Ru­ral Amer­ica has lessons to teach us about civic en­gage­ment and in­ten­tion­al­ity

The Buffalo News - - OPINION - New York Times

Every­body says ru­ral Amer­ica is col­laps­ing. But I keep go­ing to places with more mo­ral co­her­ence and so­cial com­mit­ment than we have in boom­ing ur­ban ar­eas. Th­ese vis­its prompt the same ques­tion: How can we spread the civic mind­set they have in abun­dance?

For ex­am­ple, I spent this week in Ne­braska, in towns like Mc­Cook and Grand Is­land. Th­ese places are not rich. At many of the schools, 50 per­cent of the stu­dents re­ceive free or re­duced-cost lunch. But they don’t have the patholo­gies we as­so­ciate with poverty.

Nearly every­body is work­ing at some­thing. Ne­braska has the sixth-low­est un­em­ploy­ment rate among the 50 states. It has the 12th-long­est healthy life ex­pectancy. Some of the high schools have 98 per­cent grad­u­a­tion rates. It ranks sev­enth among the states in in­tact fam­ily struc­ture.

Crime is low. Many peo­ple leave their homes and cars un­locked.

One wo­man I met came home and no­ticed her bed­room light was on. She thought it was her hus­band home early. But it was her plumber. She’d men­tioned at the cof­fee shop that she had a clogged sink, so he’d swung round, let him­self in and fixed it.

When she needs some auto work done, she leaves a blank check on the front seat of the car. The town me­chanic comes by when he can, drives the car to his garage, does the work and fills out the check.

Ne­braska ranks eighth in the coun­try for so­cial cap­i­tal. Mc­Cook has only 7,700 res­i­dents, but it has a Ro­tary club, a 4-H club, a fu­ture farm­ers group, a mu­sic fes­ti­val, a sto­ry­telling fes­ti­val, a chap­ter of the Ne­braska Com­mu­nity Foun­da­tion, churches, li­braries, mu­se­ums and Sehn­ert’s, a James Beard Award-win­ning bak­ery and cof­fee shop where the re­tired men gather and kib­b­itz.

If a teenager mis­be­haves, his par­ents have heard about it by the time he gets home. Many peo­ple make time for civic life and seem to wear 15 hats. Jared Muehlenkamp re­turned from Los An­ge­les to Mc­Cook and runs a print and de­sign store. He went to three meet­ings af­ter work the day be­fore I met him, in­clud­ing of the City Coun­cil, on which he serves.

Mark Graff, who runs a lo­cal bank, says he spends 50 per­cent of his time on civic vol­un­teer­ing. His sis­ter-in law, Ronda Graff, is rais­ing seven chil­dren. She also writes for the news­pa­per, coaches swim­ming, is a sub­sti­tute teacher and bus driver, com­petes in iron­man triathlons, works at the Y, helps run a con­cert se­ries, helped or­ga­nize the build­ing of the dog park, helps out with the high school dis­ci­pline pro­gram and seems to sit on ev­ery spon­ta­neous civic or­ga­ni­za­tion that pops up.

It should be ac­knowl­edged that things are not as rosy as they ap­pear on the sur­face. “There are a lot of peo­ple here in des­per­ate eco­nomic cir­cum­stances do­ing ex­tra­or­di­nary things to look mid­dle class,” one Ne­braskan told me.

But th­ese com­mu­nity weavers are pretty hon­est about their prob­lems. A few of the towns are 30 per­cent Latino, and they strug­gle with in­te­gra­tion. The most highly ed­u­cated young peo­ple leave. The com­mu­nity project is to find ways to lure them back.

One farmer said there is a feu­dal mind­set among many of his friends. They’re too proud to ad­mit any depen­dence. They’re afraid of vul­ner­a­bil­ity. The at­ti­tude is: I’m a farmer. My busi­ness is my busi­ness, and your busi­ness is your busi­ness. Their lone­li­ness is driven by fear and pride.

And they do have to work hard to make sure na­tional vi­cious­ness doesn’t tear lo­cal bonds. At one din­ner, a Latina wo­man looked at her An­glo friends with tears in her eyes and told them why she had dropped off Face­book: “There’s a lot of peo­ple who make me feel at home here, and I’d never had a home. I know you be­cause I know how you make me feel. I don’t want to change my mind about you be­cause you liked one com­ment on so­cial media.”

Over­all, I was left won­der­ing: What causes the com­mu­nity’s weavers to be so civi­cally ac­tive? I have a few the­o­ries.

Farm life in­cul­cates an in­sane work ethic, which gets car­ried into com­mu­nity life. The weavers are deeply rooted in place. Many said their main goal in life is to make their small town bet­ter at their death than it was at their birth.

There are also 93 coun­ties in Ne­braska, sev­eral with pop­u­la­tions be­low 1,000. That means there are a ton of lo­cal gov­ern­ment func­tions and not that many peo­ple to fill them, so every­body has to chip in.

The word I heard most was “in­ten­tion­al­ity” – es­pe­cially about com­mu­nity. Many peo­ple try not to use Ama­zon so they can sup­port lo­cal busi­nesses. They don’t use the self-check­out lanes in the drug­store so they can sup­port lo­cal work­ers. They’re al­most fa­nat­i­cal in their sup­port of lo­cal arts pro­grams.

Con­stantly they are think­ing: Does this help my town or hurt it? And when you tell them that this per­va­sive civic mind­set is an un­usual way to be, they look at you blankly be­cause they can’t fathom any other.

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