Learning to Be Rural

I grew up in a place we affectionately called, “big town, little city.” It was big enough to have rival cross-town high schools and a university, but small enough that I knew all my neighbors and always felt safe.

But it wasn’t a rural place.

Growing up in Wisconsin, rural living never felt far away however. Radio stations played country music, the 4-H club was open to kids that lived in the city, and my mother and her friends practiced a style of parenting that predates “free range.”

It was more like, “Go play outside until dinner.” We’d come in with scraped knees, filthy faces, and shining smiles, chattering about our made-up games and pretend adventures. After 7 years at the Center for Rural Affairs, my time here has come to an end. Working at the Center and living for 6 of the last 7 years in towns under 1,000 people, I’ve learned a few things I thought I’d share.

1. If you want something done, do it yourself. Wish there were a film festival, grocery store, or community theatre troupe in your town? Then get your friends together and get to work! No one is going to make your small town the place you want to live except you.

2. Buy local is essential, not optional. Businesses aren’t just businesses in small towns, they’re part of the infrastructure that keeps the community vibrant. If your town has a grocery store, a gas station, a bar or a restaurant, visit them regularly!

3. School is cool! To a small town, a school can be an employer, a library, a clinic, a place to eat, and serve many other roles. If your community’s school is in trouble due to consolidation, fight it! Consolidation hasn’t been shown to improve children’s education.

4. Get dirty. When the church needs repainting or the park needs a clean-up, roll up your sleeves and help. Communities are healthy when everyone pitches in.

5. Read the paper. Count yourself lucky if your town has a newspaper! Buy a subscription, read it cover to cover, and make sure to give your local editor news tips.

6. The Wave. This one’s a small town classic. I now wave at everyone I drive by. It builds community and makes me feel good!

It’s been a pleasure to get to know you over the last 7 years. Keep in touch!

Steph Larsen is leaving us to join the online organizing team at Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. She can be reached at her personal email, StephanieLarsEn@gmail.com.