November 21, 2017
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What rural Maine can learn from Iowa’s efforts to draw new people

By Linda Silka, Special to the BDN
Updated:
Micky Bedell | BDN | BDN
Micky Bedell | BDN | BDN
Safi Paulo (center) is surrounded by her children shortly after returning home to Thomaston from work, checking Facebook on her smartphone while chatting with her sister-in-law Yalla Kaluta (not shown) and relaxing in the kitchen.

As industries and young people leave rural Maine, there’s a need to look outside the state’s borders for ideas about how to revitalize these areas. A Dec. 13, 2016, article that’s part of a BDN project on the future of Maine’s rural places looked at how small Canadian towns are bringing in refugees. Iowa is another place to look.

Many Mainers haven’t had the chance to spend time in Iowa. I grew up there and still have family living in rural parts of the state. While Iowa doesn’t have a coastline, it’s like Maine in many other ways. Rural Iowa has gone through tough economic times, it’s losing its young people, and the state has the ninth oldest median population in the nation.

Years of hard times have led Iowans to discover new industries and new approaches. University researchers and farmers have partnered to diversify the state’s farm economy to include biobased industries and farming techniques that maintain rather than degrade the soil.

The state government and private companies also have invested in wind energy, and today windmills now provide not only power, but they also help stabilize the incomes of Iowa farmers through rent companies pay for windmills installed on their land.

Iowa also has been forced to look closely at the messages it’s communicating to its young people. The book “ Hollowing out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What it Means for America” documents the ways in which teachers and adults in Iowa’s rural communities had been inadvertently sending the message to young people that they must leave Iowa if they want to be successful.

That message got through. One of my nieces attended her college graduation ceremony in Iowa with the U-Haul already packed, so she could immediately head for the West Coast where jobs were in abundance. Today, there are efforts to change these messages, such as the state-funded Consider Iowa program through the University of Iowa that gives young people tools and support to help them find and build careers within the state.

There also has been an effort to draw on Iowa’s history of immigration. Few people lived in Iowa when it first became a state in 1846, and many who came after were foreign immigrants. My farmer relatives in southwestern Iowa were surrounded by Bohemian farmers from the modern-day Czech Republic who helped bring new crops and farming practices. To this day, I associate the Eastern European vegetable kohlrabi with the wonders of Iowa.

Iowans are again realizing that there’s a need for more people in rural and urban areas and that those people may not always come from within the United States. Organizations like Iowa International Center, Ecumenical Ministries of Iowa and Iowa Center for Immigrant Leadership and Integration are working to make Iowa a more hospitable place by providing legal aid to newcomers, micro-loans for foreign-born entrepreneurs, and a central welcome center, among other initiatives.

These efforts are paying off. Now one in 13 Iowans are Latino or Asian, according to a report by the American Immigration Council. And while only 60 percent of native-born Iowans are of prime working age, 83 percent percent of immigrants fall into that age group. As Iowa’s native population ages, immigrants are helping to increase the overall number of Iowa workers.

In short, many groups working together — rural leaders, immigrant leaders, leaders in higher education, K-12, and industry — are helping to transform Iowa’s economy and create a brighter future. These working partnerships are beginning to happen in Maine and we need to make them central to our efforts.

Linda Silka, a social and community psychologist, is a senior fellow at the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions at the University of Maine in Orono.


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