At a recent small business seminar in my rural community, I asked the speaker, a young attorney who relocated her practice from Minneapolis-St. Paul to our town, what was the biggest personal surprise upon moving? She's been here almost three years, along with her husband who works at a local bank and serves on city council with me.
Her response: "The tight-knit culture. I didn't foresee the 'you're not from here' and sometimes 'not welcome' culture."
Following her answer, I asked the 20 or so people in the room, "Raise your hand if you're not from here."
The room was silent and then about 10 hands went up. Smiles spread across many faces. We could relate to the "you're not from here" feeling.
How does someone truly break through that culture to change it?
I have lived in what is my husband's hometown for more than 10 years. I raised my hand. Our mayor raised his hand. A single mom of four kids who lives across the street from our business raised her hand. A fellow city councilmember raised her hand. I smiled at another man who did not raise his hand, knowing he recently moved back to his hometown after being gone for 40 years. He's from "here," even after being gone for decades.
We non-natives to our town each have found different ways to make the community our home. But that doesn't mean "not being from here" isn't a lonely feeling at times. I think my in-laws who have lived in our rural community for 40-plus years would say they're not "natives" or truly "from" here.
At the small business seminar, a county commissioner commented that our county's population is projected to drop by 20 percent by 2025. Since then I've been thinking about how to change the culture to be more accepting, welcoming and inviting. My husband and I will still have two children in high school in 2025 - it's only seven years away.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 97 percent of the U.S. was classified as rural in 2016, but only 19 percent of the population lives in a rural area.
How can we attract people to make our community their home? It requires changing the culture.
New people, from various walks of life, with different voices, ethnicities and religions, need to fill jobs, invest their time and money into business ventures and volunteer in the community. Young people need to move back, not just to take up space but to become active employees, business owners and engaged citizens.
How does the "you're not from here" culture go away? Leaders need to allow and be open to change. Those of us who have lived in the community for a while need to be supportive. We must choose to spend money in new businesses or hire new people to fill job openings.
And the new people? They have to do their part. Culture doesn't change quickly in a stubborn rural community. It doesn't make it wrong or right. But removing entitlement and opening our minds to a revival can create a new climate in our rural communities.
Welcome new faces. Invite them into your businesses, homes, churches and civic groups. Invite them to a community event. Sit by them. Introduce them.
Whether you're "from here" or not, be a part of reviving and renewing our rural communities.
Pinke is the publisher and general manager of Agweek. She can be reached at email@example.com, or connect with her on Twitter @katpinke.