What started as a two-month civic engagement project, has become a three-year investigation into challenges, traumas, hopes and revivals of rural communities who have teetered on the brink of extinction.
From the Mississippi Delta through the cowboy-south and into the reservations of Montana, I have woven my way through the outer reaches of some of our nation’s most socially and economically distraught communities. I’ve gone thirty miles out to sea with commercial fisherman unnerved by the rapidly heating waters of Maine, chasing lobsters heading towards the cooler waters of Canada. I’ve sat with senators, scientists, preachers and teachers who seek to bring a sense of hope in times of hopelessness.
Since 2017 I’ve traveled solo, driving over 70,000 miles, living and working in rural towns. I’ve met with over 1,500 leaders, business owners, and social services innovators in towns ranging in population from 400 – 19,000 people.
My goals are threefold. As I meet “lightkeepers” (of all ages) — the change makers, innovators and leaders — who strive to better the health and wellbeing of their communities, I seek to connect them to others and others to them; I share their stories. Now, I am working with community leaders to give youth a forum to share their experiences and opinions, and believe they have a future in their towns.
How do I choose where to go? There are three ways I meet these leaders; someone I respect sends me, I’m invited, or I stumble upon the town en route to another. During my current trip, I’ve been returning to a number of towns to see how these leaders are progressing and, in addition, work with youth who are sharing their stories.
HOW GOING RURAL BEGAN:
In 2017, dismayed by the divide crippling our county, I let high schools in Portland, Oregon choose where I would go, anywhere in the county for two months, based on an issue they felt was relevant to our time. In addition to choosing my destination, students selected people for me to talk to and questions for me to ask. I’d meet the people, record the interviews, and send them back to the groups for discussion.
No one, including me, had any idea of the overwhelmingly positive response this project would receive. Everyone was so impressed that teens cared about what was going on in America and struck by the thoughtfulness of the students’ questions.
The teens were stunned that people cared about what they thought. They truly couldn’t believe that their concerns and their questions mattered to others.
This revelation pushed me to create Youth Voices Today to provide a platform for youth to share stories relevant to their community, to develop their leadership skills, and to recognize that their voices are valid.
WHERE I’VE BEEN:
One of my very first destinations was a rural town in the Mississippi Delta. There, a man said to me, “If you’ve come to judge, you won’t last a minute. If you’ve come to listen, we’ll tell you everything you want to know”. It was the best advice! I’ve listened. I continue to listen, even when it’s painfully hard to do so. I’ve found that my first-blush judgments are often wrong.
More than ever, now is the time to build bridges.
Carolyn Campbell MA, CPPC