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This Time, Rural Needs to Be the Focus of Our Recovery

By Heidi Khokhar, Executive Director, Rural Development Initiatives

For decades, rural economies have experienced relentless economic downturns and instability. The decline of the timber industry and the recent recession hit rural places hard – so hard that few have fully recovered. Now, the pandemic and wildfires have struck significant blows to Pacific Northwest rural and tribal places; packed with long-term damage and future decades of economic instability.

As a society, we rarely stop to consider that rural people face the same complex challenges as those living in larger population centers. We recognize that economic crises and financial instability are steep challenges to overcome, but they are even more complex for isolated rural communities. We need to keep in mind that funding is disproportionately low for rural efforts and there are far fewer people (often unpaid) performing vital community services.  It is crucial that we are aware that models designed to fit rural situations, data to measure rural progress, and clear trusted information sources are very rare.

Finally, we need to understand that the health and well-being of our rural communities impacts everyone, and change our thinking, our approaches, and our actions.

It’s a critical time for rural. Right now, we have an opportunity to choose a path forward that includes the specific needs of rural places and develop solutions in partnership with rural people. State and federal governments have historically responded with resources and support in times of crisis. However, rural recovers more slowly, so resources fade before rural communities are able to capture and leverage enough to propel themselves to equitable, inclusive, and resilient futures. 

As our federal government quickly mobilizes to address the economic impacts of the pandemic in our country through the American Rescue Plan and other proposed legislation, rural, tribal and other underrepresented populations can see what’s coming, and we’re worried. Small cities and counties rarely have the internal capacity to develop plans required from federal programs to access their funds, are least likely to have the resources to leverage federal dollars, and often need capacity and support as they move forward.

Rural Development Initiatives holds the uncompromising belief that answers and priorities, driven by local people are key to achieving rural community prosperity. As the Pacific Northwest’s lead rural development hub organization, we have been working for decades alongside rural and tribal leaders and partners from across the region. RDI understands that success, and equity must be locally grown and defined within the context of place. We work to build the capacity of leaders to uncover assets, find solutions, and assemble local teams to set and achieve their goals. RDI’s staff and board are committed to listening to rural people and communities, supporting their economic recovery, and playing an active role in connecting their efforts to resources and policy makers.

Rural people are working hard to recover. Their resilient spirit leads them to look for opportunities to act locally, help one another, and access resources and support. However, they cannot do it alone, and they shouldn’t have to. Together, let’s support the vision of equitable, resilient, and vital rural communities in the Pacific Northwest; it serves all of us.