When I graduated from college in Boston in 2018, I saw what many other college students witness on their campuses: a wave of my brightest peers flocking to coastal cities where they would live among neighbors they didn’t know, signing contracts with firms whose work they didn’t particularly care about.
Having grown up in Bangkok, and lived in several of these same coastal cities, my eyes light up speaking about my favorite ramen place in Boston’s Chinatown, or the summer jazz concerts outside the National Gallery of Art in D.C. They still do, even as I write this looking out the window of my apartment in downtown Waseca — a rural community in southern Minnesota with a population of 10,000. This place is where my family has stewarded farmland for the past six generations, and is where I call home.
Though I spent my childhood summers and winters here on the family farm, my narrative about rural life was colored by the images that dominate our media channels: an homogenous political identity, the closures of traditional manufacturing, and the celebration, or mourning, of our bright, young talent “getting out” for good.
While there is some truth in these generalizations, an unexpected college summer in Waseca complicated how far I was from the whole truth about this place, and rural places like it.
- I met Pablo and his family, owners of the new mouth-watering taqueria,
- Befriended an entrepreneurial couple who repurposed their farm to a wood-oven “Pizza Farm” (featured in the New York Times) ,
- Got to know a pair of home-comers who revived a Main Street building into a hub for creative cocktails,
- I saw a global energy metering manufacturer and a growing robotics start-up headquartered in our Industrial Park.
To believe that decline is inevitable in rural places is a disservice to the ingenuity of our entrepreneurs who build and grow things, despite policies rigged in favor of corporate monopolies.
To believe that social progress is the job of urban areas is a disservice to the high school students who spoke up for the dignity of Black lives in front of our County Courthouse, the police officers in our neighboring town who took a knee alongside them, and the pastors who preach the fundamental call to love God and to love our neighbors with all our heart.
I see hope in vacant Main Street buildings: an opportunity for someone’s dream to take its creative life.
I see hope in food deserts: an invitation for local growers to expand their market.
I even see hope in broadband gaps, as they remind us of how rural cooperatives once brought electricity to every corner of our country when the markets refused.
In the larger perspective, whether we are urban or rural, having this hope and connection to place is essential for our democracy. It is the cornerstone for how we live together.
In the words of poet Wendell Berry, we must: “Find your hope, then, on the ground under your feet. … Let it be lighted also by the light that is within you, which is the light of imagination. By it you see the likeness of people in other places to yourself in your place. It lights invariably the need for care toward other people, other creatures, in other places, as you would ask them for care toward your place and you.”
The pandemic and the widespread emergence of remote work have given Americans more geographic autonomy than ever. Rather than seeing where we live as mattering less, we must believe that it matters more.
It matters that we know things specific to the place we live: that we know our neighbors, that we find inspiration in the way an enormous country sunset touches the entire horizon, that we practice humility in knowing the history of the people who shepherded this land before us.
It matters to be able to hold gratitude for how we can be loved by people for no other reason than our shared humanity, and our shared place.
Our greatest civic duty, and indeed our most human duty, is instead to look closest to us and commit to our place — in the entirety of its beauty and challenges — and to sow it with hope, relationships, and imagination.
In this view, the soil for creativity and purpose in rural places has never been more fertile.
Hailing from a fusion of Waseca, Minnesota, and Bangkok, Thailand, Benya is the co-founder of Lead For America, a national nonprofit that supports young leaders in reinvesting in their hometown communities. She has returned to her family’s rural hometown of Waseca to headquarter Lead for Minnesota, where she works with over 20 rural and tribal communities statewide on community renewal efforts. She’s the youngest member elected to the Amnesty International USA Board of Directors, and an appointee to Everyday Democracy, the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, and Governor Walz and Lt. Governor Flanagan’s Young Women’s Cabinet. She’s passionate about rural possibility, resilient civic institutions and urban-rural relationships, community ownership, and designing our communities with the next generation in mind.
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