Economic prosperity in Arkansas is a tale of two states. Urbanized areas of Arkansas are seeing a disproportionate amount of innovation, growth and prosperity in comparison to their rural counterparts. Like other places in the country, rural communities in Arkansas are experiencing population decline and a net loss in jobs.
Earnings per job fall below the national average across the state, and in rural areas workers can expect to earn 85% of the pay of their urban counterparts. Children in rural Arkansas are more likely to experience economic stress as evidenced by dependence on public assistance programs, and the list unfortunately goes on.
Those small towns and unincorporated communities are home to 42% of our fellow Arkansans. They are part of the character and fabric of our story, and their future matters. Something has to happen to stop the decline.
Last year the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute challenged Under 40 Forum participants to identify external solutions for the urban-rural divide. Those young leaders articulated big ideas like healing cultural divides, improving access to education and a movement toward a creative economy, but they also quickly recognized a certain inability to catalyze that kind of activity from the outside.
There is no panacea for reversing the decline and reviving rural Arkansas, but there is a good place for rural communities to start and that is with self-empowerment. For the past three years, the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, in partnership with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service’s Breakthrough Solutions and Dr. Vaughn Grisham, emeritus director of the McLean Institute for Community Development, have been leading five rural counties in central Arkansas through a process of reviving small cities and towns. The message of Uncommon Communities is that before we can reverse the rural decline we must focus on the internal development of people and assets to create livable, vibrant small cities and towns.
A regional approach to seed entrepreneurship and innovation in dying towns is one of the goals of Uncommon Communities. Arkansas’ small towns have assets, history, artists, stories, natural beauty and smart kids. The residents of small towns can come together to capitalize on those assets and grow the town from the inside out, but the key to success is for it to be a communitywide effort.
At a recent session in Dardanelle, David Leckey of the Orton Family Foundation’s Community Heart and Soul program talked at length with Uncommon Communities attendees about the importance of community change being resident-driven, inclusive and deeply rooted in the emotional connection of the people who live there. He challenged the attendees to reach outside normal leadership structures and get more people involved in conversations about what makes their town special and more importantly what they need to do to make their town a place where their children will want to stay and raise their own kids someday.
The community self-empowerment approach works. Yell County is beginning to reinvent itself with citizen-led cleanup and beautification projects through Mission Dardanelle. Last year Russellville hosted a pop-up event to invite residents to imagine the future of El Paso Avenue and how to better connect downtown to Arkansas Tech University. Led by local residents, Perry County is capitalizing on a unique asset by hosting an annual Goat Festival that is drawing thousands of visitors to Perryville each year. Local entrepreneurs and community-minded citizens in Fairfield Bay and Clinton are joining forces in uniting Van Buren County. Conway County has revived their leadership development program to start raising up the next generation of young people who will imagine the future of their communities.
These are the projects that ignite participation across the spectrum of community, and they share in common examples of what can be done by working together. The key is finding those catalysts from within.
It begins with the same charge Winthrop Rockefeller gave Arkansas when he first moved to Petit Jean Mountain in 1953. He challenged our state to stop looking at what we didn’t have and start seeing the possibilities for what we did have. We can stop the decline of rural communities.
If you live in a rural community and once thought “somebody ought to …” maybe that somebody is you.
Editor’s note: Janet Harris is the director of programs for the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute. The opinions expressed are those of the author.