Want to develop your small town? Start with your assets, Luther Snow says

Girl Scouts lined up for a parade

How many different groups and networks connect people in your town to other towns in your region? Luther Snow says these networks are a special rural asset. Photo by Becky McCray. 

Recently I was fortunate enough to catch a webinar with Luther Snow talking about the asset approach and positive development.

Urban Bias

Snow started by addressing the prevalent “urban bias”: assuming that the way things happen in the concentrated center is what matters everywhere.

Urban bias is evident in:

  • centralized meetings
  • traditional land economics (high price = high value)
  • poverty rate, measured by concentration of people
  • place targeting
  • preference for institutional and professional efforts over volunteer efforts
  • focusing on economies of scale

Rural people sometimes adopt urban bias, leading us to say things like:

  • we’re small
  • isolated
  • don’t have much
  • we’re just volunteers

We can choose how we look at things. We have assets.

What is “rural”?

Ruralness just means we are spread out, Snow said.

Being spread out isn’t an automatically negative characteristic. In fact, we rural people have a lot of positive characteristics:

  • independent
  • resourceful
  • entrepreneurial
  • creative
  • innovative
  • interdependent
  • rely on neighbors
  • collaborative and networked
  • Independent + Interdependent = Networked

Snow contrasted the “concentrated” or urban view versus a more “networked” or rural point of view in several ways:  

Concentrated: central meeting location
Networked: rotating meeting locations, online meetings

Concentrated: big industrial firm
Networked: industrial corridor

Concentrated: tourism destination
Networked: tourism trail

Concentrated: poverty concentration
Networked: poverty awareness and accessibility

Concentrated: economies of scale
Networked: economies of networks (the way the internet works, or a farmer’s market)

The outside view of rural and the inside view

Snow gave an example of North Slope Alaska villages. The 8 villages are 300 miles apart. The outsiders’ view of residents was:

  • are “stuck” there
  • dependent on oil money
  • there are “no” businesses
  • declining
  • need to be taught asset approach and positive development

The insiders’ view was quite different:

  • villagers choose to live there because “we love it here”
  • mange a sophisticated hybrid of commercial and sustenance economy
  • everyone wants to start a business!
  • have iPhones and are on Facebook
  • growing community with many young families and children
  • experts at collaboration and networking
  • networked through sports, health, schools, churches, whaling society

What can you do?

Most of the best rural efforts are lead by volunteers just like you. Snow listed these ideas you can use in your community:

  • Make a list of 5 ways your community is stronger because it is rural.
  • Support a group of “outsiders” in the area.
  • Offer business training.
  • Start a community foundation or loan fund.
  • Have coffee with 2 new people per week.
  • Find 5 regional networks that already exist: sports, youth, churches, recreational. Ask how they get things done.
  • Host a happy hour for entrepreneurs.
  • Exchange board members with another organization.
  • Lead a community campaign.
  • Facilitate a business-to-business marketplace.

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  1. Simone Cahoj says

    I’d love some more ideas about facilitating a business-to-business marketplace. We have tried this but I think we need a different approach! :)


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