Looking for Minnesota’s rural voice

LITTLE FALLS — It’s not clear who has it or who is supposed to listen to it, but more people seem to be beating the bushes for the “rural voice” in Minnesota these days.

Earlier this year, the St. Peter-based Center for Rural Policy and Development issued a report

suggesting that amid a bunch of tough demographic, economic and political trends, rural Minnesota has lost its voice. No organizations, no political leaders, no businesses seem to be able to get a coalescence around a solid rural agenda, the report said, and as a result, the million-plus people who live in rural Minnesota are losing influence.

On Thursday about 30 community, foundation and government planners and organizers drove through the snow to bat around that report and how the situation might be changed. It was the topic of the day for an informal quarterly gathering known as Friends in the Field that attracted people from several Minnesota Initiative Foundations, the Blandin Foundation, the Bush Foundation, regional development commissions, University of Minnesota Extension, state and federal officials and more.

No one is saying there’s a single rural interest. Agriculture no longer dominates, and other interests like mining, logging and manufacturing vary across the state. And there’s uncertainty, too, about who the audience is for a rural voice. Policy makers? Urban dwellers? Rural residents themselves?

But the issue “has been rising up in all the forums I’ve been dealing with over the past several years,” said Neal Cuthbert, vice president of program at the McKnight Foundation. McKnight has been a seminal player in community development in rural Minnesota for decades, including the establishment of the six Initiative Foundations in the 1980s.

Once a planner at the Metropolitan Council, Cuthbert contrasted the lack of a rural voice with what he thinks has happened in the Twin Cities. Via a variety of public and private efforts, “the metro area has found itself moving toward greater alliance.” Even the Minneapolis and St. Paul mayors appear to be working in tandem much of the time.

“It’s not perfect but there are shared dots on the horizon that everybody’s working for and I don’t see that in rural Minnesota,” Cuthbert said. “There’s not an equivalent narrative in rural Minnesota.”

But at the same time, at the very local level, rural communities achieve results through cooperative action “in ways impossible in the metro area,” he said.

It’s time to raise the ante on that sense of cooperation and alignment of interests to generate a more regional narrative, Cuthbert suggested to nodding heads around the room.

One way to do it, he said, is for a single organization to take on the task of evaluating state public policy proposals — transportation or workforce development, for example — through a lens of their effects on rural Minnesota.

Another idea that emerged from the conversation was to harness the knowledge and interests of the hundreds of Minnesotans around the state who have gone through one or more of a plethora of community leadership programs. University Extension and a number of foundations for years have been offering fellowships and other training opportunities to residents trying to accomplish things in their communities.

“I don’t think we’ve done a very good job leveraging these people” in a way that creates a voice and a coherent set of interests, said Colleen Landkamer, head of rural development in Minnesota for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.