In the least expected places, you’ll find them ….

I’m yet again in another local chapter of VORAThe Visionary Optimists of Rural Actualizers!

Okay, there isn’t an official club . . . yet . . . but there needs to be. For real. In every rural town I’ve been to I’ve been struck by how many of these people I meet. Here, in Roseburg, I’m relishing my time being caught in the Roseburg VORA vortex. 

Wherever I go, there’s nothing quite like being surrounded by VORA people. They make me believe, and know, that anything is possible even when life looks so dire. 

I truly don’t know how they do it. I personally think it’s in their DNA. Sometimes I feel I’m in some retro-life sci-fi novel, taking notes on these other-world beings who are guided by a life vision that, if understood and disseminated to others, could change the trajectory of our world.

You might think I jest, but I am dead serious.

On this day, I’m in a Building Community Resilience lunch & learn workshop at the Roseburg Library. I am surrounded my VORA.  

This picture is a snapshot moment from the workshop. Using an interactive app, the facilitator asked group to text their answer to the question, “What do you believe is the single most important question for building community resilience?” Here are their answers. As people watched the screen, they kept adding to the responses. BTW, I loved that a one of the words was misspelled. It was nice to see a workshop where every typo wasn’t caught.

As I meet people of this VORA tribe across the nation, I am finding similarities. I typically don’t like acronyms but VORA captures their voracious, vivacious drive and their vibrant way of living.  

Here’s my first pass at what makes a person a VORA! They are all, without exception . . .

~VISIONARIES GUIDED BY COMMUNITY PURPOSE: In a tiny town, in the deep south, I found this quote by Henry David Thoreau.  “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

The way of looking at the world is at the heart of VORA transformers. They might create something as simple as a coffee shop. Unlike so many in cities, a coffee shop can be a change-maker for a town struggling to revitalize. They provide a hub of connection that becomes a central gathering place and can reinvigorate a dying town.

When I was in Mississippi, I had the opportunity to meet Bubba O’Keefe, a developer whose personal motto was “Reclaiming my town one building at a time.” His buildings do just that. In a crumbly town in the middle of the Mississippi Delta he has created a coffee shop where all feel welcome. BTW, his newest creation, the Traveler’s Hotel in the picture above, is now open. I hear it’s fabulous!

This is no easy feat. A VORA person, understands rural needs of connection and community.  Like Bubba, they know the fractures of their town and aspire to re-vision the social, economic and physical architecture.

For almost a month I’ve been in Roseburg. Oregon. It is a larger town  but I’ve come here to see how a downtown reinvents itself from the ground up. I’ve been here for nearly a month and will be here for two more.

Like Bubba’s town and many others, here in Roseburg you could miss some of the growth if you didn’t stop and look around a bit.

Once you do though, you’ll find dozens of organizations who are working together to support healthy living while creating a viable downtown corridor. Blue Zones Project is based on ten years of life longevity research done around the world. Partnering with city planners, business owners, associations and schools they are working to enhance community connection, healthy lifestyle and livability. One of their projects is partnering with the local convenience market here in Roseburg to offer healthy food choices. This would go a long way to helping the downtown corridor be more livable. To find out more about their findings, check out this write up in last year’s National Geographic.

In all these towns, the interface between nonprofits and entrepreneurial businesses is key. Sometimes it’s actually hard to discern between the two.

This vegan food truck is much loved in downtown Roseburg. With few lunch time options, Wrappin and Rollling Vegan Food Truck is one of my personal favorites. In Portland, this might be just another food truck, but here, something simple as vegan street food can make a huge difference in healthy living. The local nighttime, go-to hangout is North Forty Beer. Aran Forrest and RJ Mills started this beer and music venue to create a place for people to come together with friends and family, where it feels like home. They succeeded. 

The second, essential quality they are have in common? They are all . . . 

~OBJECTIVE OPTIMISTS:  Being an OBJECTIVE OPTIMIST sets these folks apart from a good 99% of people in the world. They are aware and have a fully clear view of the issues confronting their community. They simply choose to see opportunity where others see failure. 

When I think of these people I think of Helen Keller’s quote, “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement . . . no pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.” Ah, yes they do find the secret to the stars both literally and figuratively. 

Last summer when I stopped in Lead, South Dakota for two weeks I met Matt Klein, a young real estate agent. One morning Matt took me on a hike on the rim of the city.  He wanted me to see  the mile-wide open pit crater, once home of Homestake gold mine—the business that kept this town alive for 150 years. One of the longest-listed stocks in the history of the NYSE, the mine closed in 2002 and left a town spiraling downward. It still feels like a West Virginia holler trying regain footing.

Matt’s upbeat manner caught me by surprise. I asked if he was part of an optimist club. “Yes,” he said in full seriousness. “The neighborhood of my childhood home was bought by a gold mine up the road and is now a quarry.  Then when Homestake closed in 2000 this town nearly become a ghost town.  The only way we get this far is being optimistic and driven.” He then added, “We’ve only just begun.”  


I stood in silence for a moment.
How many of us have lost two of our homes and still stayed to make the community thrive again?
Here in Lead, I was struck by how many people in this town had.


Matt’s vocal commitment to optimism rings true throughout these rural communities.

Here in Roseburg, a region with “crippling apathy where dark clouds gloom hang heavy,” it takes an optimist of the nth degree to see the light of possibility and help others believe things will get better. Susie Johnston-Forte is one of those people. The executive director of Downtown Roseburg Association, Susie, is the consummate Objective Optimist. Having lived in Roseburg for fifty eight years, she’s seen and felt the destructive forces that can tear a community apart. When I ask her how she deals with the trash talk from outsiders or the nay-sayers from town folk she says, “Some people just gotta hate. We just ignore it and keep on going.”

Yes, you might say, this sounds like all social entrepreneurs and community transformers. There is one element that makes them very different. These folks are unfaltering . . .

~RURAL BELIEVERS. Rural believers live, breathe and believe in the bounty and beauty of rural life and values. 

Not to be confused with politics, race or religion, VORAs fully honor the rural values of family, place and heritage as a way to help community foster a stronger sense of identity and possibility. This is true for most people I’ve interviewed who’ve moved to cities as well. One woman confided, “I love that family came first. It might have been a dysfunctional family but it taught me the importance of having one. Now I can have the career I want. But I love the sense of family that my rural roots taught me.”

And then there’s the folks who left their rural communities and are now returning. Some left when economies tumbled. Some left to get degrees. Some left to have better opportunity for their children. Over the last two years I’ve been told of a growing movement of young people returning home to reclaim their towns. Carrie Manning (pictured below)and Prairie Bighorn  are two women who have returned to their reservation to help their community, especially students, reclaim their identity and believe in the possibility of their future. 

I met Carrie, (at the right) almost two years ago when a group of women, led by a northwest native elder, Linda Rose Looking and her daughter Roseanne (Tootsie) Shields sent me to Fort Peck reservation to find out about issues facing woman and girls. To describe Carrie’s work with teens as remarkable is an understatement. She has mothered many, guided countless more and loves them all as if they were her own. With her own personal journey through addiction and despair, she has traveled to the dark side and back, and is determined to help this next generation better find their way. 

Carrie never seems to stop. This spring she drove ten students, by herself, from the northeast corner of Montana to an AIBL (American Indigenous Business Leaders) conference at the NIKE World Headquarters in Portland—a 24 hour drive. She invited me to come watch her high school students compete for the business plan award.

This conference was spearheaded by Prairie (pictured at far left), who is brilliant at blending vision, education, technology and creativity to create exciting and memorable trainings. Together with a small team of  young cohorts, they crafted a conference for students from tribes throughout the US and Alaska to present their business plans. The grand prize: $1000 and the opportunity to connect with some of the most impressive, nationally recognized community transformers and business owners. 

I was intrigued. I planned to be there for a morning, maybe through the afternoon. The auditorium was packed. There were over 300 students who attended.  A group of five women from New Mexico drove three days to get there.  They would attend the conference for three days, then drive three days to get back home. This, my friends, is dedication and determination.

From the first keynote, through the game-show-esq elevator pitch playoffs, the conference was thick with excitement, wisdom, pride, practical application and a fun, hi-tech approach to keeping participants engaged. People like Carrie and Prairie know that to serve their students best they need present informed and inspired role models  who come from their region, hold values of their region, AND have used those values to influence others communities. 

I feel so blessed that I have the been invited into these indigenous communities to learn about the impact of historical trauma and the work being down to prepare not just young people today but communities seven generations from now. We all need to be thinking that way! 

Here in Roseburg, I am excited to follow people like Marcia Hall,  the facilitator of the workshop I attended, who’s known for her work helping communities build resilience. Her commitment to bring together diverse groups is rare and vital in this region of white pride.  

The last, and perhaps the most vital. They are all . . .

~ARDENT ACTUALIZERS These people seem to keep going when others would cave. They aren’t saddled by the perils of life. Instead they seem to be catalyzed by them, and catalyze others to participate with them.

This characteristic requires a gift few possess—coalition building. These actualizers know, “It will take all of us working together, regardless of our differences, to revitalize our town.” And millennials like Mandy Elder (pictured at the front of the room), who is presenting the launch of the new Main  Street plan here in Roseburg, are at the center of the changes ahead. 

In my heart of hearts, I believe the next US president who will have long-lasting, positive impact on our country will be from one of these rural regions. They have the wisdom and the understanding to move a nation in distress to a more inclusive future. They know what trauma does to a people and how to collaborate with diverse minds from diverse places to maximize collective impact.

If you don’t believe me, turn down the news and keep following my blog.  

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