Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Editor's Pick

Reflecting on the National Rural Assembly
By Mary Steinmaus, Interim Executive Director and Sustainable Communities Coordinator

Nearly 300 advocates and leaders from the nonprofit sector, tribal, state and local elected officials, artists, writers, philanthropists and other cultural figures gathered together at the firs National Rural Assembly to raise the visibility of rural issues, to organize a national network of rural interests and to develop rural policy initiatives.

I represented Rural Action and participated in small and large group discussions to examine a wide range of topics. Over the course of the multi-day meeting, the groups identified assets and challenges of rural America, developed a vision, devised national strategies and explored federal policies.

Assets of Rural America included a strong base of small businesses and entrepreneurial capacity, traditions of self-employment, abundant natural resources, strong sense of connection to place and a sense of community, attachment to the land and quality of life that enhances local engagement and builds community while allowing ordinary people to become leaders.

Building on these assets, participants developed national strategies for each of five topic areas:
· Demographic Transitions: Focus on education that serves youth and trains them as local leaders in their rural environment and school systems.
· Investment and Resource Distribution: Creation of delivery systems that lead to affordable access to affordable health care in all rural communities.
· Changing Rural Economy: Comprehensive economic development strategies that include youth entrepreneurship, micro enterprise, and business development services
· Community Institutions and Civic Leadership: Direct funding to education and training geared at youth, entrepreneurs, and local leadership development with incentives for agency collaboration. Promote greater investment in rural infrastructure.
· Environmental Challenges: Mandatory funding for sustainable agriculture, energy and rural development

On June 27th, a group of participants took these messages and strategies to a congressional hearing. The biggest problem is how to get the attention of lawmakers to insert rural issues into the national agenda. One idea was to create a Department of Rural Affairs, which would include the present Department of Agriculture.

Overall, participants expressed a strong level of support for the creation of a network of organizations to advance the national strategy and policy priorities developed at the National Rural Assembly.