Building Community in Rural America

It takes some patience and understanding when building community and an identity in rural America.

Building communities through music

Building communities in rural America can oftentimes involve music and the trusty guitar.

Pat Jarrett

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When people move to rural America and small towns, they’re likely to cite, as main attractions, fresh air and local produce, pristine scenery and the opportunity to live closer to nature. The desire to engage in meaningful community and the act of building community is seldom mentioned. Yet, with sparser populations and the press of nature close at hand, community life is arguably more important in the hinterlands than in urban settings, and its rewards can be immensely sweeter.

Just yesterday, I called and left a voicemail for Steve, a friend from my Rotary club in Mount Airy, North Carolina (population 8,400), soliciting advice about a business transaction I was considering. Within a half hour, my assistant buzzed me to say that Steve was in the front office, returning my call – in person.

“I just happened to be driving by,” he said, “and thought that face to face was better than over the phone.” Our 10-minute exchange prevented me from making a poor business decision. Steve’s goodwill gesture knitted the two of us together more closely in the fabric of community. But had Steve and I not already known each other over time, had we not known each other’s reputations – not as close friends but as community players – he never would have stopped by, never would have trusted me with candid, off-the-record advice from which he derived no personal benefit or monetary gain. His endearing gesture is exactly the kind of community moment for which I live.

After living in Boston, New York and Los Angeles, I made the move to the country back in 1986, in search of a simpler life. What I didn’t realize at the time was how much my unmet need for community life – something that the peripatetic, rootless life of my youth had never presented – was driving that move. Since then, I have chronicled the ups and downs of rural life – first in the southwest Virginia farm and later in nearby Mount Airy, which I now call home.

I didn’t have the rules figured out when I arrived on the scene 22 years ago (and still don’t). But I have been here long enough to know that community doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, resources and often, quite frankly, an attitude adjustment to start building the framework for a satisfying community life in the country. What’s more, as the importance of community and connection becomes increasingly understood and accepted as a key ingredient in good health (right up there with an active lifestyle, a healthful diet, and a no-smoking, moderate-drinking regimen), I can personally testify that making a concerted effort to engage in community life is one of the best investments you’ll ever make. 

People centricity

The first thing you need to understand about rural life is that it’s people-centered – far more so than in a city. In rural America, people come first. Although small-towners are generally more conservative politically and personally than city residents, due to the code of intense loyalty to “members of the family,” enormous philosophical and political differences are tolerated once you are accepted into the fold. Kathleen Norris, author of Dakota, points to an old “bohemian radical” living in Lemmon, South Dakota, who used to work for a communist bookstore in California in the 1930s and is now “one of the local characters, an irreplaceable old coot whom we love and hate.”

Because people who live in big cities generally know others by profession or occupation, their interpersonal dealings tend to be more stratified and often more limited. The actual experience of rural living is likely to thrust you into regular and personal contact with a far greater range of people of differing age groups, economic categories and educational levels. You might know the mayor, a leading industrialist and your auto mechanic equally well. And you’re likely to encounter the same people time and again. What is more, while in major metropolitan areas you may want to wad up and throw away someone with whom you’ve had a falling out, never to see that person again, in the country you are well-advised to at least attempt to patch up differences. When I was a newcomer, I remember my former mother-in-law passing along this pearl of wisdom: “You don’t hold grudges in small towns.” 

Displaying cultural sensitivity

When making a place for yourself in the country, you need to recognize that every community (no matter how small) has its own unique identity and culture that should be respected. Though rural residents often get a bad rap for rigidity and intolerance, city critics let themselves off the hook when they move to a rural outpost and expect their behavior and individuality to be accepted – no matter how eccentric, alien or off-putting – without understanding the local culture and putting forth an effort to adapt.

“You have to bend over backwards so people don’t think you think you’re better than they are,” says Mike Goldwasser, a one-time law student at the University of Pennsylvania who established a cattle operation in bucolic Carroll County, Virginia, in 1973. Goldwasser developed his community-sensitive philosophy after working as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching math and physics in Tanzania and Uganda in the late 1960s, where he was one of a handful of Caucasians. He learned that “whenever you’re from outside the community – if you’re more educated or more white – you have to display more sensitivity, to not only not offend, but to let people know you respect their way of life. There’s going to be an assumption by people that you don’t respect their way of life, so even if you do, the burden is on you to demonstrate your respect.” 

Be a good listener

There is no better tool than listening to demonstrate your respect. Although you shouldn’t be a stone-faced enigma when conversing with folks in the hinterlands, you do want to practice verbal self-restraint. Take your cue from the anatomical reality that you’re equipped with two ears but only one mouth; try to use them in that proportion. In conversation, you’ll want to divulge some information about yourself to show that you’re present, to reflect your personality and aspirations, but never talk beyond the point of audience interest. Think of listening as paying your dues.  

To that end, check your credentials, city-won accomplishments and portfolio at the county line. Restaurateur Jim Van Zandt, who moved in 1989 with his wife, Fran, from New York to Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, to start a bakery, learned a winning attitude by watching others fall flat on their faces and making a few mistakes of his own.

He remembers bringing up his New York experience and being surprised by “how many people who live here say, ‘Too bad you had to live there.’ End of discussion.” If Van Zandt were to give a single piece of advice to city people relocating, it’s this: “Be real low-key. Don’t tell them how important you were. Nobody cares.” He said that a common bumper sticker in his community sums it up: “We Don’t Care How You Did It Up North.”

And, avoid the temptation to prejudge the caliber of members of your new community. Just because someone doesn’t speak perfect English or catch your sophisticated cultural references doesn’t equate to a lesser mental capacity.  

Get involved

Whereas community service is strictly optional in a big city, in the country, it’s obligatory. If city people move to the country to hole up and get away from it all, their disengagement from community life will likely be viewed as a slap in the face. In the anonymous city, no one knows whether you’re a good citizen, an indifferent one, or even a scoundrel, whereas in a small town, everyone knows who gives money, time and donations to fund drives, benefits and volunteer organizations. They know who shows up for blood drives and litter pickups and to bag groceries for the needy during the holidays. They know who pulls a car out of the ditch when it’s stranded by the roadside and who just whizzes by pretending not to notice.  

As a newcomer, try to be the worker rather than the queen bee. Offer to grill hamburgers at the park benefit or pick up roadside trash for the Ruritans or Kiwanis Club. Helping out will give you a great observation booth from which to watch the community and discern areas where you can make a contribution. Listen to the music of the place, the way people talk. Listen to stories for what they reveal about people and the local culture. Resist the temptation to try and move in and become chairman of the board your first year in town. In fact, if at all possible, wait a few years before taking on significant leadership positions.

A few years back, a Sun Valley, Idaho, area economic development director spoke out against a “new breed” of outsiders coming to town and getting elected to city council or appointed to boards and becoming “a problem.” Often they have “different values and their own agenda,” and sometimes, she warned, they “take over.” She referenced a pitched battle between newcomers who opposed the community’s desire to appropriate funds to purchase porta-johns and picnic tables for hikers and mountain bikers. The newcomers, she said, “don’t want public money spent to encourage summer tourism, even though it’s a major source of income for many old-timers in our community.” 

Choose your words carefully

“I’d rather remain silent and be thought a fool than open my mouth and remove all doubt.” – Abraham Lincoln 

Marion McAdoo Goldwasser, who holds a master’s degree in English and education from Stanford University, taught in the Carroll County, Virginia, school system for more than two decades before transferring to the Mount Airy city school system. Together with her husband, Mike, she had to work to discard some of her urban habits, such as being “the first voice to speak out at a meeting.” In Carroll County, she said, “people are more reticent; they take time to mull things over.” What is more, people weigh their words carefully so as not to “burn bridges or have their words come back to haunt them.”

Not only do you need to watch what you say, but you also need to be careful how you put it. You do this because everyone’s related by blood, friendship or business, and everything’s interrelated; you’re liable to put your foot in your mouth if you utter a disparaging word about the car dealer with whom you just spoke (who turns out to be somebody’s uncle, cousin or friend). Even if they don’t know the person in question, remember that your attitude will be gauged by members of your new community. If you criticize a local, your listener may leap to the conclusion that he or she will be next on your verbal chopping block.

Hold this image in your mind before venting: Imagine that you’re on the stand in a court of law and every word you utter is being taken into court record. This can be the case with small-towners when drawing their first impression of a newcomer. Remember that the shelf life of your words is longer – by a factor of years – in the country than in the city. 

Center of the universe

It may be hard to fathom but it’s true. Every small town or rural community is a world unto itself, and the “true believers” – that is, the ones whose commitment to the community is absolute – are convinced that their town is the center of the universe. I would argue that this is a healthy form of community spirit rather than provincialism. In fact, you’ll know you’ve “arrived” in your community when you reach for the Comstock Daily Bugle before the Cleveland Plain Dealer and when you become an unabashed community booster.

What’s at the end of your gravel road (or the corner of Main and Maple streets) may be your first genuine community, the first time in your life you’ve actually had a place to call your own. Unbeknownst to those who’ve never experienced it, smoothly functioning community life offers an enormous source of sustenance: the pleasures of place and the fulfillment of our universal need for caring, continuity and belonging.

Don’t expect to take to rural life like a duck to water; and don’t expect adaptation to happen overnight. It takes time. You’ll make tangible progress when you begin to crack the code of your new country community, build a network of relationships and a bedrock of trust, and finally convince people that you’re no fly-by-nighter. I knew I’d arrived in Mount Airy when people stop asking me if I intended to stay. Once this shift occurs, and you’ve been welcomed into the clan, you’ll be amazed to find a Steve at your doorstep offering advice, a neighbor giving  you homegrown squash and perhaps even selling you a ticket to the pancake benefit. (Hint: When you buy a ticket or two – even if you don’t eat pancakes – you know you’ve arrived!)

Seven Tips for Creating Community in the Country

  • Slow Your Pace. The person in a hurry is viewed with wariness, even suspicion, in the country. You’ve moved out here to smell the roses, so breathe in their fragrance.  
  • Be Punctual. Leave yourself a cushion of time in the country. Rural Americans won’t be impressed that you’re “crazy busy” – too busy to be on time. Some view being late as valuing your own time over theirs.
  • Let Your Individuality Emerge ... Gradually. Don’t spring your differences on your new community. Take baby steps.
  • Pitch In. Small-towners develop webs of favors and dependencies. You can work your way into these webs by spinning some fibers of your own. Identify the need and then turn some old-fashioned good deeds.
  • Join Clubs, Civic Organizations or Faith Communities. But if you do so, don’t just put your name on the membership roll, take the organization seriously. Attend faithfully, help out and promote the group.
  • Always Donate Things. When asked, contribute what you can. If you can’t make the full donation, do something. If you’re asked to give $250 and it’s not in your budget, give $25 and some encouraging words. 
  • Buy Locally. Nothing engenders goodwill as quickly as patronizing local merchants – even if you have to pay extra. Unless you’re positively strapped for cash, buying locally helps build community.

Wanda Urbanska is author or co-author of six books, including Moving to a Small Town: A Guidebook for Moving from Urban to Rural America (Simon & Schuster: 1996) from which some of this article was taken. She is also host/co-producer of the Simple Living with Wanda Urbanska public television series ( www.SimpleLivingTV.net ).