Midwest Rural Assembly 2010

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A couple of weeks ago I attended the 2nd annual Midwest Rural Assembly in lovely South Sioux City, Nebraska. For those unfamiliar with the area, their main claim to fame seems to be as the location of the only casualty amongst the members of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Following the conference I spent a couple of hours at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center - quite a nice facility.

The purpose of the MRA is to gather people interested in rural issues from throughout the midwest to discuss the issues facing their area and the solutions they’re working on. It really is a fantastic opportunity to build and refresh a network of people who care about their communities and develop innovative solutions to problems that we all share.

The conference kicked off with Debra Marquart, an author and professor at Iowa State University. She discussed her book Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere. The book was her memoir of growing up in rural North Dakota, rebelling against the rural life, leaving, and finally reconciling with the world in which she grew up. It was a story that pretty much any rural native could easily recognize, and I think it was a fantastic way to lay the groundwork for the discussions to follow. I was disappointed that Debra didn’t have any books with her for sale, so I ordered one upon returning home. It really is an amazing work, I tore through it in just two days. She has a gift for language combined with a wonderful story to tell.

Next up was a roundtable discussion giving us a chance to meet other attendees and talk about what brought us to the conference. Lunch followed with a great talk by Kevin Killer, a young, Native American member of the South Dakota House of Representatives. He spoke passionately about including youth in helping to change our rural areas. Lunch, and all meals throughout the conference, was made up of all local foodstuffs. Much better than your standard conference fare!

Following lunch, we had a chance to sit in on 3 half-hour presentations. I caught a talk by Mary Emery of Iowa State University on community coaching, a talk by Milan Wall of the Heartland Center for Leadership Development on sustainable communities, and and wonderful talk by Muriel Krusemark, Economic Development Director of Hoffman, MN. All the talks were interesting, but Muriel took the prize for excitement as she described her work in Hoffman. She truly showed what one committed person can do to improve a community. It was also good to meet Mary Emery, who serves as the Co-Chair of the Community Development Online Master’s Degree Program. After a good talk with Mary, I took her advice and enrolled in the orientation course for the program. Yep, I’m now in graduate school - though taking baby steps.

For evening after-dinner entertainment, Debra Marquart returned with her guitar and iPod (sitting in for her band, The Bone People). She entertained us with blues, jazz poetry and story-telling. I had been a little dubious when I saw “jazz poetry” on the conference program, but it really was an enjoyable evening. Be sure to check out the YouTube video of Firefly Nights at the Bone People link above.

The second day of the conference started with Neil Ritchie of the League of Rural Voters. I met Neil at the previous Rural Assembly and was very impressed by his passion for all things rural. Next up was a panel discussion, Midwestern Voices from the National Rural Youth Assembly. Five young people working in rural areas talked with us about the work they’re doing and their hopes, worries and vision for the future of the rural midwest. Mary Emery then facilitated some round-table discussions on developing plans for the future of the Rural Assembly, what issues it might work on, how it might be most effective in helping to promote and improve rural areas.

During lunch we heard from Victor Vasquez, the Deputy Under Secretary for USDA Rural Development. After that, we had a chance to sit down in small groups with our state rural development directors. Wisconsin had just a handful of attendees, so we had some quality discussion with Stan Gruszynski. Stan talked with us about a number of projects the Wisconsin branch of USDA-RD has developed recently, and encouraged us to bring forward projects with a need for funding that might fit one of the many RD financing opportunities.

I found this conference a great chance to step back from the day-to-day mess and look at the bigger picture. I met a lot of people with passions similar to mine, and came home really recharged and ready to tackle new ventures - most especially, graduate school!

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