Technology brought together nearly 100 participants from 14 states for the recent inaugural Rural Renewal Symposium. The virtual conference featured the latest work in rural renewal, along with roundtable discussions and success stories.
Tyson Ochsner, professor in Oklahoma State University’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences and one of the co-leaders in the Rural Renewal Initiative at OSU, said many rural communities are suffering.
“Rural people and rural places matter in Oklahoma and across the country. They provide food, water, energy and outdoor recreation, which impacts the state significantly,” Ochsner said. “We’re seeing declining natural capital, declining human capital and declining infrastructure in many parts of rural America. As a result, we’re experiencing rising vulnerabilities, decreasing resilience and persistent poverty. Our goal with this symposium is to bring people together to help with this process of renewal and stop the downward spiral.”
Ochsner said there are several activities now underway with the Rural Renewal Initiative, which is part of OSU’s Tier 1 Research Initiative. One part of the initiative is seed grants, which are used by OSU researchers to focus on a variety of rural issues.
“We’re using an interdisciplinary approach to start sustainable renewal in communities,” he said. “The grants are helping develop youth to become leaders and entrepreneurs in rural settings, as well as testing technological innovations for rural broadband.
Mark Woodring, assistant dean for rural health at the OSU Center for Health Sciences, was on hand for the symposium to talk about rural health and how the Tier 1 Research Initiative is making a difference.
“For far too long, rural Oklahoma communities have suffered from lack of medical facilities and a viable health care infrastructure. Your ZIP code shouldn’t dictate your level of health care,” Woodring said. “The OSU Center for Health Sciences is focused on preparing the next generation of doctors and healthcare leaders to meet the unique needs of rural Oklahoma. We can’t produce physicians fast enough.”
He also said Oklahoma lawmakers have introduced legislation to expand the National Health Service Corps coverage in rural areas for up to five years and $250,000 in student loan relief.
The importance of the school system in rural communities was highlighted by Gary Briers, professor at Texas A&M University.
“Education deserts are real,” he said, referring to areas without school access. “Rural communities are facing the loss of their schools. It’s not just the education of the students at risk. When a local school closes, the people migrate to other places. It’s vital for rural communities to ensure their public school is the school of choice.”
OSU assistant professor Sabit Ekin presented information regarding the improvement of rural broadband and internet.
“Broadband and internet access are important issues everywhere, but especially in rural areas. High speed internet is a staple of life for both urban and rural people,” Ekin said. “It is used for everything from online cattle auctions to online education.”
Sid Sperry, representing Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives, shared information regarding OAEC’s role in rural renewal.
“Our electric co-ops provide electric service in all 77 counties across Oklahoma and serve 93% of the state’s landmass,” Sperry said. “We’re involved with giving scholarships and providing support in rural communities. Rural renewal is vital to co-ops.”
He said that more than half of the electric co-ops in Oklahoma support Operation Round-Up. It is a program that rounds up a member’s electric bill to the nearest dollar and those proceeds are allocated via foundations that process community group needs, including rural fire departments, EMT services and other local organizations.
Other topics at the event included rural health systems, rural water resources and sustainable rural livelihoods, the digital divide, quality of life in small and rural places, promoting prosperity in America and rural renewal.
Steven Deller, Extension development specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was announced as inaugural winner of the Rural Renewal Research Prize. He is a pioneer in the development of community and rural economics and his research and Extension programs have changed the understanding of regional and community development.
Deller’s work extends beyond the academic realm to the rural community, where his pioneering work combines applied economics, political science, sociology and regional science to address current challenges faces by rural communities.
Additionally, Karen Wages, CEO of the Poteau Chamber of Commerce, was awarded the inaugural Rural Renewal Citizenship Prize. She attributed her success to the many partnerships the chamber has with local businesses, OSU Extension and the state.
“Here in Poteau I have a vast variety of partnerships, and everything we do, we try to create an atmosphere where people can enjoy themselves and be part of the community,” Wages said. “I’m just the bus driver of this organization and the people of the community are the fuel. I attribute our success to the over 400 members in the Poteau Chamber of Commerce. I can’t say enough about OSU Extension and all the help they’ve given our community.”
More information on rural renewal is available on OSU’s website. The Rural Renewal Symposium was co-sponsored by the USDA Office of Partnerships and Public Engagement and the Oklahoma Association of Electrical Cooperatives.