When my Close Up group visited Washington, D.C., during high school, we had a lot of fun talking to people incredulous to learn they were meeting people from Montana.
They seemed especially incredulous that we dressed similarly to them and were not overwhelmed by the city. It didn’t matter that we told them we grew up outside a small city of more than 100,000 people; to them, “Montana” meant the Wild West, not modern transportation and modern technology and a life that was not so different from their own.
It was similar years later when I traveled to Albuquerque, N.M., as part of a reporting fellowship. One of the organizers, from New York City, asked how I got there. I probably looked at her a little strangely as I answered that I had flown. Then she asked how difficult that was in North Dakota, and I tried to be as polite as possible in telling her that I just drove to the airport and got on the plane, same as everyone else there, and made it to New Mexico after a short layover in a bigger city.
I always wondered what she imagined. Perhaps me in the back of a crowded bus or on the back of a donkey, hopping a series of progressively larger planes until touching down in New Mexico? I have no idea. But somehow she seemed amazed that I had arrived there with little bother.
I reflect on those instances often, wondering whether those interactions had changed anyone’s mind about what rural areas are like.
Recently, I “attended” a virtual session on rural-urban divide put on by Humanities North Dakota as part of its Gamechanger Ideas Festival. The session featured Jim and Deb Fallows, who wrote the book “Our Towns” after visiting hundreds of small cities around the country. While both grew up in small-town settings, they’ve long lived in cities and wanted to experience for themselves what was happening in the rest of the country.
They explained how they went in quietly, visiting local newspapers, libraries, chambers of commerce and businesses and talking to people about what was important to them and what made their towns work. Deb said there were two messages they heard in rural America: that people in big cities look down on rural people and that people in rural areas would never want to live anywhere else but where they live.
It would seem more than possible that people in urban areas would feel looked down upon by those in rural areas and would feel like they don’t want to live anywhere else. We aren’t all that different; we’ve just never lived the others’ lives.
So what, in the Fallowses’ opinions, would clear up any rural-urban divide? Jim said a sort of domestic Peace Corps, which would take people from urban areas and put them in rural areas and vice versa, might help. Of course, with the current state of the pandemic, that would be difficult to accomplish. But, if people who live in cities and have never experienced rural life could come to somewhere like where I live, a farming community with only a few hundred people, and see how similar we really are, that would be great. If someone from here could go to a city and see how similar the people are there, that would be great. We all have much to learn about the lives of others.
But maybe the better thing for all of us — whether we are the ruralest of rural or the urbanest of urban — would be for everyone to drop their preconceived notions of who lives in the country and what they’re like and who lives in the city and what they’re like. My guess is we all have more similarities than differences, if we’d all only shut up long enough to learn about someone else’s perspective.
Jenny Schlecht is Agweek's content manager. She lives on a farm and ranch in Medina, N.D., with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at email@example.com or 701-595-0425.