The 2016 election delivered the resounding wake-up call that many of those living in small and rural communities are suffering, angry, and resentful. As the earth’s resources have been depleted, as robots replace workers, as big business moves jobs overseas, and as the majority of our country’s wealth is held by a handful of people, small communities that once relied on extractive economies are losing both jobs and population. While there is a legitimate feeling that many of the hardworking people in rural America (and elsewhere) have been abandoned by our governing bodies, the anger directed at immigrants, racial and religious minorities, and all marginalized groups is off the mark.
There has never been a more important time to focus on rural America. The time is ripe to talk about the places that ARE working —small, rural towns that are gaining, rather than losing population, especially working-aged people.; towns that are adapting to the needs of a more pluralistic, technologically advanced and modern society, while simultaneously embracing the old-fashioned values of hard work, neighborliness, and trust that are the grounding forces of rural living. Thriving small towns have an opportunity to shine a light on creative solutions while offering hope and promise to those who are suffering the most from boom or bust economies and the hardships that accompany them. The small town of Fairfield, IA, (pop. 9,500) sets an excellent example of a place that has benefited from an inclusive approach to cultural change, while still maintaining many of the traditional values of rural living.
For those unfamiliar with the story of Fairfield, it was a typical and relatively unremarkable small, Iowan town until 1974, when Maharishi Mahesh Yogi purchased the campus of the bankrupt Parson’s College with the intention of starting a college devoted to “consciousness-based education.” With the advent of what is known today as Maharishi University of Management, a steady stream of academics, practitioners of transcendental meditation (TM), and followers of Maharishi —mostly from the coasts—flowed into the town, bringing many new ideas and customs with them. In most cases, this kind of influx would result in many decades of clannishness between those who are “from here” and those who are “not from here.” But Fairfield’s remarkably smooth transition has resulted in both a dynamic place to live and a thriving local economy.
Strong leadership is paramount to smooth transitions, and since 2001 Mayor Ed Malloy has played a vital role in helping Fairfield shine as a beacon of small town resilience. Armed with a clear vision and good listening skills, Malloy, who was called to Fairfield by his involvement in TM, has helped lead the town to become a nationally recognized leader in business, sustainability and the arts.
When Maharishi bought the MUM campus in 1973, Fairfield already had a long history of higher education in the community (Parsons College had been established for 98 years, and prior to that Fairfield University had been there for 25 years) so the community welcomed MUM as a continuation of that educational tradition, even if they did not quite understand the meditation aspect of it. But in 1980, the Maharishi, inspired by research suggesting that impact of large groups of people meditating in one place would encourage better behaviors and health outcomes within that community, decided to put the theory to the test in Fairfield. Virtually overnight, 1000 new residents descended on the town with young Ed Malloy as part of the group.
Having developed a TM practice as a psychology major in college, Malloy found the threshold group idea compelling and wanted to move to Fairfield to be part of the experiment. While everybody who showed up was enthusiastic about this “mission for society,” figuring out how to be able to stay in the community presented a formidable challenge. The economic base in a city the size of Fairfield simply could not support the sudden infusion of 1000 people. The newcomers understood that they could not rely on the established community for their livelihoods, so creating businesses and entrepreneurial ventures were the first steps to integration.
Although there were different, and at times polarizing, visions for what the community should look like and where it should go when the Maharishi group first arrived in Fairfield, there was no power behind the vision of the newcomers because they were not in positions of leadership.
Time helped, however, and over a twenty year period there have been more than 400 businesses created, attracting $250,000,000 in venture capital. As those companies matured and grew, people in the community who did not practice meditation were eventually took jobs with these businesses. An organic integration unfolded which naturally softened the initial skepticism and uncertainty that came with the influx.
Malloy, pushed by his belief in the creative vitality of his community, felt compelled to run for mayoral office. He felt confident that “given the right vision, guidance, encouragement and direction, many parts could come together to build a stronger “whole,” His win in 2001 became the first of eight successful bids for mayor.
Though things were going well for Fairfield economically, in those early years, an unnecessary cultural divide could still be felt throughout the city. While there were a few flashpoints on policy from time to time, it was generally a peaceful co-existence, with most people content to accept the two separate communities living side by side. But Malloy felt that there was an unnatural feeling to the divided way that they were living. He perceived a great deal of untapped creative potential in the entrepreneurial meditators who were not necessarily vested in the community other than with their businesses and their families.
“My vision for Fairfield was to empower all of the diverse elements of the community to make it the best possible place to live. That included business and entrepreneurship, arts and culture, sustainable healthy living. I wanted Fairfield to be a place that was recognized for its high quality of life and high functioning community that accomplishes what it sets out to do – a model of small town living.”
In response to this undesired cleave, one of Malloy’s first jobs as mayor was to commission a 10-year strategic plan for the city. It took 18 months to conduct the research which brought together a natural coalition of the broader population, one that represented both the native Fairfield population and the meditative community. After going through a process of individually identifying who they were, where they were from and what their mission statement was (with goals and objectives), the group, as a blended and united community, came up with 5 overarching goals:
• Revitalizing the downtown and creating a tourism destination
• Cultivating and promoting Fairfield’s cultural richness and recreational opportunities including building an Arts/Convention Center
• Increasing recreational amenities and programs including building a 16 mile walking/riding loop around the city
• Advancing educational opportunities including life-long learning.
• Expanding Fairfield’s dynamic business community including the creation of 1000 net new jobs.
With the vision formed and articulated, the next steps involved approaching 80 different organizations within the community and asking for buy-in to specific objectives. Service organizations, cultural organizations, the school district, the government —all factions of the Fairfield community were approached, and despite some initial skepticism, most people were willing to give it a try.
And the approach worked! Within a short period of time, as the goals and objectives were beginning to come to fruition, Fairfield began to garner national recognition:
• In 2003 — The National Association for Towns and Townships recognized Fairfield as “the most entrepreneurial town in the country (under 10,000)”
• In 2005 — Art Walk on Fridays was recognized as the “tourism event of the year” in Iowa.
• In 2006 —The governor of Iowa had initiated a competition for cities to redefine themselves in terms of diversifying economy, diversifying culture, and finding ways to retain their young population. Out of 132 cities in competition, 6 cities were designated as “Iowa Great Places” and Fairfield was one of the 6.
At that point, having been designated as one of “Iowa’s Great places” the feeling of being “an unfortunate fractured community that had been trying to find itself over the last two decades of time” was washed away. Suddenly, an overwhelming sense of unified community pride came with the recognition — pride in the sense that they had invested in and created a vibrant economic platform, pride that they had worked together to map it out, and pride that they had embraced the diversity and used it as an asset. Most importantly, there was a sense of shared pride in cooperative creation that was the beginning of overcoming the tug and pull of a fractured community. The unity and confidence that has been gained through dozens of national recognitions since 2003 now fuels the questions “what can we do next?” “how much more are we able to do?” “how can we be a model for other cities in America?” and it continues to push citizens and businesses alike to work together towards long term social, economic and environmental sustainability.
Through it all, Malloy tries to keep a balanced tone in the conversation, making sure that everyone understands that there are ideas and ways of life that are to be respected coming from ALL quarters of the community.
An example of this came in 2003 there were some people on the commission who really wanted to push the idea of green energy and sustainability. At the time, there were others in the group (who had been living in Fairfield for longer) who felt that the community was not yet ready to embrace the vision wholly, and that they would be challenged to get buy-in. So the idea had to be toned down a bit, leaving some of the language and goals in there, but adjusting the scope and reach. By 2008, however, the financial crisis hit and the price of oil was high, so the timing was right to take another look at the objective. The vision still held, and the city was able to quickly develop a long range sustainability plan with strong community support. Everybody from schools, to manufacturers, to individuals and the local utility company backed the initiative and suddenly Fairfield had an explosion of solar development, After 18 short months, the city had lowered it’s energy consumption by 8.5% communitywide.
When asked what leadership skills are needed to nurture a vibrant and healthy community in the midst of diverse points of view, Malloy says that his ability to help people see the value of a particular vision and to see themselves as part of that particular picture has been paramount to his success as mayor. Noting that “successful communities have many important contributors to their accomplishments,” he sees the role of a leader becoming that of “articulating the big picture to include everyone, while also recognizing trends and opportunities for adding more through visioning and planning.”
After years of experience, Malloy believes that leaders need to be willing to embrace and articulate the need for openness to new ideas and facilitate community trust in diversity as a valued part of community identity, while simultaneously understanding and giving some deference and respect to the traditional culture that has been around for generations so that transitions feel less threatening. At the end of the day, however, if you are able to build a culture of accomplishment, and there is pride in that accomplishment, people make room for new ideas.
As we look at the future of small and rural communities, there is much to be learned from this tiny hamlet in Iowa, not the least of which being that while it is important to respect and retain many of the traditions residing in rural America, the long term health and viability of these communities will depend on our willingness to remain open to the creativity that is sparked through a diverse population.
Q & A with Mayor Ed Malloy:
What qualities do you think make for strong leadership, and who might influence others towards a common vision?
It starts with love of your community and the people that make it up. The next is the willingness to engage everyone in the most inclusive way. A leader must recognize the talent and assets of the community and utilize them for positive engagement.
How do you view the role of change and adaptability?
The highly connected society we live in demands flexibility in all things.
Is a community’s ability to embrace change integral to its development?
It is. Change brings a freshness to community thinking and action which opens up more opportunities.
How is this manifested in your town?
We have taken on many big projects from strategic plans that outline our long range goals, economic development, tourism, sustainability and wellness to big projects like our 16 mile trail around the city, a 35,000 sq. ft. arts and convention center, new outdoor pool and indoor recreation center, a three day music festival FAIRfest and myriad cultural festivals throughout the year.
What forms of resistance have you encountered and how have you responded to resistance to new ideas? How do you react to when people say “we can’t” or “we shouldn’t” do it?
I deal with resistance by engaging a diverse group of citizens to plan and shape new ideas first. The ideas become adopted throughout that process and shared throughout the community. There will always be naysayers. Their opinion is respected, but does not drive the decisions.
How do you see the human “longing for connection” to be part of what your community has built?
Fairfield is rich in the experience of connection. So much of what we do is enhanced by our human connection. We just adopted two new tag lines for our marketing – one for the city “Connect. Create. Celebrate” – the other for the tourism division “Tune Into Our Vibe”. That kind of sums it all up.
What do you see as the driving force behind the success of your community? To what do you attribute the strength of your community?
The driving force is the desire to have the best experience living in our small town while having and enjoying some of the amenities of a bigger city. We have a community that strives for the best in every area and that contributes to the greater good.
“Fairfield is a community of people who share a deep sense of pride in our past, the traditions that sustain us, and the activities that create our future. We are in many ways an over achieving bunch, who consider ourselves fortunate to have such a rich community to build upon…We value good government, good schools and educational opportunities, healthy living, recreation, arts and culture.” –Mayor Malloy