By Alex White, columnist ~ “Small towns, big potential”
We all know the tired (but sadly true) story of the geographic inequality facing our rural areas. After all, almost all of the nearly 20 million jobs added between the Great Recession and Coronavirus were in metropolitan areas. If cities were removed from the equation, many economic indicators would have remained at recession levels throughout rural America.
As a result, every year sees more and more young people leave their rural home towns for the same six megapolitan areas (and countless smaller metros) all across the country. At the same time, rural tax bases retract in a way that further threatens their survival. The outcome of this is a dynamic in which the rural 90% of America’s land mass is forced to face Herculean challenges without qualified young leaders (or their tax receipts).
I think much of that can be attributed to the fact that not everyone recognizes the extraordinary—and often unrealized—opportunities that exist for those of us who want to stay “home” and reverse those trends. In my case, that meant responding to our county’s public notice that several public boards faced chronic vacancies.
I ended up seeking a seat on the Economic Development Authority, a board which influences the economic future of our county—particularly insofar as creating good-paying job prospects for our residents is concerned…
Doing so has been one of the best decisions of my short life. It started with my unanimous appointment by the county board of supervisors, and it has taken on increased significance with the realization that I likely became Virginia’s youngest government official at the time of my appointment. (That is, serving in a non-advisory role that is not confined to students, youth, or a certain group; also one of only a few 18/19 year-olds in the country in such a position.) This is something that I have sought verification of with state officials, Virginia professors, and media organizations.
That status encouraged me to try and make even more of a difference, and I have been thankful to have had that opportunity on multiple occasions since assuming my role on the board. I have already been able to get that board to consider a program to fund work certifications for low-income people, enabling them to earn better employment.
Additionally, I have suggested countywide programs regarding everything from using renewable energy as a way to pay for universal broadband to creating a free clearinghouse/hub of potential grants for myriad local nonprofits.
Throughout this experience, I have tried to maintain connection with our nearly 24,000 people via my PVN column; I have also tried my best to leverage connections with local leaders and civic organizations (several of which I am involved in).
In just the first three months, they have already given me the chance to work on those great initiatives, and it is humbling to see those programs move towards becoming full-fledged efforts on behalf of the public. I am thankful to the great people at the EDA—and in our county—for giving me the opportunity to have that kind of potential impact!
That is why I encourage everyone to seek out the public service opportunities that exist in their home communities. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to go far in order to have an impact. In fact, the closer you stay, the more fulfilling your work may be!
(Note: A national version of this piece is slated to be featured soon in the Daily Yonder.)
Jack “Alex” White is a student at Harvard University, where he is studying Government. While there, he has become the Policy Director for Harvard Undergraduates for Bipartisan Solutions (HUBS) and Senior Content Editor for the Harvard Economics Review. Alex is a lifelong native of Page County and graduate of Luray High School.
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