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Comeback Kids ‘rewrite the rural narrative’

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When you’re an intelligent, ambitious and creative kid in a small town, everyone tells you to get out.

Well-meaning adults in my life included, the common narrative pushed on me—growing up in northern Wayne County and attending the smallest of three elementary schools in the district—was that opportunity was elsewhere. You certainly cannot be a writer if you don’t live in New York City.

So I did leave. I went as far as I could for university, while still paying in-state tuition. After that, I went as far as I could in general, living for a year in Cairo, Egypt and traveling elsewhere from there. I came back to Wayne County unwillingly and unexpectedly for personal reasons.

After a few months of wallowing, my perspective started to change. I had missed open spaces, farm-fresh food, the Delaware River. I saw opportunities to participate in art exhibits and to be involved in local issues. I realized I could afford my rent. I began reporting for this paper—even after saying I would never work for a newspaper again—and remembered the importance of community journalism.

It occurred to me that the narrative I’d grown up believing was a little skewed. Traveling, and living elsewhere for a while, is great. I still plan to, and encourage others to do the same. But being here is also, frankly, pretty great.

Last Friday at the invitation of Colleen Emery, project director for the 2019 Sullivan Renaissance/Sullivan 180 “Changing Course” Conference in Hurleyville, I went to hear rural sociologist Ben Winchester speak [see Linda Drollinger’s coverage on page 4]. Winchester is an educator and researcher with the University of Minnesota Extension who visits small, rural towns examining community leadership and documenting the “brain gain”—a trend of 35 to 49-year-olds moving to small towns (which retroactively justified my inclusion of a 47-year-old as the most recently featured “Comeback Kid”).

“The narrative that we use to describe our small towns and rural places is inherently negative,” Winchester said in his speech, called “Rewriting the Rural Narrative.” “We use it every day ourselves, in our own communities. And this inhibits our ability to look forward. It inhibits [the] ability for our kids to see this as a viable place to return to.”

So I have to admit that the Comeback Kids series, now at its halfway point, [see Veronica Daub’s story on page 12] began with a mission. I wanted to show, just as Sullivan Renaissance clearly does, that there are, in fact, ambitious, creative young people who grew up in Sullivan and Wayne counties and returned to make a substantial impact.

Several weeks ago, a TRR frequent reader and a writer himself, Mort Malkin, wrote a letter to the paper to describe his frustration with the term “local” as a disparaging descriptor—one that implies “local author” is somehow lesser than “author” all on its own.

I want the Comeback Kid series to show that being local is something to be proud of—and something to utilize.

Young people who understand and care about this area are doing big things. Cat Sullivan, who’s yet to turn 35, is the executive director of the brand new Catskills Food Hub. Hortonville native Dana Borowski went from college graduation to executive director of the Sullivan County Human Rights Commission. Ryanne Jennings, a Comeback Kid and executive director of The Cooperage Project in Honesdale, pointed out that she could see the direct impact of her work much more clearly here than she could in Philadelphia.

There are never going to be more opportunities for young people in rural America if we don’t encourage them to use their talents and skills to create them.

I don’t remember being taught in high school that you could make a career as an artist or an advocate for change. I do remember being told by a guidance counselor that I should take a typing class in college because it would secure a potential job as a secretary.

It would be a boon to our area if more young people became invested in tackling issues that affect rural America, including the opioid epidemic, rural homelessness, climate change devastation and healthcare gaps. We just have to show them they can. 

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