Feb. 21 marked the first of three weekly meetings for the Rural Action Project (RAP), an initiative spearheaded by Colorado State University (CSU) to foster community connection both within and between rural communities across the state. The project largely aims to provide an opportunity for community members to interact and share their experiences, thereby strengthening bonds with the goal of working together for community improvement.
Held in the Third Street Center auditorium, the local meetings are hosted by Roaring Fork Leadership (RFL) and call upon all members of the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys to sit at the same table — quite literally. After signing in, name tags and food are provided and participants are encouraged to select any open seat at various tables to eat with and get to know folks who might be complete strangers.
The first meeting required the completion of a small pre-assessment of one’s own opinions about their community’s health, along with a small discussion packet. All reading materials are available in both Spanish and English, in addition to live translation services.
The goal for the first meeting was to build connections and identify community assets — not bemoaning the tragic affairs of one’s rural environment, but fostering an awareness of its unique strengths and desirable qualities. All the while, organizers from RFL insisted that, throughout the course of this meeting and the whole of the project, all participants should be learning first and foremost not just from the presenters, but from each other’s common experience.
At this meeting, community members from all walks were present — residents who have only recently moved to the Valley, lifers, young families, immigrants from overseas, members of nonprofits and business leaders. All commingled in one unique and welcoming environment.
However, in-person participants were not just with each other. The whole of the auditorium also participated in a joint zoom call with eight other regions across the state. People from Sedgewick, Logan, Morgan, Kit Carson, Cheyenne, Prowers and Huerfano counties, the San Luis Valley and the Roaring Fork Valley, all shared a table during these presentations and discussions.
During the first meeting, a portion of the presentation was dedicated to introductions by both the counties and RAP’s facilitators: members of CSU’s Center for Public Deliberation. According to Patti Schmitt, the CSU Extension State Coordinator, RAP was originally designed to reintegrate rural areas that have lost a sense of community. “Over the last couple years we’ve become less connected, so how can we work together to create a community where [people] feel like they belong?”
A significant portion of this first presentation was designed to inform attendees across the state how rural communities have evolved over the past century, and to debunk negative stereotypes. Benjamin Winchester, of the University of Minnesota Extension, presented a slideshow titled “Rewriting the Rural Narrative” to highlight how most of the ideas people have about rural communities tend to be based on long-outdated, or simply inaccurate, narratives.
Winchester highlighted that rural communities are actually becoming more and more desirable places to live, generally for people in their 30s or 40s who want a simpler pace of life, safety and (theoretically) lower housing costs. Furthermore, only one in four people who move to rural areas are returnees, and only two-fifths move in for a job.
After the presentation, attendees discussed both what rang true and where their experience differed. Naturally, the Roaring Fork Valley has had a very different experience with desirability and thus, housing. This became a topic of discussion at multiple tables following the slideshow. However, this is the point of RAP: identifying the unique situation of each rural community and working within these conditions together.
Winchester emphasized that the most important thing a rural community can do is foster a sense of belonging among its newcomers. If one feels like they are happy staying somewhere for the next decade, they’ll be far more inclined to participate in local events and try to better their community. After a lengthy discussion of values and community strengths, it’s safe to say that in only a couple of hours, RAP was one step closer to that goal.
At the end of the three weeks, the organizations hosting the project in their county will have the chance to apply for a $5,000 grant for an initiative agreed upon by their participants, all in the service of vitalizing a spirit of action to improve one’s community. Although the first two meetings have already taken place, sign-ups are still available online at RFL’s website (rfleadership.org) for the final meeting, oriented toward developing community projects, on March 7 from 5:30 to 8:00pm.