Building Community in Rural America

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

| November/December 2009

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.”

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