West Central Initiative (WCI) is one of six community foundations in Minnesota created by the McKnight Foundation in 1986 to response to the farm crisis. Together, we cover the area of the state called “Greater Minnesota.” We have cities and towns in all of our regions, but we are commonly understood to be representative of rural Minnesota.
We have a new strategic plan at WCI and it is wrapped in the embrace of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We got to the SDGs through a series of close examinations of the terms we use to define ourselves as well as a deep dive into the current conditions in our region.
First, we took a hard look at what we thought the word “rural” said about us. Big generic terms like “rural” and “urban” mean different things to different people and often what they mean to one audience bears little resemblance to what they tend to evoke in others, particularly when they are splashed across the headlines. We came to agreement that we all live local and that local could exist on the rolling prairie in Becker County or in the borough of Manhattan. Most people most of the time go to bed at night and get up in the morning in a local place, with familiar surroundings populated by people they recognize because they see them all the time. Most of us mark the changes of seasons by looking out our windows, the time of the year by our “local weather,” and the general buzz of comings and goings by reading local papers or listening to local news. Local is a much more accurate term to describe our lived experience than rural can ever be.
Secondly, when we thought hard about what we know about our region, it is that it is highly interconnected and interdependent with the rest of Greater Minnesota, the Twin Cities metropolitan area, the rest of the U.S. and, quite literally, the globe. This is primarily because of the information highway we call the internet. Companies headquartered in other countries do business here, in west central Minnesota, and many of our local companies do business abroad. We import all kinds of products and we export a good share of what we produce. Much of the latter, most notably agricultural commodities, goes abroad. Although we often complain about our physical transportation systems, highways, airports, railways, and city streets are all reliable ways for us to move ourselves and our products from one place to another. If you work at it, it is possible to have breakfast in Fergus Falls and dinner in Paris all on the same day. The information highway, the world wide web, has made the transactional side of our economy, including booking travel, immensely easier and faster.
Behind those transactions are people, of course, and people who move around locally, within the state and country, and abroad, are also far better able to stay in touch through the internet. Humans create networks naturally and 21st Century networks are made up of people we know and see in our daily lives and those far away with whom we stay in touch because we have the internet. These networks offer infinite possibilities for growth and discovery. They draw on our primal instincts to build connections with one another and they are the heartbeat of our knowledge economy.
Strategic planning gave us an opportunity to redefine our organization at this time and in this place and to adjust our coordinates to ensure a better path toward our goals. For WCI, this means we see ourselves and our region as local and global. For us, the term “rural” has modest utility, particularly when it is defined as “not urban.” “Local” means we live in the “middle of everywhere” which, when we thought about it, we do.
The daunting challenge in our region is the workforce shortage. Our population is relatively stable (a little less than a quarter of a million people), but within that group, people are getting older. We know that we have a brain drain of people between the ages of 18 and 24 and we also know that we have a brain gain of individuals roughly between the ages of 25 and 40 who move into our region for work and for the quality of life that we offer. To accelerate the latter, WCI oversees a regional branding campaign called “Live Wide Open,” an effort to make the case for moving to west central Minnesota.
All of which is to say that migration is another word we had to unpack in our strategic planning deliberations. Our goal is to have vibrant, inclusive, and sustainable local communities and, to get there, we need to attract and retain newcomers, including new Americans. The seventeen goals in the SDG framework are a set of conditions that promote or inhibit migration. If hunger, poverty, homelessness, decent work and so on were not issues where people live, they would be far more likely to stay where they are, at home, and in their familiar local environment. Instead, we see a world with increasing numbers of refugees and displaced persons, more and more immigrants crossing national borders voluntarily and, within the U.S. specifically, more people moving to urban centers in search of work and a perceived better quality of life.
The SDGs are based on the principle that everyone has something to contribute to the movement, to peace and prosperity around a healthy planet, and that no one should be left behind. In 2016, news media often depicted rural Americans as believing they have been left behind. To reformulate what Eleanor Roosevelt once famously said, no one can make us feel left behind without our help.
Linking our work to the SDGs is transformative for WCI. We see ourselves as local and global, appreciating all that our daily lives have to offer in west central Minnesota while, at the same time, understanding we are global citizens contributing to greater stability by addressing as many of the SDGs as we can in our region. If we take the long view, which community foundations are privileged to do, we think we can make a material difference addressing our greatest challenge, the workforce shortage by, to use a familiar slogan, thinking globally and acting locally.