Jason Neises, Community Development Coordinator, Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque
The old, lazy narrative about the “brain drain” continues to vex those of us working in rural Iowa communities. “All the kids leave!” “Why would anyone live HERE?” We hear those things so often that we start to believe they are true. To make any meaningful progress in rural vitality, we need to address the reality in our small towns and write a new, hopeful narrative about the future of life in rural Iowa.
While the latest census numbers do show that almost every community in Iowa experienced population declines among 18- to 24-year-olds, these statistics actually reflect the desire of youth to leave temporarily and gain valuable experience and knowledge. They don’t mean that young people dislike living in their small Iowa towns. In fact, research shows that in the long run, small towns benefit from the ideas, energy and wisdom young people gain in those faraway places — as long as town leaders have done a good job creating a vibrant, attractive place where they can return and raise their families.
Look more closely at census numbers and you’ll see that towns often see population increases among certain age groups, especially 25- to 44-year-olds. To benefit from these gains, leaders need to be intentional about creating the type of town where young families want to live. The best way to do this is by getting the entire community involved: Identify your town’s assets and work together to enhance them. This asset-based approach will ensure that your town develops a positive narrative about its future and breaks free of the old “brain drain” narratives that focus on what’s allegedly ‘broken’ in our communities.
Our small towns don’t need to be fixed. They need to be strengthened, supported and inspired to be places where youth want to return. There are many tools available for small town leaders who want to be intentional about this work, including “reverse scholarships,” Community Heart & Soul®, and Hometown Pride.
These are all initiatives that are entwined with my work at the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque. We and other foundations across Iowa play a key role in rural vitality efforts by providing the resources to do the visioning and action planning that will keep small towns strong. Think about how your town is taking advantage of these types of programs to create its own hopeful, welcoming story. Learn more from Jason and other rural leaders at our next connect session, February 22 at 10 AM.