Small Town Talent

Small towns are generally trying to figure out how to get and keep leadership, promote entrepreneurship, innovation, etc.   Yet, all their “talent” leaves town and never really comes back to stay.  No one really seems to ask why though, they just simply sit and wait for some new people to come by then pass the buck onto them, whoever they may be.  Those of us in that position get frustrated and, well, leave too. Why?

Perhaps one thing for people in these small towns to consider is how (un)reliable they are; this even extends into life in university for those who leave but then come back.  I say this regarding three entirely separate cases of small, rural towns that I have had to deal with and one consistent problem in all of them: communication.  More specifically, the lack thereof.

For example: trying to contact one single individual through email, text messages and phone calls and still never getting any response after several days; this sort of culture is the antithesis to accomplishing anything or trying to make improvements which then limits these small towns, leads to frustration and moving away.

Another example: many times, when trying to put on an event of any sort, there is complaints of not many people coming or only the same people coming.  One thing one never really sees online in any format or physically throughout the town is advertisements for different things.  How is a newcomer or someone outside of the usual circle to know that there is a benefit dinner happening this Friday if it is not actually announced?  I must say, it is pretty amazing how many people turn out for something if signs are put up everywhere a month in advance of the event, in my experience anyway.  Also, the internet is a thing; small towns could leverage that a lot more than they generally do.

Next, some personal responsibility would help a lot.  I mean this on an individual basis and a societal one for these small towns.  Instead of simply complaining about how “the state/federal government does not send us any money to do x.” Try using the internet to find some grants for the project or, as is the case for older farming communities, recognize that money you are sitting on will not follow you to the grave and maybe spend some of it.  In a less offensive word: recognize that in order to get something out of an investment, you usually have to put something into it too.  Spend some time working on making the community a place you want to live, it will probably help convince other people to live there too.  Also, maybe, just maybe, release some farm land for a new farmer to buy and use, perhaps consider that the world has changed even if it is not easily visible in these towns, it has.  People want different things in life now and have different expectations and different types of jobs: figure out how to welcome those types of things and people may follow.  Responsibility, if cultivated and supported for all citizens in the town would help, in all of these small towns there is a small cadre of movers-and-shakers who are, essentially, trying to drag the rest of the several hundreds or thousands along.  That much effort for so few gains leads to burn-out, but, many hands makes light work, if you would take responsibility for your own community and for answering your phone and then carrying out whatever task you agree to, these small towns could make leaps and bounds.

These are just two of the major areas I have seen in my experience of small towns, it has been two of my own personal issues too partially stemming from growing up in such an environment.  If small town leadership and small town individuals would start working on trying to improve these two spots, I think it would greatly improve their ability to get/keep younger people who are able to start changes and actually improving the region(s) they are in.  But, this would take a level of commitment to self-improvement across individuals and the town; something not generally supported anymore in these areas.

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Small Town Economics

As I spend more time in a small town and compare it to my experience(s) in cities and even just regions closer to larger population centers, I am starting to learn one of the primary problems in small towns: lack of competition.

I mean lack of competition in an individual sense.  There is no need for self-improvement or even, maintenance of quality in small towns for many positions just because there is no one else to take that place if it is an essential job.  For example: middle management of any business.  Once an individual gets into that sort of position in a business that stays stable within the community and can get comfortable, they really have no need to improve themselves or the business really.  No other business will likely move in due to it being prohibitively expensive to move in and start a new business and there are not many new candidates moving into town to cause competition in the field itself for promotions etc.  So, it becomes very easy to fall into a “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” attitude about everything.  This hurts small towns most when it comes to leadership.

Having dynamic leadership is one of the best ways to promote expansion, development and improvement I think, having managers/mayors who are always willing to try new things and help those below them become more capable.  Dynamic leadership happens when non-dynamic individuals filter down/are limited in their promotion abilities because of competition or cannot get into higher levels due to a lack of initiative.

A mayor and/or board which is not dynamic, not curious and willing to look into new ideas and not really in competition because of no one else running for those elected positions ends up leaving a town stagnant.  The stagnant individuals essentially create a ceiling of potential and end up pushing those with more initiative, abilities or curiosity out and away (this tends to be associated with the younger generation) which then means that there are fewer opportunities which leads to even more people leaving essentially filtering down to those with the least amount of dynamism or initiative so that those who stay end up being the people who get up, go to work, come back and just sit in front of the television and doing nothing really at all with their spare time and becoming unhealthy and disconnected.

The question then becomes, how can small towns reverse this cycle now that it has generally started?  The obvious solution is to get more people coming to promote competition but, they need to be able to have a viable life there, which is very hard to do since it seems that most of the possible work in small towns is either healthcare or construction related, with the latter requiring driving where it could be more efficient to simply live closer to the worksite.  Thanks to cars, small towns are not self-sufficient anymore with small stores employing small amounts of people in the town to service everything unless they have some major industry which has yet to move away or is not mobile.  The problem with those industries is that if they could move they probably already have at this point and those that are not mobile tend to be seasonal (agriculture, waterways, tourism).   Seasonality does not make for a stable life, especially without being able to get land for oneself either.  The other job industry growing right now is technology.  Technology requires infrastructure which, sometimes, does not exist in small towns or it is not up to the requirements of the technology yet.  The only way to improve that infrastructure though would be through an increase in funding which would only happen if, instead of shrinking and aging, the population of small towns was growing and younger.

We come back to, how does one stop this cycle?  It seems that the most effective way would be for leadership to recognize its own failures – something that only happens through competition.  Not to mention, recognizing the problems, which is another major issue for most of the small towns I have seen; they simply cannot recognize that there is a fixable problem that could benefit the town often because, no one wants to change at this point and everyone is afraid of dynamism.  People want the same things that have worked for their entire lives to apply in the exact same way to everyone else and then magically everything will be dandy.  Quite an interesting world those people live in so, next time you’re listening to a small-town friend of yours complain maybe just ask them, what have they done to help their small town besides simply existing in it?

The Village Idiot

“It takes a village to raise an idiot.” I feel like I grew up hearing such a phrase.  I did some research (see: Google searched) the phrase and came across a book by Hillary Clinton and an attribution that the phrase was “It takes a village to raise a child,” not to raise an idiot.

I think we need to revisit these idioms for our own sake.  These generally tend to point towards a sentiment that a whole community is needed to help bring up good members of that community, it is not a single entity that does that work.  Yet, we continually focus on “education” in the sense of schools and universities as the inherent problem with everything.  It’s our education system’s fault that our world is the way it is, it’s our government’s fault the world is the way it is, it’s our education system that is creating inherent laziness in all of the young people in the world (I’ve grown up hearing complaints about the ‘younger generation’ my entire life), our education system is creating the school-to-prison pipeline, it’s our education system that keeps bad teachers in their jobs via unions, contracts, tenure, administration (pick your poison there).  Going off of all these complaints, it would seem that actually it is our education system’s job to raise children for the community and not anyone else’s, except maybe the parents.  Who, coincidentally, have been raised in a similar situation. Yet, people wonder why the bad parts keep continuing.  It seems that, though we’ve been tweaking the education system for a while, we have yet to see solid returns.  Maybe it is time for the village to re-examine itself instead of simply blaming the school within it.

To be clear, this is mostly pointed towards all those people who complain of “the younger generation.” The younger generation had to pick it up from somewhere and you cannot blame the unborn.  I’d like to say it is time for the village to think about what it has done in raising the child.

Sure you’ve put the child into an education system which does seem to have it’s own problems but, what happens to said child from 3:00 p.m. until 8:00 a.m. when they return to the school during the week?  What about from 3:00 p.m. Friday until the following Monday or, that last day of school until the next school year? Say just a week day, that is 17 hours sure, ideally 8 or 9 of those will be sleeping but that still leaves 8 or 9 hours a day plus weekends where the child is not in school.  Sure, there may be after school programs, they may go until about 7 at night during the week that is still 12 or 13 hours in an unknown environment (and assuming any sort of after school program, which is a pretty big assumption I think).  Also, who has ever heard of a well-funded after-school program that is reasonably affordable to all members of a community?

But, what about sports, those are after school and have potential to be affordable.  Great, emphasize sports have every kid doing that, that will help with health right because everyone can be skilled at or at least play {insert favorite intense sport (football, basketball, track, volleyball, etc.)}.  Then again many kids may not like sports or the specific ones offered so, one way to keep them engaged and interested would be to give them awards for participation, another seemingly universally despised idea.  This then on top of families tending to focus on sporting events such as the SuperBowl, World Series, March Madness or whichever would seem to send the message that the most respected and honored individual(s) in society are the sports players.  Then one wonders why children are not focused on education and all dream of hitting the professional leagues but outside of that seem “lazy” or lacking initiative.  Or, for those who do not make it, they wonder why they will sit and watch sports all day on TV, keep updated on it via smart phones and generally not seem too heavily interested in much else, specifically, not interested in engaging in the community.

Where does one learn this emphasis?  Well, when school funding seems to put money first to sports equipment, teams etc. this would seem to show children that playing sports is more important than the teachers and an education.  Then, why do these schools seem to put this money first into the sports program?  Since that is the only thing it seems that parents care about or that people will donate to.  This would also point towards the higher importance of sports over an education and actual work to children too.

On top of this, the other thing pushed constantly is “leadership” in all its beautiful forms.  Leadership courses, leadership camps, university applications always looking for times the kid showed “leadership” any other extra-curricular claiming that the students involved get to show “leadership.” Seemingly this would show the student that they are all leaders and as such rules do not necessarily apply because they set them as leaders and as leaders they all get the be all-stars in the sports and should all get leadership positions in jobs.  Where does this emphasis come from? It would seem employers and those who help fund these “leadership” courses and then sign their children up in them.  Yet, it seems to surprise everyone who helped create such an environment that their children cannot play on a team well and do not want to work in a non-management position if they are not in the team.

Wait, no, it is all the media’s fault that our kids are the way they are.  Those hours not at school they are staring at a screen with sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, etc. etc. etc. It is only those kids who are not in sports, not in the leader camps that are causing the problems because they are plopped down in front of the TV/computer/screened-device and just get to watch it or play their violent video games.  Who is it that bought the video games?  Who is it that keeps watching TV and watching the shows that are questionable and keep viewership high for all those “problem-causing” programs?  Which person is it that actually pays those bills?  I feel fairly sure that it is not the child.  Plus, for those parents who cannot get a job that goes from 8-3 and cannot afford the sports or camps, I do not think one can remain mad at them that they end up having to leave their child unattended or only lightly attended while they keep trying to make ends meet.

It seems to me, that there is a point where the village must re-examine the messages it is sending to it’s newest and youngest members.  Perhaps that time has come, instead of blaming schools, media and simply complaining about the “younger generation.” The “older generation(s)” need to pick up some of their responsibilities as members of the community (village) and start participating in younger people’s lives and trying to provide an example of a good, ideal member of the village.  Help fund after-school programs that are not simply sports, turn off the TV maybe, simply do some volunteer work with children in non-sports related things.  What kind of world would we have if entire villages actually actively participated in trying to create a friendly environment for all children to learn, feel safe and grow up to be responsible citizens instead of leaving it to someone else?

It seems that maybe it is time for the “older” generation to take responsibility for its own role in raising the “younger” generation and for the “younger” to start trying to grow up outside of the world that had been made for them.