103 (no kidding!!!) Ideas to Make Your Town More Welcoming and Inclusive
Earlier this year, we hosted our annual bus tour which was designed to give business leaders in the Fargo, ND area a glance into what it's like out in our rural community AND offer them a chance to help make us better. [For those not from NoDak, Fargo is the biggest city in ND and is located 110 miles from our small town.]
As we made our way down the highway, we asked every person to share their personal opinion as to why they think people might not be keen to move to a small town or if they were, then why that might be.
We had ideas about what people would say.
We anticipated answers like lack of housing, minimal job opportunities, or the lack of convenience being located over 70 miles from the closest Target. It is hard to believe that I (Rebecca here) have lived back in Oakes for 14 years without a Target and have lived to tell the story. Woof.
What we didn't anticipate is that nearly 85% of the responses were all related to the belief that it would be hard to be yourself in a small town. People felt a general fear of not being able to live authentically due to the judgment of others and general closed-mindedness to people that are "different."
Most of the bus riders weren't simply projecting; many of them shared personal experiences of growing up in a small town and feeling ostracized by the people that lived there.
It came from a place of deep pain and fear; and while it hurt us to hear these things, we also know that nothing gets better if we aren't even willing to say it out loud.
This is a key learning we've picked up in the past year; pointing out the ways we could improve is not the same as saying our towns are terrible but refusing to admit our shortcomings just may be the same as welcoming a slow death.
We might be unpopular for saying so, but we truly believe this is true.
Once our bus arrived at our facility in Oakes, we decided to engage them in a conversation about creative ways we could tackle this challenge. Never underestimate the power of a group of people who are game to help and aren't too close to your problem to help you solve it.
We had the group sitting at tables of 4 or 5 people and we asked them to generate as many ideas as they could to address this question:
What are creative ways we could make our communities more inclusive and welcoming?
Several themes came through and because we believe in sharing the best of what we learn, we wanted to share this wildly expansive list with you, too!
These were the specific ideas generated by a group of smart, professional people who spent an entire day with us discussing how to make our rural futures brighter. Some of the ideas are pretty general and may be hard to implement without more context, but we didn't do a lot of editing.
Where appropriate, we've added our thoughts if we either:
a. Have experience with the idea or
b. Know more about the context in which the idea was presented.
Check out the kickass list below!
Ideas for Marketing
Think about it: essentially, you can say anything you want about who you want to be. (As we often say around our small town...who's gonna stop us?) But overall, marketing is something that very few small communities spend enough time doing or considering. It often seems like a "big city" or "big business" concept or maybe, like us, you've heard from your local officials that marketing is too intangible to invest in. 🙄
Marketing matters because marketing is simply storytelling. And if we aren't willing to tell our story, you better believe someone else will and we likely won't be happy with the narrative being spun.
Use local news media to highlight the most unique people/things/ideas/ and businesses (this could be as simple as deciding to focus on telling 1 story of a local small town/champion/hero each week on social media; it doesn't have to be media in the traditional sense)
Build a community app (apps aren't cheap, but it's not impossible and maybe a grant could be sourced to fund it)
Create a website that lifts up small towns
Celebrate local accomplishments
Storytelling #locallove (we'd be remiss if we didn't remind you of 2 GREAT episodes from our very own podcast, The Growing Small Towns Show with master storyteller, Phil Eich: Episode 105 and Episode 106)
Ideas to Connect People
We all struggle to come up with new and interesting ways to bring people together. COVID stole our ability to randomly and casually run into people and now, it's going to take some intention to get back into the habit of not only going out again but thinking creatively about what kinds of things to offer to bring others together. As we've often said, we're a bit out of practice being humans. It's time to recommit to the art.
Bus tours (Ours has been SUCH a success and we do plan to eventually offer a full kit to help you do one, too but in the meantime, here's the blog post we shared about the first year's event!)
Artists in residency
Similar to foreign exchange students except with businesses, people will live in the community for 6months+
Rural to rural trips (this would be similar to our concept but rather than pulling in people from the larger city center, you'd be touring or pulling in people from the small communities around you)
Create local rural champions
Build something together