Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Connecting with others who "get rural"

Today I participated in a conference call for the Annual General Meeting of the Canadian Rural Research Network (CRRN). The CRRN is "is a new means to support information sharing and networking among stakeholders with an interest in rural research". The blog connects partners from across Canada working on topics related to the well being of rural communities - and I'd encourage people to check out their site and subscribe for their updates.

Sometimes as an academic who works on rural development topics, I find myself isolated and unable to fully tap into others who "get it". What I mean by that is that in order to study and contribute to rural development, one really needs to understand the complexities and realities of life in the rural context. I find that most academic institutions, programs and faculties use an urbancentric (or urban biased) approach to education and research. Our textbooks contain content with urban examples, urban processes and urban assumptions. Our campuses are located in urban settings which require rural youth to travel to obtain their education and strip rural areas of much needed human capital (for those campuses that are located in rural areas, they often have to rationalize their existence for public investment). I also note, that faculty are by and large not using "place based" teaching to help students understand rural areas.
These practices are not fully preparing students for engagement with rural areas. I remember years ago, I had a student that called after graduation and said "Nicole - this community doesn't have a Chamber of Commerce, a Planner, an Economic Development officer or a tourism marketing organization - so non of the stuff I learned about tourism development really fits here!". This was a good wake up call for me about the information that goes in - directly impacts their ability to create change when students are out in the field. Now, I use a rural lens when teaching, I encourage those from rural areas to comment on how approaches would work in a rural area, and most importantly - I take University students out into rural areas for "rural immersion" experiences for 3-4 weeks every year so they can develop a rural lens.

When I started to study rural tourism development in BC about a decade ago, I found that the word rural rarely appeared on the radar of academic institutions or within government agencies. For those that did recognize the word (and indeed this still needs clarity now and again) they often assumed that rural means agriculture or farming. While most of agriculture is rural, rural is much more than agriculture!

But things look up - there is a growing cluster of expertise in the academic world that has chosen to study a variety of topics in the rural context. The CRRN is one example that holds promise to connect researchers. The TRIP project that I lead in BC certainly connected a number of us in this region. I noticed a promising organized approach in Alberta called the Alberta Rural Development Network (having a conference next week!). And, next week I am attending a two day dialogue on rural policy in Victoria hosted by the BC Rural Secretariat. All of these initiatives are positive and demonstrate growing recognition of systems and stakeholders that are aligning to create more positive change for the people in rural Canada.