Anyone who grew up in a small rural town knows that two places are rarely connected by straight lines. Cut through this field, take this side road, skirt this mountain, go around that lake. These workarounds are an indelible part of how these communities are put together, connected less by design than by something more organic.
When the pandemic hit, it revealed the pressing need for new kinds of connections in rural communities — for remote work, for telemedicine, for revitalizing economies through entrepreneurship, for opportunities that can introduce people to a rural lifestyle for the first time. Or even bring them back.
Restlessness drove multidisciplinary artist Caitlin Christiana to see what lay beyond the borders of her small-town upbringing in rural Vermont.
She studied sculpture and metal smithing at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, New York, before moving to Pratt Institute’s main campus in Brooklyn. The culture shock of life in New York City eventually pointed her back home, toward Vermont and the town of Springfield, population somewhere around 4,000.
“I started to realize that a lot of my creativity emerges out of the slower pace that can actually emerge when I'm living in a rural community,” Christiana says. “I had never had that gratitude for it previously until I realized that in a sense, that's part of my creative cycle and that it's a catalyst for invention and innovation.”
She eventually took a job as a bank teller to pay the bills while working on her art, and the connections she made with local business owners led—to her surprise—to running the Chamber of Commerce for six years.
“Part of what I've discovered about living in a very small community is that you have a limited number of people who are available to fill leadership roles, and so they were trying to get creative about bringing some fresh energy into that position,” she says. “I just tried to bring heart to it, I tried to help people feel like they belong, I tried to make it really inclusive.”
Christiana is now the program manager of the Black River Innovation Campus (BRIC), a non-profit designed to eliminate the barriers of entry for digital and technology entrepreneurs and web-enabled businesses. BRIC was founded in 2019 with help from the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI). Their Rural Innovation Initiative is working to connect communities into a Rural Innovation Network, which currently includes 38 communities across the country from Independence, Oregon, to Aberdeen, South Dakota, to Springfield. Accomplishing that goal relies heavily on broadband infrastructure.
As a lifelong Vermonter, former legislator, and leader of Google’s Community Affairs while working remote out of a former bread factory in White River Junction, Vermont, CORI’s founder and executive director, Matt Dunne, has seen firsthand how the connected nature of small communities can foster qualities essential to entrepreneurship.
“The thing about rural places,” Dunne says, “is that no one assumes someone else is going to take care of a problem. If there’s a tree over part of the road, you go back and get your chainsaw. If a problem happens within a community, people rally around it because there’s no entity that’s supposed to take care of that.
“That community spirit is really valuable if you're trying to solve the big market problems across the world,” he continues. “Whether it's creating a better system for identifying suicide in veteran communities using AI or it's creating a platform to make the experience of being an auto repair customer not miserable. We've seen companies doing all those things from rural places, and I think in some ways it's not assuming that other people will take care of it. It’s something that you've got to do in a collaborative way.”
That tight-knit sense of community can be a double-edged sword, though. CentraCare runs a network of hospitals in central Minnesota that serve small towns and rural areas, and Senior Vice President and Chief Legal Officer Santo Cruz—who grew up as one of nine children on a dairy farm near Melrose, Minnesota—has seen firsthand how different the experience of health care can be in such a community. Much like Caitlin Christiana, Cruz left home for the city, eventually becoming Deputy Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services before coming back to Stearns County.
“When you go to the hospital in a metropolitan area, you have a low expectation of running into somebody you know being your caregiver,” Cruz says. “That's entirely flipped in a small town. They expect they know everybody in town.”
Counterintuitively, then, the expansion of telemedicine that happened during the COVID-19 pandemic may have contributed to better health care outcomes for an at-risk population for mental health.
“We know that farmers have some of the worst statistics around mental health in the country,” says Cruz. “And farmer mental health is an area of deep focus at CentraCare, because we really serve a lot of ag country. If you're a farmer and you still have the stigma of depression, anxiety or any other types of mental health or behavioral health issues, you know that if you go into the local clinic, you know the six people who are going to check you in. Totally different if I can be at my kitchen table, pull up my phone, dial up CentraCare and get a psychiatrist or a psychologist or behavioral health triage nurse. This is within the privacy of my own home, nobody knows I'm having this video [call]. I've taken away that barrier.”
Access to telemedicine and the opportunities of entrepreneurship, to improved data and technology for small farms, to remote work for people who value the benefits of a rural lifestyle come through the pipeline of broadband, and it’s an infrastructure that relies as much as any other on funding and expansion.
Frontier Cooperative in Lincoln, Nebraska, has partnered with Microsoft, Nextlink Internet and Land O’Lakes, Inc. to expand high-speed Internet access in rural areas by building Wi-Fi towers on top of grain silos. Frontier’s CEO Jeremy Wilhelm is already seeing the benefits of that access, even in something as simple as grain contracts. During the pandemic, his community of farmers—“the original entrepreneurs,” as he puts it—embraced a new electronic signature process for those contracts, streamlining it both for farmers and Frontier. Wilhelm knows that whatever Frontier does, he’s going to hear about it firsthand.
“I live in a small town of 2,000 people, and I go to the grocery store and I guarantee you: I know half the people in that grocery store,” he says. “Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad, right? I've gotten approached on Christmas Eve at church, because of a decision that I made that somebody wasn't happy with. But that's the power of small-town communities—they stick together.”
“A small town or a township is not an unsuccessful city, is not a failed city,” says Santo Cruz of CentraCare. “When I think about what it means to preserve that, one of the things I don't mean is the kind of golden-age thinking of going back to the way things used to be. Any way of life or culture, in order to preserve itself, has had to go through a time of transformation.”
Whether in rural Nebraska or central Minnesota or the hills of Vermont, connection through community is one of the strongest assets of small towns. Broadband access is one of the keys to evolving those connections, within rural communities and to the wider world. The path from here to there might not always be direct, and sometimes there might be a downed tree in the way, but rural communities can be counted on to find a way to get it done.