Plugging the Small Town “Brain Drain”

America is obsessed with sports. And nowhere is this more evident than with high school sports. Very often 16 and 17 year olds are the masthead of a community’s sense of pride. How goes the local high school football or basketball team … so goes the collective psyche of the community. This is especially the case in “Small Town U.S.A.” They are revered not unlike that of the gladiators ancient Rome. Stories of their exploits hold high priority in the morning newspaper and on the 10:00 local newscast. In some areas of the country, Texas for example, high school football games can draw over 20,000 rapid fans. In fact the successful television series, Friday Night Lights, was based entirely on this phenomenon.

An unfortunate circumstance of this is that other students of this same age group are for the most part looked at with either irrelevance or outright distrust. “They don’t have any experience, so how can they know anything. And since they don’t know anything, how can’t we trust them. They’re all lazy, spending all their time staring at the phones or playing video games.”

I’m not trying to demonize high school sports and their student participants though. On the contrary, I want to use them as a template for a more inclusive view of how a community should view all its young people. And hopefully we can use this evolved view as the foundation for building sustainable communities of future … especially in small towns and rural America.

I grew up in a relatively small city in North Dakota of 35,000. However, because of the neighboring Air Force Base and structure of my high school my graduating class was fairly large, 600+ students. Like other towns and cities, the students athletes were highly regarded and well-known. I participated in sports and was on the varsity on a couple of them, but was no means a star – far from it. My focus in school was more academics and government; I was the Student Body President my senior year. My tenure at this position was far from passive. Programs and events I initiated improved student participation to levels never seen (and probably not since then) at our high school. Yet when I walked down the down the street with my friends from the basketball or football team, adults (even community leaders) stopped to engage them – not me. This didn’t make any difference to me at the time. In fact I hadn’t even thought about until recently. But when I did – it became the genesis of this post.

Unfortunately, I think this dynamic is all too common on the streets of most American communities. As a society we celebrate our student gladiators – but our student leaders … not so much. But what would happen if both were celebrated – or at least acknowledged. And why limit it to just leaders and athletes, but also to any young person who had shown a drive to excel in their field of passion, say art or music or entrepreneurship? What effect would that have on the engagement level of students other than athletes? And what effect would this acknowledged engagement have on them after graduation (assuming that even happens)? Imagine the sense of community kinship that could be nurtured with these engaged young people early on. Recognition plays a critical role the in the positive psychological development of the young brain. Any parent with teenagers can attest to this.

And aside from the positive individual development – what other effects would this evolved way of how we look at our youth have. After all, those that excel early in life, whether it be in government, in leadership or creatively – will probably excel as adults somewhere when opportunities present themselves. And why shouldn’t they excel in the towns and cities they were raised in. After I left my home town to go college – I returned after I graduated. I tried to get something entrepreneurial off the ground, but after a year, I left and moved to Minneapolis never to return. Most college graduates in my position wouldn’t have even given it a year. Fortunately for me, there was a local entrepreneur who was a friend of my father who extended a hand to me. It was this hand, the recognition that someone in my hometown cared enough to want me to come back – that brought me back. Unfortunately the community infrastructure wasn’t set up or integrated enough to accommodate young entrepreneurs or provide me a creative platform that would keep me around.

Smalltown cartoon.png

Plugging the “Brain Drain” and Cheating the Grim Reaper

The phenomenon of the defection of young talent, or “brain drain,” is very real in rural America – even if many civic leaders and politicians don’t want to admit it. Small town communities have pride when they graduate their kids off to big town universities. But really all they’ve done is provide the minor league system to ready their young people to star in the big leagues elsewhere.

Rather than provide their high achieving young people the platform to return to and excel, they practice the “out of sight, out of mind” thing. Or worse yet, many small towns are so seeped in tradition and “the good old days” there’s no room for the next generation and the new ideas of what they think their home town could look like. One of my most read and shared posts ever was “Cheating the Grim Reaper” of Small Town U.S.A. In this piece I discussed a strategy how small towns and rural communities could create a sustainable strategy for the future to counteract the inevitability of decline that would occur if they didn’t adapt. One common thread was prevalent throughout the piece: embrace change and specifically embrace young people. And if this holds true – then why not have the young people who you embrace be ones you already know and who know you and the traditions of you community. We dedicate entire industries to offering expertise on business and family succession planning. Why do we not have or do the same for the places we live?

Shouldn’t our goal be to create a platform designed to engage our younger generations in their home towns while they are still a captive audience in high school – in hopes they will return after college and succeed us in the roles of civic leadership.

The Community 3.0 Student Civic Engagement Model

The purpose of my community empowerment project, Community 3.0, is to connect small businesses to the members of the community in efforts to solve its community’s problems directly by bringing back the Front Porch civic gathering concept. The Front Porch empowers us to reclaim the priorities of our neighborhoods and communities – and do something about them through hands-on volunteer projects. It allows us to organize and take action directly, not wait on the sidelines while traditional institutions and government may or may not act.

Under this societal model each business or Front Porch will sponsor Solutions as part of their involvement in the Community 3.0 network. They are designed to help their community pick up the slack and mend the societal safety net. These Solutions can range from organizing a cleanup effort, to fixing a playground, to even spearheading a high school mentoring or apprentice program. And by being a customer of a merchant on the Community 3.0 network, whether young or old, you can get involved with whatever Solution fits your strengths and your desires.

The Student Anti-Congress is Community 3.o‘s vehicle for the younger generations to get their voices heard civically. Here they devise strategies on how they can build their community into a place where they would like stay or come back to after college. It’s way for them to actively engage and create a sense of civic ownership in their community, presently and for the future. Student engagement can take place on an individual basis through mentoring and internships with the community’s merchant Front Porch network.

The Center for Green Schools provides participating “green schools” the opportunity to reduce the environmental impact of school facilities, both buildings and grounds, while having a positive effect on student and teacher health, and increasing environmental literacy among students and graduates. Working directly with teachers, students, administrators, and their communities, green schools create programs, resources and partnerships that transform schools into healthy environmentally conscious learning environments.

Green School learning environments show students how the connection to their environment both in school and in their community, is not only important … but imperative. Imagine high school students canvasing their city giving businesses complementary energy audits and then recommend and help implement solutions through internships. The intent is to take these experiences in school and turn into to a lifetime of environmental stewardship. And through the Green Apple Day of Service program The Center for Green Schools is taking this instruction to the streets through inclusive community service projects, often those organized by students. Any of the above mentioned Community 3.0 Solutions qualify here.

Another example of organized student involvement is my Farm-to-School-to-Market program. What if high schools and middle schools created programs where students could be the marketers for local farmers producing farmers market ready crops. Not only could the kids market the crops, they could handle the whole post-harvest process as fledgling entrepreneurs. They could even help with the harvest if need be. And why stop there, they could even work out co-op deals with the farmers helping grow the crops in the first place. And who says the Farmers Market has to be their only outlet for sales? The students could negotiate deals with local independent grocers and restaurants for additional revenue streams for their products.

Many aspects of Farm-to-School-to-Market could be integrated directly into regular class activity, either as part of traditional instruction or as independent projects. Each student group would also have to keep an account of their experience with their entrepreneurial venture, probably through an online blog. Their ideas, tips and suggestions would also be included and shared as other Farm-to-School-to-Market groups spread geographically and became commonplace in the rural education curriculum.

Green School efforts and Farm-to-School-to-Market are excellent examples of how organized school-sponsored programs can plant the seeds of positive student/community engagement and the collaboration that can bear fruit long after high school graduation … often directly benefiting the communities the students grew up in.

But that’s only half the story …

But for a community to truly grow and create a sustainable future, it needs its young to not only stay in town – but become educated and put that knowledge they obtain in college to work for their home towns. Therefore it’s integral that the our local colleges assist in the continuation of the civic engagement planted while their students were still in high school. Think of their role as that of an incubator. Whether it be specific classes designed for students to learn the mechanics of being leaders in their respective home towns – or just endorsement and synthesis with the programs began during their students’ years before college. The collaborative goal of all schools, high school and college – should be to nurture the local communities by replenishing them with educated talent, specifically talent who has a participatory vested interest in them.

“Going Home” College/Community Initiative

The “Going Home” Initiative is designed around a progression of organized college participation levels. However wonderful it would be if all institutions of higher learning recognized they are tied inextricably to the communities from which their students come from and acted accordingly … we’ll take whatever effort we can get. Below are five levels of commitment – gradually increasing in participation.

Acceptance: The bar is pretty low if the first progression is a simple acknowledgement that college has a responsibility not just to its students, but also to the communities they come from – but it’s often not recognized. This interconnected view of the individual (student or other) as a part of the community ecosystem is a fundamental tenet of Community 3.0.

Transition program support: A step up from acceptance is acting on it. This 2nd level recognizes the programs that were started in the high schools of the communities that feed their student body have merit and should be continued even with the originating student being away from home. Ways to support this is nurturing the continuance of communication between the mentoring parties at home and the student. Dialogue during counseling should also include discussion of the students plans after college graduation and how they fit into any current work being done with parties “back home.”

Transition programs augmentation: The 3rd level takes the support a step further by integrating home town issues and Solutions into existing classwork. College resources should be opened up to non-credited home town project work. Colleges can even sponsor entrepreneurial or cause-based contests to further develop college relevant opportunities in the home town communities.

Authorized independent credit: Level 4 expounds upon “Transition program augmentation” by authorizing independent credit for community-based research and project development. The goal here is to spur dedicated “credit-compensated” projects that can take hold when the student returns home or even stays in the town the college is located. It’s also crucial to have professorial and staff support during this level since they will also be acting as informal mentors via their involvement.

Community-oriented class creation: Level 5 is the actual creation of a community-oriented curriculum. Classes could focus on disciplines that revolve around developing community-based sustainability efforts, placemaking, planning, entrepreneurship, nonprofit organization or any other related study. A further development of this commitment level is structuring a concentration or even major that would feed into a “Going Home” set of goals.

It is the intention of us at Community 3.0 to make the “Going Home” Initiative a major player in the battle to fight the rural “brain drain.” Institutions willing to join in and commit to active participation in this battle will be acknowledged so by Community 3.0. With this acknowledgement member institutions will have a potentially potent marketing tool in their recruitment efforts with small town talent and the civic leaders from those locales.

Student Engagement and the Big Picture

Imbalance in talent across geographies benefits nobody. And this is exactly what we’re seeing in the United States and many other western nations. A deficit of talent in a community, such as rural ones, starves it of a sustainable future. And an over-abundance of talent in an area drives wages down, while raising housing costs. We’re currently seeing this in many large urban areas that are witnessing high levels of inequality and social strife. Neither situation is sustainable … let alone preferred.

These unbalanced situations are remedied by creating opportunities in the towns where young people are raised … rather than having them “jump ship” to supposed greener pastures elsewhere. The most effective solution is to empower these young people by offering them opportunities to help design their communities while still high school and then having them gain further relevant knowledge in college so they’re prepared to implement their ideas when they return.

But the boon to small town talent retention does stop there. Imagine the cross-generational benefits and co-mentoring opportunities that can materialize when the elderly teach the young and young teach the elderly. Aside from alleviating underlying generational tensions, community talent retention accommodates the ‘carrying on’ of traditions and skills. These relationships will then form a cohesive sustainable community designed to last and prosper in the future while retaining its sense of historical identity.

Many generations ago a community had to look after itself – the young and the old. They had no choice. Their survival was at stake. They didn’t have the sophisticated market system of exchange spanning unseen geographies nor live in the relative luxury we do now. They just had themselves. And with age expectancy increasing and the Millennial generation being smaller than the retiring Boomer generation was at this time in their lives, we have a ticking time bomb. Cross-generational cooperation will not be an option it’ll be a necessity – and mainly one for the older generations.

Young people pursuing higher education attainment are trained to think. And hopefully their college experiences includes interactions and collaborations with those different from they are. From it let’s hope they will develop a diverse mindset, one that shuns polarizing ideologies often prevalent in small towns and rural areas. This resulting more diverse and accepting worldview will hopefully then rub off on their neighbors in their home town, both young and old. And better yet these expatriates will return with friends and significant others in tow ready to assist, socially and economically.

This bridging of the gap of ideologies and political views is especially vital today in America’s current toxic intolerable political climate. Existing residents will need to mix with those who are coming back. The young and old (with different views) working together to strengthen what they both call “home.” This is how we combat the “brain drain” eating away at our small towns.

All this won’t happen on its own though. Even with the release of the new long-waited Happy Potter book, there are no Hogwarts graduates ready to wave a magic wand.

First – as leaders in our communities and schools, we need to realize that there’s more to our young than football and basketball. All our students need to be acknowledged and be given the support to be what they can be. Their input and ideas must not to be shunned – but embraced. And we need to realize the “brain drain” is real, not just something that happens in other places. The rose-colored glasses of our home town fanaticism provides us little help when we need to focus on the stark reality of our town’s future.

Next – our youth organizations, both local and national, need to realize they have an important role in this initiative. It’s not enough to just lend developmental hand – but acknowledge our young people look to you for guidance. You need to tell them with the right planning and community support, their best opportunities for the future might very well be in the towns where they grew up.

And finally, last but definitely not least – our colleges, the storied institutions of high learning, you must realize it is your job to not just send our young people out to sea of “real life” untethered after graduation, but rather help them help the communities where they come from and where they choose to reside. For without these communities you’d have no students … and no institution.


Jennifer Lawrence Poker House

In 2008, a teenage Jennifer Lawrence starred in her first movie, “Poker House.” Three sisters fought for life with their prostitute, drug addicted mother in a run-down Council Bluffs flop house. In the opening scene, Lawrence, fifteen, who had just got done kicking out her mother’s last ‘john’ at 6:00 AM, explained her life in a nutshell … a line we should all take to heart.

“The man in the white hat, the man on the white horse … he ain’t coming.”


Such is the same situation in the small towns of America. No one in any hat or on any horse is going to save the day.

I challenge you all to help me create and implement an integrated solution that will solve this problem of talent loss that is decimating small towns and rural communities. It’s not going away … and it’s going to take all of us to fix it.

I can be reached below in the comments section below, email at or on Twitter @clayforsberg.


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