“We Need to Tell Our Stories” Conference Speakers Urge Greater Communication and Cooperation to Revitalize Rural (and Urban) Kansas
By Veronica Coons
Kansans, both urban and rural, have one thing in common, and that is a tendency to deflect the spotlight. We call it “Kansas nice” and it is one obstacle addressed by all three speakers at the Kansas Rural Center’s conference last November. Kansas Lt. Governor Lynn Rogers, Douglas County Extension’s Marlin Bates, and KRC’s Natalie Fullerton provided perspectives on what the state and their organizations understand about revitalizing rural Kansas.
According to the speakers, Kansans need to set aside their natural reticence and begin sharing their stories, their values and their hopes for the future in ways that are actionable and help to build relationships. “We don’t talk about the great things that are going on in rural Kansas,” stated Lt. Gov. Rogers, “and so oftentimes our story isn’t being told; we need to make sure that we do that.”
In June 2019, Kansas Governor Laura Kelly announced that the new Office of Rural Prosperity, headed by the Lt. Gov., would visit 12 Kansas communities that summer on a listening tour to solicit new ideas to help rural Kansas. On that tour, Rogers asked attendees to define what prosperity means to them. “What we heard from them was they wanted good paying jobs that would allow them to raise a family and give them a future in communities that are forward thinking, and they wanted to provide for many of the quality of life issues that urban Kansas has,” he said. “If we’d asked the same question in urban Kansas, the answers would have been no different. I think we have a lot in common and we need to work together.”
Each community was also asked what is it doing right? The list was huge. After hearing numerous testimonials, it became clear that many communities fail to tell the stories about all the great things going on in rural Kansas. He also asked what was standing in their way? People responded with the need to rehabilitate existing housing and to build new rural housing, access to broadband, good quality health care, and quality child care. Transitioning leadership from older leaders to younger and access to food were also on the list.
Rogers stressed that urban communities need to be included in these conversations to make sure they know what is going on in rural Kansas and so they understand they can’t take these neighbors for granted. He pointed to recent research which has shown when rural Kansas income rises, the income of urban counties rises as well.
“When rural Kansas prospers, urban Kansas prospers,” he said. “We need to make sure that our urban neighbors know that, and that the investment that we make in rural Kansas is really,
He will also reach out to state agency heads and remind them that they need to do everything they can to focus on rural issues or needs whenever they work on a new policy or new program, he said. They need to consider how they will impact small towns and rural communities.
A new website, ruralkanprosper.ks.gov, is live, where visitors can find newsletters, research and information to help them to tell the story of the things that are happening in rural Kansas. A report on the ORP’s 2019 town hall tour is also available. The report highlights recommendations including: 1) Creation of three interagency work groups on housing, childcare and workforce recruitment, retention and education and 2) Establishment of the Community Development Division within the Dept. of Commerce to “align existing resources, enhance technical assistance to communities and expand programs to focus better on rural community needs.” 3) It also lists several policy priorities related to ensuring rural healthcare, addressing property tax issues, and infrastructure needs. The report can be viewed at ruralkanprosper.ks.gov.
Harvesting Opportunities in Kansas. “We are ‘Kansas nice’ a lot, and because of this we often fail to bring that to a level that’s recognized by others in a way that is actionable by them,” Kansas State University Research and Extension Douglas County’s Marlon Bates said.
“There has been recognition at the national level, and people are paying a lot of attention to economic development through food system development, which prompted the Douglas County Food Policy Council and Douglas County Research and Extension to take stock of how Kansans want to approach food system development, and formulate specific recommendations that are feasible to enact to “move that needle down the line,” Bates said.
The Federal Reserve publication, “Harvesting Opportunity: The Power of Regional Finance System Investment to Transform Communities” was published in October 2017 by the Federal Reserve Bank and timing was right in Douglas County to host what became the Harvesting Opportunities Symposium held in Lawrence in May, 2018, attracting 150 stakeholders from around the state. An outpouring of support allowed the symposium organizers to develop resources aimed directly at food policy councils, over 25 so far, across the state.
A collection of tools and information from the symposium and following it can be found at douglas.k-state.edu/community/harvesting-opportunities.
“We really feel like telling the story is an important piece of how we accomplish change, “Bates said. “We have to be careful in how we craft that narrative in a way that is palatable to anybody who might be listening.
Food is a universal enough item that we can probably make that relatable to anybody.”
This universal need is one of the most valuable things we have going for us, he added.
To advance the narrative, they partnered with the KRC to collect stories from people who attended the symposium. Those stories can be found at the KRC website to elevate conversations about what is happening with rural food systems.
A major outcome has been K-State Research and Extension recently announcing three issue areas to be launched in 2020. They are rural stress, farm and business succession, and local food.
“I feel a great sense of relief and accomplishment that Kansas is going to be putting forward a multidisciplinary effort to address local food issues, in both the rural and urban communities across the state,” he said.
Insights gleaned from KRC Summer Town Halls
“We really need to be talking to our neighbors and being transparent about our values, and finding common values and common ground to work towards our goals,” KRC’s Natalie Fullerton said. She shared what concerns Kansans who attended the 2019 KRC town halls this past summer.
The goal of the town halls was to identify common values and language and begin community conversations and dialogue to increase civic engagement within the context of climate change and the future of food and farming in Kansas. Town halls were held in Wichita, Garden City, St. Francis, Kansas City and Emporia. This was a switch from the usual roster of small rural towns, but it was by design. They wanted to broaden the perspective of those in rural communities by bringing in the viewpoints of urban Kansans.
Panelists at each town hall were asked the following: “What is the change you want to see to ensure a more resilient future?” “What are three things that need to be addressed that would advance this change?” and “What policies or actions at the local, state or national level would help advance this vision?” While climate change was not directly addressed by attendees, overall, they agreed there is a need to increase diversity, decentralize and reconnect within their communities to solve problems. Food and its production is an important issue for the future, and a sustainable local food economy needs to be established. Kansas is known for feeding the world, but there’s much to be done in order to feed its own communities. Many communities suffer from food insecurity and hunger.
“Diversity is needed, not only in the food we grow and provide to our communities, but also the people we engage and involve in our food choices and other aspects of community,” Fullerton said.
“This, and a willingness to adapt to the changes in our climate, something we are already involved in out of necessity, will help us to be more efficient and effective change makers.”
Needs or actions identified at the KRC town halls included:
• Policies to advance clean energy and citizen education on energy needs and renewable energy options;
• Policies and programs to provide education/information to farmers for adopting sustainable/regenerative farming practices that increase diversity and contribute to local/regional food economy;
• Provide beginning or new farmer education and resources to access land and markets;
• Adopt size appropriate rules and regulations for cottage food industry and remove barriers to value-added production;
• Encourage community dialogue with our neighbors, both those who agree and those who disagree with us, in a search for common ground.
KRC recently published a summary report of the town halls and recommendations. See page _ for more details.
This idea of the need for greater communication ran through all three speakers as they acknowledged that in an era of limited resources and complex issues, crossing ideological gaps and barriers is hard.
Lt. Governor Lynn Rogers agreed, “Oftentimes we need to talk more about what we agree on than what we disagree. That’s a starting point. We also need to make sure we have everybody at the table.”