How to Engage Rural Youth: Ask Them!

On Thursday, the Daily Yonder posted a piece about how rural Texas communities are engaging young people in revitalizing their towns. It's a crazy, off-the-wall idea, but it just might work in other places too: talking to them. While it seems pretty obvious, simply asking young folks what they want for their communities is actually uncommon, at least in the Midwest:

For the past five years, the Rural Policy Research Institute has sponsored surveys of high school and middle school students in 39 rural communities in Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas. The results showed that “rural communities have persistently, if unintentionally, overlooked involving youth in the shaping of their own futures.”

More than 7 out of 10 young people surveyed said that no adult had ever asked them how to improve things in their towns. Still, 6 out of 10 said they would return if they were presented with the right opportunity. About half, in fact, said they had an interest in owning their own businesses.

What would Appalachian young folks say they wanted, if they were asked?If they're anything like kids in rural Texas, it might surprise you, says the article: "It turns out that kids don’t think like kids, all about skateboard parks and bowling alleys. They think like citizens. Several speakers during the day remarked that, when asked, young people point out nuts and bolts kind of changes that a town needs. They point out junk that needs to be hauled out or buildings that need to be repaired."

The STAY Project, based in Whitesburg, is asking young people what they want. Standing for Stay Together Appalachian Youth, the project is run by and for youth. It works on three basic principles, according to their website:

1. Having youth ask each other what they want and need in order to stay and work in their home communities.
2. Connecting them with the resources and skills they need to make their visions for Central Appalachia come true.
3. Recognizing that there are young leaders in the region who are already creating change.

Young people are leaving Appalachia, there's no doubt about that. Economic development plans focus on building new industrial parks, not on what would attract and keep young people in communities. How many young folks are on economic development teams and tasks forces? On town councils and in community groups? Perhaps all they need is to be asked.