Thursday, January 07, 2010

Rural matters

Yesterday, I drove north and spent a portion of the day in Jackman, in northern Somerset County, not far from the Canadian border. This represents the far reaches of the workforce district that I cover with the Local Workforce Investment Board that I work for.

I went at the behest of a community partner who belongs to a group that I also am part of that meets monthly in Skowhegan, after she chided our group that "Skowhegan is not Somerset County." Her point resonated with me, as I realized that in three years in my position, I had never taken the time to visit the Moose River Valley, assess some of their issues on the workforce development side, and meet some of the key members of the community. Shame on me for this.

This behavior is clearly not acceptable for someone that has written regularly about rural Maine, and in fact, my first book detailed how small communities have been affected by a variety of changes since WWII, using the metaphor of baseball to track many of the shifts occurring in small town Maine (and by extension, small town America). Yet, in an official capacity, I had neglected a portion of my region. My colleague's point was an accurate one, as I learned from during my four hour visit.

Spending time in Jackman, and having the opportunity to meet some key leaders in town--school officials, a manager from Moose River Lumber, and other community movers and shakers--as well as being granted a chance to speak to the Jackman Leadership Group, which meets monthly to work on key initiatives in the town--made yesterday a worthwhile visit. There is a positive energy present in the community, one that I wouldn't have known about without visiting. Their school and its principal and superintendent are developing innovative programs, some of them with the potential to act as economic incubators. Moose River's mill is one of the most technologically advanced facilities east of the Mississippi. All of this wasn't surprising, based on my experiences visiting other rural areas of the state.

I plan on unpacking some thoughts I have, mainly about workforce development, over at Working in Maine in the near future. I also plan to touch on some of the struggles affecting rural communities not only in Maine, or nationwide.

Unfortunately, both federal and state policies often work against promoting economic vitality for the almost 60 million Americans living in areas classified as local. Nowhere is this more obvious than with rural schools, which are often the centerpiece of life in this small towns. In Maine, its been the insistence of the current administration to consolidate schools. This plan is misguided at best, in my opinion, as I've stated before.

Understanding the culture of people and place is important. I think one of the primary reasons that some journalists miss the real story, and politicians and state and federal policymakers often get it wrong when it comes to laws and regulations affecting rural America, is that they either don't care, or rarely take the time to really understand that culture. Merely making a campaign stop won't provide the depth of understanding required, and neither do perfunctory visits to pseudo-rural communities.

More to follow on this topic.

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