Tsunami on the Prairie

As the adage goes, if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it’ll jump out. But if you put that same frog in a pot of room temperature water and gradually heat the water, the frog will stay in the pot until it’s cooked. As the current disaster in Houston plays out, the response we’ll see will be like the “frog in the boiling pot.” There’s no disputing those affected by the hurricane have major problems, but they’re acting even as you’re reading this to put things back together.

I live in Montana, a rural state. We are facing demographic issues that are the textbook definition of “the frog in the room-temperature water” (actually more warm now) and the burner is on. Minor statistical changes from year to year receive little more than a note in the back third of an article in the newspaper. But what these statistics tell us is irrefutable. Rural populations are skewing older and for the most part people are living longer. And with living longer comes more health issues, especially chronic ailments such as diabetes and heart conditions. Combine that with fact the overall population of rural America (all ages) is not increasing. In other words, there is and will be more people who will need care – and fewer people to do the caring.

If those demographic realities weren’t enough, we have the actions (or should I say lack of actions) by governmental entities in rural states. Most rural states are run by politicians hell-bent on low taxes and not spending money. Their older constituents increasingly have more needs and their representatives are more concerned with maintaining an ideology that placates the most vocal (and often extreme) members of their party. Too often these unmet needs result in despair, depression and isolation. Being old and geographically spread out is a bad combination and a prescription for mental maladies. In fact isolation is now the number one health issue in America amongst the elderly. And it’ll get worse if we don’t confront it head on. What rural America is seeing is an increase in demand for the exact services that are being cut and de-prioritized.

Even if state and local governments aren’t going to provide adequate assistance for this increasing needy segment of the population – at least it wouldn’t it be prudent to help create the environments required to attract the young people needed to assist the elderly – regardless of their ability to pay? Not only do they provide the bulk of caregivers (along with those of diverse ethnic backgrounds), the civic amenities young people value are the exact ones that benefit an aging population, whether they support them or not. For example: farmers markets and ample produce championed by Millennials are crucial to well-being later in age: and parks and common areas provide the activities and stimuli needed to counter both physical and cognitive decline.

Unfortunately most governments in rural towns and cities don’t make attracting Millennials (and immigrants) a priority. In fact, often their actions have the opposite affect. In Billings, Montana, where I live – the city government refuses to pass a non-discrimination ordinance (NDO) to protect the rights of gay people. Gay rights are probably the number one issue for Millennials, regardless of their own sexual preference. It shows a community values inclusion. “We’re all different in some way and if the community we lives in hates one person for their difference, who’s to say tomorrow they won’t hate me for mine.”  Any city who chooses to go down this path of discrimination (regardless of the bogus rationalization) will do so at their own peril … all while their “old people” will have no one to take care of them. Not only will new young talent not want to move in … the top talent that was raised there will be lining up for tickets on the first bus out of town. What will be left is a community of hate and exclusion, with the few outliers who haven’t or can’t leave, being pushed into the shadows to scavenge any civic crumbs left by the so-called city leaders. Welcome to the slow-burn of a dystopia in the making.

What I described above is a Perfect Storm facing rural communities throughout America; thus the title of this piece, “Tsunami on the Prairie.” Not all is dire though. We can still get out of the pot before it’s too late. But our biggest obstacle is ourselves, led by those we’ve put in positions of power and influence: those we too often rely on to map our futures. Much like the road to recovery for any addict, step one is acknowledging that’s there’s a problem. Rural America, and I speak specifically to where I live, can’t afford to ignore the ominous clouds rolling in. These clouds and what they bring won’t just pass over. They’ll keep coming until there’s little left.

Abandon small town

Once we accept our demographic destiny and that fact our political malfeasance can’t continue – we can begin the battle. It’s a battle that will require all hands in the community to work together, regardless of ideology or political affiliation. It’ll require we focus on inclusion and the embrace of outliers, those different than us. We don’t know where the next Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Jennifer Lawrence or Chance the Rapper will come from. But chances are they’ll be the ones who were disenfranchised and looked at with indifference. These are the people who will have the ideas we need and drive to put them in play. As Albert Einstein famously said: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” And much of the time this same thinking comes from the same people we too often rely on. To face this Perfect Storm, your community will need new ideas and new people to rise in the heat of battle.

The Norwegians have a word, dugnad – that can best be described as a type of civic and communal mindset where people get together and volunteer to fix, clean, paint or tidy things up for the betterment of their community. Dugnads are organized in neighborhoods, at summer homes, marinas, even at schools and especially places of work. It can be summed up as a time of coming together and contributing. In America one can see these dugnads as being small businesses or what I call Front Porches. This network of local merchants, their employees and their patrons are the people who want to change the status quo; people who want to pull the best from those around them and make it the future … not just look for differences. These Front Porches, while now probably just local hangouts, will be become hubs of civic engagement and volunteerism.

The Front Porch’s primary role is to identify community Solutions projects, whether they be in response to needs or opportunities. These Solutions are designed to help your community pick up the slack and mend its societal safety net as well as lead it into the future. They can range from organizing a cleanup effort, to fixing a playground, to even spearheading a high school mentoring or apprentice program. And most of all – these Solutions can be directed towards helping the elderly.

Imagine creating a program – call it: “I’m Not Alone Anymore.” This program, based out of a local business or Front Porch, would assist an elderly person with not only their physical needs but also provide emotional support by giving them an avenue back into the community. Even if just means a weekly visit for a cup of coffee … these people will no long be feel isolated … or alone.

Helpers (customers and employees) will organize through community network of Front Porches (local businesses). The first step will be to identify the elderly (Clients) needing that little extra help (physically or just emotionally). They can be found directly or through referrals. Each Client will be entered into a central database that Helpers will have access to. The database will include information such as contact information, medicines, favorite foods and activities, and anything else that can be used by the Helper to improve the lives of the Client. Also included will be contact activity data; date of last visit, schedule date of next visit and relevant information concerning these dates. The database will also provide an informed point of reference for anyone that might have to step in for the primary Helper should they not be able to visit. 

What if we designed our communities around the idea of maximizing engagement. The more engaged our residents are … the more empowered they would be. They would feel more in control of their health and their futures. Imagine if a chance to engage, whether it was physical, mental or social was just around the corner. And what if opportunities to help others realize the same were part of the fabric our daily lives. What if our physical security and well-being was not dependent on government assistance or the whims of a fickle market driven economy. What if our neighborhood was our safety net, a safety net that knew best in our time of need. And what if the streets of our community became melting pots of serendipity – places where curiosity was bred and benevolence was the norm. And what if engagement, well-being and self-efficacy was how a community measured itself, not obtuse economic activity often distorted through the one-dimensional filter of irrelevant statistics.

From this hands-on street-level altruism will come your community’s vision – a Vision Map of sorts. You and your neighbors will see directly what’s needed and what works, rather than blindly following a plan cobbled together by elected officials who may or may not be qualified vote on such a plan – let alone construct one. From devising and implementing Solutions, your community will find out who the true leaders are – not just the ego-driven politicians. You will see who is tirelessly mission-driven and able inspire those around them to be the same. You’ll see expertise and imagination come from the least likely places. You’ll build your community’s talent pool, rather than continually leaning on the same people time after time, board member after board member. Consider this map a guide of sorts for an evolved society … the society I call Community 3.0

None of this is revelationary. This is not a magic pill that will make everything and everyone in your community better. What this is a wake up call. We’ve laid out your clothes and turned on the coffee pot. And maybe we’ve even started your car and got it warm for you. But it’s up to you to get to work and make it happen. Too often we stare at our cable news channels obsessing over the government and who we should or should have votes for. We expect the government to heal whatever ails us. You’d think we’re locked in medieval times living a serf-like existence dependent on the scraps our lords in the towers above toss out to us. Instead I offer an alternative – one of collective self-determination, altruism and a self-transcendent focus on our neighbors.

Ironically some of the most independent people in the country, people who are used to back-breaking work in the cruelest of weather have no qualms complaining the government isn’t giving them enough. I see it and hear it everyday. It’s easy to affix blame when we see others prosper in comparison to us (whatever that reason may be). And much of the blame is directed towards those on the coasts. Whether or not rural areas are short-changed is not the issue; even though statitistics show it’s probably the latter. But still we have to blame someone. But for those of us who live in small or rural communities – the luxury of blame isn’t an option. Neither is circling the wagons and focusing on how far back our rural lineage goes. You’d think the generationally deeper our rural roots go – supposedly the more worthy we are of living here. It’s this thinking (if you call it that) that hastens the demise of the very communities we so ardently aim the protect. 

Our real enemy, the tsunami of demographics and governmental malfeasance rural America faces, is banking on the fact that we will continue think outsiders and the ideas they bring are the demons coming the change our idyllic lifestyle firmly rooted in the past. We must prove this storm wrong … or we will perish in our myopic naiveté.

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