Working together as a region makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately, good sense alone is not likely to make a regional effort work.
Regionalism has been presented by the wise folks in rural circles as a smart strategy for a long time. I first heard the idea in 2005, when it was presented at a seminar for journalists called “Rural America, Community Issues” in Maryland.
The speaker was Mark Drabenstott, who at the time was vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, director of the Center for the Study of Rural America, and a nationally recognized expert on regional development.
“Drabenstott said one key to being competitive is thinking regionally, from town to town and even across state lines,” according to a story by The Rural Blog, which covered the event. “He said people in a self-defined region should ask themselves: What are our distinct economic assets? What market opportunity can we tap that no one else can? How do we exploit our assets to seize that opportunity?”
Five years later, Drabenstott wrote a report called “Past Silos and Smokestacks: Transforming the Rural Economy in the Midwest” that listed regional collaboration as its first recommendation:
“(The new playbook for the rural Midwest must) help rural communities and counties think regionally to compete globally. Critical mass is essential to sustaining a competitive edge in global markets, and many of the best economic opportunities only emerge on a regional scale.”
So, is regional collaboration still a solution for the challenges of rural places today?
My answer: Yes.*
You’ll note there’s an asterisk. I’ll get to that in a minute.
The needs that regional collaboration is intended to address have only grown more pressing. The “big boys” that make it difficult for smaller rural players to compete have gotten even bigger. At the same time, rural communities are increasingly stretched for resources—from finding the funds needed to maintain infrastructure to finding people to fill leadership positions.
On the positive side, connecting across distance has never been easier. There are a hundred ways to connect virtually with people without being in the same room. Actual “in real life” presence is still important for relationship building, but a lot of work in between those meetings can be done virtually (like most of what we do at Dakotafire, working from various home offices across the state).
But here’s that asterisk: *Regional collaboration is a solution—if we want it to be.
What is going to motivate us to work together beyond the borders of our communities? Logic might point us in that direction—it just makes sense for us to work together as a region. But we humans have a tendency to do all sorts of things that aren’t sensible.
One of the stumbling blocks may be the fact that many efforts at regional collaboration have economic development as the goal. There is nothing wrong—and a lot that’s right—with that goal. But it can put us in a mindset that makes it hard for regional collaborative work to get off the ground.
Economic development is a “head” exercise—the stuff of rationality and neat equations. Discussions about money get us thinking about transactions, asking questions like, “What do I get out of the deal? What’s in it for me?” And if the answers aren’t immediately obvious, self-preservation takes over and we see the collaboration as a waste of time.
The difference is clear when we compare regional efforts to local ones: The motivation to serve our own communities doesn’t come from a “head” place. It comes from a “heart” place.
Sure, we might say that improving the local economy is one of the reasons we work together in our own communities. But that’s not why we show up at local community betterment meetings or volunteer to work on such projects. We love our hometowns—and, as we do for the people whom we love, we want what’s best for our communities.
So that’s the tension in regional discussions: Most of us don’t identify with an arbitrarily created region. (We’ve tried to declare the area we serve “the Dakotafire region,” but it hasn’t caught on.) We don’t have much affection for a region. And we see regions as something that might actually put our own communities—which we do have affection for—at a disadvantage.
Here’s a modest proposal that might get us past this stumbling block. It builds on one of the principles of good regional development that Prairie Idea Exchange participants came up with in December: Collaborations work when people come together around a mutual interest.
What if we built a region based on our common love for our places? The key to getting us all to work together regionally could be really understanding that we have this value in common—you treasure your community in the same way I treasure mine. Then we might be more motivated to put our hearts into the regional work.
After all, I have heard from a pretty reliable source that if you know where your treasure is, you’ll find your heart there also.