Rural Generation: A conversation with Cheryal Lee Hills and Ryan Taylor
Cheryal Lee Hills is the Executive Director of the Region Five Development Commission in Staples, Minnesota. Cheryal provides program development, program implementation, organizational planning, financial planning/oversight and manages all contractual agreements for R5DC. Prior to her role with the Commission, Cheryal worked in healthcare, real estate, and as an Educational Coordinator for both the Minnesota Department of Commerce and Department of Labor. R5DC recently launched a private-public creative placemaking partnership in Little Falls, Minnesota and opened Sprout Growers and Makers Marketplace.
Ryan Taylor recently completed his term as the North Dakota State Director for USDA Rural Development. As State Director, Ryan managed three federal agencies in North Dakota. Ryan studied Agricultural Economics and Mass Communications at North Dakota State University, and was formerly the minority leader for the North Dakota Senate. You may also know him as the writer of “Cowboy Logic,” a column that was published in major agricultural newspapers nationally.
What are the major challenges facing your rural communities that are related to rural challenges nationally?
Ryan: Cultivating leadership for projects that make rural places special. I think this is probably a common challenge for lots of places—and maybe not just rural. USDA Rural Development may be able to fund a project, but if you don’t have a local champion there to own it, promote it or continue it, the money doesn’t really do any good. Maybe it is particularly acute in rural places because there are fewer of us trying to do more things. You end up on every board and every committee. How do you maintain that energy? You’ve got to have a project that is really exciting and generates a lot of enthusiasm to keep people going.
Cheryal: Our issues are broad in nature in rural Minnesota, but they are very general to the rest of the nation: access to broadband to the last mile, affordable housing, the race for talent and a quality and trained workforce, and recruitment. All of those issues have come down to the pivotal point of quality of life, and how we define and fund quality of life in rural places. The needs in rural places are very similar to what we see in inner cities, like access to healthy food and an effective public transit system to move our cars and our goods. The challenges are very similar, but how we address them is where we differ.
What are the opportunities for rural communities? Can you share new work from the last year or a project that is on the horizon?
Ryan: How we perceive ourselves: those of us who live in rural areas often think about those who have left, but the data will actually show that there are a lot of people coming back. We lose a lot of our young people from the ages of 20 to 29 to cities where they are looking for bright lights and excitement. Maybe around the time when they have decided to start a family or further their careers, when they are 30 to 35 years old, they are looking for quality of life. They find that in rural places. For those of us in rural places: how do we make sure that they realize what we have, so when they are at that stage in life they are ready to come back? I think that’s an opportunity for us. So, we save that cool building in town and it can be become the opera house and the coffee shop and the library and a place for people to gather and to appreciate who they are and where they are. I see that as an opportunity.
There is lots of activity in local foods, and North Dakota is on the frontier. We’re seeing that coming to the forefront, and it helps to define your place in a healthy way. I see those as the opportunities that are on the horizon.
Cheryal: The emerging opportunity that I see is how we define success. We are thinking about success in a way that honors all of the assets that we are trying to build in rural places. I work with my federal, state, and local foundations on this quite a bit. I say that I can define in the box you want me to (in terms of jobs created, new markets that are expanded, or miles of roads) but those are the quantitative measures that we typically use to justify appropriations. The qualitative measures that we don’t pay enough attention to or aren’t being asked to be report on are the cultural, social, other types of quality impacts that are happening in rural America. Yes, while our kids are moving out, what is the rest of the story? In some places there is out migration, but what is the rest of the story? That is a piece I think is emerging: where we start thinking about multiple forms of assets.
The second thing has been to stop thinking about rural America from a deficit model and starting to shift to asset-based community development. That asset-based model has let us build on the capacity that we have. Most importantly, as a tribal leader so eloquently explained to me, it stopped us from telling our people that we are in a place of degradation, negativity, and extraction. We started to think about the “cool” factor of rural and how that can be built upon. While we have our challenges, there has been a shift in community and economic development thinking about assets and forms of success. We wouldn’t be thinking about creative placemaking if we hadn’t been thinking about multiple forms of success. Arts and culture and next generation involvement haven’t been huge priorities because you did what was measured, and that was never measured before.
Ryan Taylor greets a U.S. Army veteran and flag bearer at the grand entry of the United Tribes Pow Wow near Bismarck, N.D.
Cheryal, you brought up the importance of broad-based partnerships. Do you have strategies for these broad-based partnerships that work?
Cheryal: I had a conversation about this with an artist yesterday afternoon, a young woman who was lamenting how difficult it was to work in creative placemaking and “to be all things to all people.” It frightens her and it distracts her from her creativity. I thought that was quite interesting because we can have long conversations about partnerships, but to move forward with the placemaking efforts we have to develop broad-based partnerships.
That conversation was really enlightening. I’ve watched national movements, like how renewable energy has been seen as more acceptable in the last decade. Maybe that’s because the industry stopped preaching to their own choirs and started to get advocates outside their typical silos. Or consider food policy: once Health and Human Services stopped being the only spokesperson, pretty soon agriculture was speaking about the value of local foods and health care practitioners speaking about the value of eating healthy food. The list broadened and it became systemic cultural change to think about these issues broadly and with multiple partners that share mutual benefits.
Reflecting on that conversation, I find that while I want to retain the autonomy of artists, I don’t think that we are going to get anywhere with creative placemaking efforts without having people outside of our community understanding the value and starting to think about how we add benefit. It’s not about why it is good for the artists or the art community. It has to be why it is important to the transportation, healthcare, and housing communities. Going where we have a lot of different types of champions in a room and saying “we all have a role in this issue. How do we collectively address and move the dial?” has served us well in this region in the past.
Ryan: Just this week we kicked off a new Promise Zone in North Dakota. There are eight of them throughout the country in high poverty areas. Our Promise Zone encompasses two tribal nations. The idea around a Promise Zone is broad-based federal, state and private partnerships that allow you to take an issue like poverty and break it down.
Let’s take someone like the artist Cheryal was talking with, or a community member, advocate, or someone who is “on the ground.” They may have an issue that a lot of people could help them with, but they don’t know who these people are. Those of us who are helpers, we all know each other. Why don’t we take a little bit of this off their shoulders? We all know each other and if they sit down to the table, we can bring people to them, whether it is HUD, Transportation, National Endowment of the Arts, Bank of North Dakota or someone else. We can come in and share that responsibility and take that off of their shoulders.
We need to lose our pride of ownership. I think there is willingness to look at things differently to make progress. We see this happening all the time – I guess because we have fewer resources to work with. If it’s remodeling a hospital in remote North Dakota, we know there is a Bank of North Dakota program that we have or we have a private foundation grant available. We should be willing to take more of that work on instead of expecting the people who need that help to make those phone calls.
Can you talk about ways to prepare ourselves as rural practitioners for the long haul?
Cheryal: In Minnesota, practitioners are humble enough to know that “we know we don’t know.” In whatever field we are in, we seek a lot of help from partners to learn from others from throughout the nation. Recently, I went to a well-known foundation in Minnesota, who does leadership training throughout the state, and I asked that same question:
“For those who are standing in the front of the room, who are facilitating conversations in these spaces, who are bringing in community members, and who are honoring needs to bring in diversity in the community—as part of decision making, how do we make sure that they have the skills that they need?”
There are so many flavors of the week when it comes to the skills of community and economic development that it’s a little mind numbing. Practitioners are pulled from from lots and lots of sides. You get hit by: “all of you have to learn about creative placemaking and how it plays into community development, and the importance of these other elements of measuring success, energy, broadband, et cetera.” There are a lot of areas for a community developer to be pulled.
I give my colleagues the analogy that it is a lot like the race for ninth graders right now in industry. They all want to get their hands on that eighth and ninth grader in junior high to convince them that manufacturing, art, health care or whatever is the most important field to get into so they can recruit a talented workforce.
I feel like that’s the same tension for community developers right now. They are being pulled in a lot of different directions. I think it is important to give them the skills and tools they need so that as they deal with that tension, they know which tool to pull out of their toolkit.
As we learn about what works and how we measure success in rural, or in creative placemaking, or in theory of change, or lots of different models to deliver community and economic development, practitioners need ongoing professional development. In some parts of the nation they have done an amazing job with funding through the Economic Development Administration. Whether it is taking practitioners to USDA community development practitioners, or regional economic development commissions, or foundation community development practitioners; taking all those types of folks and delivering professional development through partners gives practitioners the tools they need to help communities make really good decisions.
For example, the conversations that we are having in Minnesota about the tension of refugees coming to communities in the state—if you are in the front of the room, you better have skills to facilitate these conversations or they can go really wrong really fast, and have skills to open the space for all opinions so that the conversation doesn’t close people down – that is a trained talent.
It goes back to the professional development of practitioners. We may never get to have deep conversations about policy change because we don’t have anyone in the front of that room in that community that knows how to do that. It really comes down to investment in professional development to give these folks tools.
Ryan: As you prepare for the long haul, education is key. Maybe in this case, you do have to be a “jack-of-all-trades.” I think that some of that comes formally, but a lot of that comes through relationships. I served in our state senate for ten years, and I’m not an attorney and I don’t have a Masters of Public Administration. But, you can learn from every committee that you serve on and from every lawmaker that you serve with. They have areas of expertise that you can glean from a little bit at a time. That ability to come together is an expense. It comes back to the resources and it is sometimes hard to justify why we are going to a convening, but we have to get together with other people who are doing the same things that we do. I believe this for a couple of reasons: One is to learn and to be exposed to their areas of expertise. Two is also to recharge yourself. If you are going to be in it for the long haul, we have to recharge our batteries and remember why we are doing what we are doing.
I have young children and I think about the children’s book “Fill your Bucket”. If you find yourself in a situation where people are asking you to empty your bucket, how do you fill your bucket? You have to find folks who are willing to put drops back in. That’s why we come together. Beyond that, if you are trying to be in it for the long haul, sometimes you need to be by yourself. If you are out there fighting for rural America, sometimes you need to reconnect with rural America in a personal way that allows you to reflect and remember why you do this. If that means sitting on rock in Gorman Township, make some time to do that.
Cheryal Hills, Colleen Landkamer, John Davis and Bob Reeder are greeted at the Next Generation Rural Creative Placemaking Summit by leadership from the Rural Policy Research Institute. Photo credit Pioneer Collective.
You both work in economic development, policy, and government. What are you looking to learn from artists?
Ryan: My mother was an artist, and I think maybe we all practice art in some way along with our other professions. I just love being around the energy. The things I want to learn from artists are: what drives them and what motivates them? Why are they creative in this certain way and not that certain way? How do they recharge? What do they get from sharing it? How does that energy get created and how does that benefit them? It is this sharing that is going to build our communities.
Cheryal: I am looking for that unique way of thinking. Like when the door is closed, how do they find the windows? Their creativity allows me to problem solve in different ways. I have a daughter and mother-in-law who are artists, and I often say that I don’t have an ounce of artistic ability. However, every time I put a grant proposal together, I do think we have it. It just comes out in different forms.
When I am surrounded by creative placemakers, what I look for are different perspectives and different worldviews. How did you get to that point? That helps me understand a little more about human nature and different ways of thinking. So, when I am in the middle of a project, I can reflect and think about the project in different ways. For instance: what would an artist who is a millennial think about this subject versus an artist who is 70? That worldview is important.
I don’t single out artists as an industry – I single out people. When you ask the question, I’m stumped because I don’t think “oh my gosh there’s an artist” and then go rub their forehead. I think “that that is a person and I need to know about how they think because they have a view that can help us get to a solution.”
What is your personal goal for the Next Generation Rural Creative Placemaking Summit?
Ryan: To meet a lot of the other people in this field and learn what makes them tick and how I can be helpful as I bring this back to a place like North Dakota, which is chocked full of rural places that have a lot to offer. Getting across the border to see how other people are making their places special and how we can lend a hand.
Ryan Taylor joins colleagues at the Next Generation Rural Creative Placemaking Summit social dance. Photo credit Pioneer Collective.
What would you like to see as an outcome as the summit itself?
Ryan: Forming relationships that can be drawn upon in the future as resources. Also, learning best practices of what has worked and what hasn’t worked that can be brought back to our individual states and communities, and learning our common challenges and solutions. The outcomes may be hard to define on a line-item basis. Sometimes, we come to a convening like this and we don’t realize the value for a day, week or month. Then it pops in your head and you go, “I really gained some value there.”
Cheryal: I agree with Ryan. Every time I get in a room with creative thinkers of all ages, I walk away feeling pretty blessed. Sometimes I walk away thinking “I’m not sure what just happened to me.” I do think it takes a couple of days to understand where I can apply what I learned. That doesn’t happen in all of the events that I go to, but that always happens when there is a specific focus on creative thinking and the inclusion of the next generation of community leaders.
Cheryal, you mentioned a current project you are very excited about.
The Sprout Growers and Makers Marketplace is a food processing facility and demonstration kitchen. It is a food hub and a 24,000 square foot facility, the first of its kind in central Minnesota. Supported by the USDA and foundations, the facility also serves as an indoor winter farmers’ market. We had our grand opening last April, and have had several marketplaces.
There is an effort underway to make it a cultural destination. We are thinking about food and art as a conduit for social cohesion issues with refugee and immigrant populations in Central Minnesota. We are trying to use best practices and storytelling to show how people and cultures are integrating in positive ways.
Anything else to add to the conversation?
Ryan: I’m looking forward to getting in the room and being really aware. Maybe this is because I used to be a writer who had a deadline every week, but I have learned that stories can be instructive to us. If we don’t have our eyes and ears open or if we are consumed by our phones buzzing, we will miss it. I look forward to being around everyone and having my awareness antenna up.
Cheryal: I’m appreciative of Iowa, RUPRI, and everyone for putting this together. I’m look at this as an opportunity to fill that bucket for us and to put a few more drops in as we return to our community.
This interview was conducted by Pilar McKay on behalf of Next Generation. Pilar also is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of Shake on the Lake and Rural Arts Weekly, and is a Communications professor at SUNY Brockport. She spoke with Ryan and Cheryal ahead of the 2016 Next Generation Rural Creative Placemaking Summit.