As a new student at Yale in the fall of 2016 whenever I mentioned that I’m from rural Wisconsin, an inevitable series of questions followed. “I literally have no idea what Wisconsin even is,” a friend once admitted over coffee.
Never did I imagine that what I thought of as a mundane childhood in rural Wisconsin would draw so much interest, but it was quickly apparent that my childhood experiences were worlds apart from many of my peers. The questions vary in nature but the overwhelming reality is that very few of my peers know anything about rural America.
Today, the American city is sold as a place that offers everything you need. In our modern market economy, there is little incentive for people to leave the comfort of their urban spheres—little reason to step out and explore the communities of our rural neighbors. Why would we? Rather than understand our neighbors and local communities, most young people look outward and try to understand the world, volunteering in foreign countries and traveling to experience different cultures. And while these experiences are valuable, flying from place to place while overlooking and failing to understand the varied communities within our own country has unrecognized costs—ones that were startlingly revealed in the election of 2016.
“Wait, Wisconsin—where is that again?” Burned in my memory is the first time an embarrassed Yale friend admitted to not knowing where Wisconsin was, but before long I realized my friend wasn’t alone. Far too many of my brilliant and highly educated colleagues knew little to nothing about rural America, let alone anything about the lives of those dwelling in America’s central states. Instead, they label these states “flyover country.”
I have developed a special disdain for this term and its many variations. Innocuous in intent, this term is laced with pernicious assumptions. At first I found it amusing. It would ignite a spark in me as I prepared to convince others that my community had interesting features worth exploring and from which urban communities could learn. I would describe the beautiful rolling hills, the streams that I loved exploring, the interesting political dynamics and tightly knit web of support that my community had to offer.
Sure, my town lacks some of the excitement and bustle of a major metropolis. No designer shops line its streets. We don’t have multiple restaurants to satisfy every craving or desire. In many ways, my town is antithetical to city life. It is comprised of small personal projects, not fancy buildings projecting corporate glamour. Instead, we have the local restaurant with a passionate chef sourcing most of his ingredients from local farms. We have the small shop in someone’s house selling beautiful hand-made scarves and housewares; the organic agricultural revolution that is revitalizing our food and our land; the neighboring town that, in the wake of a series of disastrous floods in the 1970s, rebuilt its entire village as the nation’s first solar community; as well as the nation’s first river valley restoration project that created a world-class fly-fishing destination. The projects and ideas of my community weren’t developed to disrupt or revolutionize an industry. They were designed to make small positive contributions to the quality of local life.
Now when I hear someone say “flyover country,” I grimace at the term. How do I begin to tell my friends of all the interesting aspects of my community, even though I want to? How can I convince them that my town and all rural communities deserve more than a quick glance out of their plane as they fly from city to city?
Too often, we define states by the cities they contain. We forget the rest, or project a narrative laced with the stereotypes of an outdated idea of farm life. I too fall victim to this tendency when thinking about other parts of our country. It’s a deductive perspective of America’s non-urban centers that fails to account for the diverse and changing realities of our rural communities—a perspective that desperately needs to be updated.
As a whole, rural America is struggling and no longer fits within these outdated ideas. The small-family-farm model that has been the backbone of so many of its communities has been dramatically eroded. The industrial alternatives are moving overseas or to distant urban communities. As a result, rural America’s youth are being forced to leave their communities in search of well-paying jobs. While schools in urban communities are rushing to push math and science to adapt to the changing twenty-first-century economy, many rural schools, like mine, have been forced to invest heavily in welding and other special-skills classes so their graduates can find jobs within their communities.
If I wish to use the skills I’ve acquired in college, I will most likely have to live in or near an urban center. It’s the reality of the twenty-first century. In many ways, this is what I wanted. For years, I wished to escape the small town I once felt confined by. I studied and worked hard in hopes that one day I could live in an “interesting” (urban) place doing meaningful work.
Yet I miss the freedom of life in the countryside. I miss the pull of the wilderness —the stars, birds, and crickets serenading me to sleep. Even more than that, I miss the culture: the relaxed, laid-back community where people make time for each other. The isolation from the consumerism and hyper-competitive culture that are so pervasive in affluent urban centers has many redeeming characteristics. Growing up, I never felt the need to dress up for daily life or to deliberately network with people, until these became my adopted values in my new community. I never feared failure until I spent a year at the university that was supposed to guarantee my success. The world I escaped to is just as confining in its own ways as my rural life was. Despite the appeals of life in a city, I can no longer deny the pull of my rural home and its values.
I genuinely believe rural America has important values from which the rest of the country can learn. As our country becomes more politically polarized, we all could learn from rural America’s community-focused perspective. If we can recognize each other as part of a shared community, we may be able to curtail our political fragmentation and soften the harsh rhetoric. However the future plays out, the political landscape of our country suffers from a painful lack of information and understanding—a reality that is unsustainable and poses difficult questions for the future. To prevent further misunderstanding, we all must act as ambassadors for our communities and work to connect them with the rest of the country, which has come far too close to forgetting its rural inhabitants, their problems, and their gifts.