About 60 University of Michigan students and Ann Arbor community members gathered in Weill Hall Wednesday evening to listen to a conversation about rural communities and sustainability in the United States. Hosted by the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy and the Graham Sustainability Institute, the event featured two experts in rural development: Tony Pipa, senior fellow in the Center for Sustainable Development at the Brookings Institution, and Sarah Lucas, director of the Office of Rural Development for the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development.
The panelists spoke about their efforts to uplift struggling rural communities throughout the country and the lessons they’ve learned over the years. Lucas outlined how policy impacts rural communities in diverse ways noting how rural communities don’t always have the same support systems urban cities do.
“(Rural communities) don’t have the same kinds of resources available to them,” Lucas said. “They don’t have the same organizations. They don’t have the same population. What they do have is a lot of territory to cover, and so they are trying to do more with less. That’s really the big difference between how policy impacts urban versus rural communities.”
Lucas leads the state’s Rural Readiness Grant Program, which aids local governments in funding rural communities. The grant program received an overwhelmingly large response from rural communities requesting funding immediately after its initial rollout, according to Lucas.
“We had $750,000 available in the first round (of the program), and we received $4.3 million in requests,” Lucas said.
Pipa commented on the lack of philanthropy directed toward rural communities, especially considering the substantial number of people who live in them.
“Philanthropy is disproportionately lower in rural places in the aggregate across the nation,” Pipa said. “Fourteen percent of the population in the United States is rural, and even the most generous analyses of philanthropic funding show that only 7% of philanthropic funding goes towards rural places.”
Pipa and Lucas both said trust among community members and their leaders is integral to assessing rural residents’ needs. Lucas said she prioritizes listening to community concerns and being open-minded when considering different solutions to build trust in the community.
“The best way to build trust and engagement is to just listen,” Lucas said. “It is really important to show up with an open mind and hear what people have experienced, hear what they’re working on, hear what their priorities are.”
Lucas concluded the conversation by encouraging young people to be invested in rural communities and to advocate for their needs.
“In rural areas, you have the opportunity to build something in a way that you wouldn’t be able to in a bigger community,” Lucas said. “There’s an incredible need for volunteers and so much opportunity for service work. If you’re motivated to make a difference in a community, there’s no better place to do so than in a small town.”
In an interview with The Michigan Daily after the event, LSA senior Heather Pennell told The Daily she attended the event because she feels rural voices are often silenced by the needs of larger communities.
“I think it’s really interesting to see the impacts that business and government have on different communities,” Pennell said. “There is a lot of attention on cities, but no one ever talks about the importance that rural communities have on the world.”