Summit seeks to motivate communities

Farm Forum

Those familiar with the book know each main character in “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was searching for something.

The lion needed courage, the scarecrow a brain, the tin man a heart.

And Dorothy needed home.

Cliché as it might be, the familiar storyline was appropriate Tuesday on the first day of the RuralX Summit, a first-year event that seeks to unite communities so they can learn from and motivate each other and allow their residents and leaders to share stories. It drew about 220 people to the Dakota Event Center.

Some said they see their hometown as the lion — seeking the courage to make changes that will ultimately enhance their rural communities. But Emily Firman-Pieper of Flandreau went further.

“I think that if courage and bravery and heart align, they will create the home. But I don’t want my hometown to be a default,” she said. “I want it to be a choice that says there’s a reason I choose to be here.”

Returning home

Many high school graduates from rural communities in South Dakota leave home. But more and more often, smaller communities are welcoming those people back. Firman-Pieper wants the decision to return to stem from a desire sparked by the realization that rural towns have more to offer young people than a low cost of living.

“I don’t want them to feel stuck,” she said.

David Sandvig of Aberdeen said that while it’s fine for each town to search for the same things “Oz” characters were — heart, courage, knowledge — it might not be finding those things that matters most. How each town gets where it needs to be might be more important. That’s why he said he would search for the yellow brick road first.

RuralX is a story in itself, made up of the experiences of rural communities across the Dakotas and beyond. For example, Tuesday’s guest speaker was teacher and designer Emily Pilloton.

Pilloton got her hands dirty while creating Studio H, a “design/build” curriculum she developed for her students in Bertie County in North Carolina — considered one of the poorest and most rural counties in state.

She was influenced by her grandmother, who made music with a handsaw. That’s right, her grandmother made music from a tool more often used in construction. And seeing that helped Pilloton look at things differently, she said, which ultimately inspired many aspects of Studio H.

Pilloton was also inspired by her teachers, who she said gave her “permission to be a nerd.”

And there was someone else, too — MacGyver, the main character of a 1980s TV series. Pilloton calls him the first real problem-solver she was introduced to. That’s in spite of the fact that nobody really knows if a gum wrapper bomb works like it did for MacGyver, she said.

Pilloton talked about Studio H and the lessons she’s learned along the way, specifically three things about working in either rural or urban communities:

• First, she said, everyone is an entrepreneur.

“Everyone has it in the them to start something,” she said.

• Second, she said, everyone is a philanthropist.

• And lastly, everyone is a builder.

During discussion, participants expressed hopes for building networks and influencing each other, while also learning how to motivate their communities beyond talking and into doing — making real progress toward their goals.

The RuralX Summit continues today.

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