examples of bigotry and xenophobia and disregard for the poor to concern us all. But every day in lots of ways, good people are working quietly across these divisions in my own rural community, and I have every reason to believe, in others too.
A little background: I’m situated in the beautiful lakes and woods of north-central Minnesota’s Aitkin County (pop. 15,583 in 2016) where we struggle with a per capita income of about $23,000, ranking us 70th out of 87 counties and $7,000 less than the statewide average of $30,000. Our poverty rate is perennially above the state average, and we have social problems that are not unlike those in the Twin Cities, including addictions and family violence.
Despite our disadvantages and lack of resources, we have a surprising number of local programs that help folks out. These programs are run by volunteers who do so without a lot of fanfare. Local businesses also quietly provide goods and services for free or at reduced prices. I am sure these are pretty typical of efforts in other rural communities.
Here are some of our most inspiring examples, right here in my town of Palisade (pop. 161, and where exactly 40 people voted for Donald Trump and exactly 40 for other candidates.)
• Late every summer, we get together to hold a Back to School Bash. The purpose is to make sure that every school age student has an opportunity to show up at school with needed supplies. The day starts with competitive events for each age group (gunny sack races, three legged races, egg toss, etc.) Every participant gets notebooks, writing utensils, folders, and binders. Then everyone gets something to eat and participates in drawings for backpacks. Teachers tell us that showing up with needed supplies is important to a student’s self-esteem and acceptance by other students.
• Too many of our children do not have access to nutritious food when school is not in session. This summer, we started a free summer lunch program two days a week. Next year, we plan to upgrade the food, have more activities for the kids, and hopefully expand to three or more days a week. Donations from businesses, individuals, and the food shelf were so generous that there is enough money left over to run the program for at least a month in 2018. We had more volunteers than needed, so staffing an expansion should be no problem.
• Preparation for a new program called The Little Pantries is underway. These are food boxes which are being erected on municipal property. They will contain food that people can pick up as needed, anytime. Cash and business donations will cover the cost of standard staples. The hope is that local people will also buy a little extra at the store and drop it off in the boxes. Many people who need help are reluctant to admit it, often for the reason I cited at the outset. Also, the closest food shelf is about 20 miles away. These food boxes will give people the opportunity to get some needed supplies locally and anonymously.
• Recently a local family lost two members. Local folks held an afternoon of bingo to raise money for a scholarship to a local student in memory of those who passed. All of the proceeds went to the scholarship fund. Winners’ prizes were donated. Fifty three community members (recall we have only 300) participated and donated a minimum of $15 each.
All these efforts are aimed at helping the disadvantaged in the community but the first three are aimed making help available to everyone. The free summer lunch program and little pantries are new this year and may have even been inspired by concerns about rising needs in the current political climate and insufficient response to poverty in our region.
It’s very important to note that I am certainly not suggesting that local volunteer programs can begin to replace the universal public programs that provide basic needs and a safety net for all.
My only point is to remind folks that a sense of community and compassion is very much alive and well. Our good work in Palisade is undoubtedly replicated in many other communities, and all these stories need more telling. We need to repair our divisions, and these collaborative efforts present small scale opportunities to start bridging those differences.
Tom Legg is retired from the faculty at the University of MN in the Twin Cities and is a Policy Fellow for Growth & Justice, a research and advocacy group focused on policies that create a broader prosperity for Minnesota.