Economic Development

My Turning Points: Toward Doing Rural Development Differently

October 20, 2021  • Janet Topolsky

Like many, I have spent oodles of downtime on airplanes and on vacation devouring legal thrillers by the best-selling storyteller, John Grisham. Though John’s work is always a page-turner, it is his real-life uncle, Vaughn Grisham, and his stories of successful community and economic development in rural America, who became, for me, a mind-turner.

It was listening to Vaughn Grisham one day back in 1991 that did the trick. Then director of the University of Mississippi’s McLean Institute for Community Development, Vaughn vividly recounted what has come to be called “The Tupelo Story” of a community that started its 1940s in economic doldrums but evolved through a collaborative, build-from-the-ground-up strategy into an economically vibrant region over decades. Vaughn’s telling sparked my recognition of community and economic development principles evident in almost every productive and equity-seeking rural development effort I had seen before – and all I have seen since.

These principles became turning points in my own thinking and doing. They are stated in slightly different terms by different observers and doers. But they all come down to tailoring economic and community development efforts to the local context by understanding a rural community’s or region’s many assets—its “starting point”—and learning how best to connect and leverage those assets to meet and create progressively greater opportunity over time. Though these principles appear straightforward and common sense in theory, putting them into practice requires consistent, thoughtful investment of time and resources – along with a willingness to always learn, and to always seek out and dismantle inequitable practices and behaviors.

Next month, the Federal Reserve Board and the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis will jointly release the first book solely about rural development published in a very long time – in this case, with chapters written by more than 75 seasoned practitioners and leaders doing the hard work of rural development on the ground, along with folks like me who try hard to help them. Recognizing the precarious situation many rural communities were already facing before the pandemic, and the tough work they have ahead of them, this new Investing in Rural Prosperity resource will highlight how rural communities are more likely to increase and share their prosperity when people throughout the community and region collaborate by using these principles.

As a sneak peak, yesterday the joint publishers released the chapter I wrote: Turning Points: Doing Rural Development Differently. You can find out more about the principles I learned from Vaughn by reading it! I hope that what rural practitioners have taught me over the years from their experience – which I tried to relate in my chapter – will turn more heads and hearts and strategies toward contributing in more productive ways to the breadth, depth and future of rural enterprise.

We are indeed at a turning point on how we do rural community and economic development on the ground in communities, states and Native nations across this country. To spark more thinking and understanding about what it will take for communities and Native nations across the United States to be healthy places where everyone belongs, lives with dignity, and thrives, the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group will be launching the Thrive Rural Framework for equitable rural development in the coming months.

So…stay tuned.