Battling Rural Myths

Jason E. Kaplan

Heidi Khokhar, executive director, Rural Development Initiatives, talks about how to solve rural ‘brain drain’

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For more than 20 years, Heidi Khokhar has worked for an organization that partners with communities to grow businesses, revitalize downtowns and boost entrepreneurial skills of local people. In this interview, Khokhar discusses how urban bias continues to stop rural communities from progressing economically, and how the new wave of remote workers could stem the brain drain that has afflicted rural towns for decades.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How would you describe the progress that rural communities have made economically over the past five years?

It is the wrong time frame to talk about rural progress. It takes away from the fact that for over 40 years rural community leaders have been up against economic crises and declines, and have worked to manage those impacts in order to maintain their communities, their way of life. This is a 40-year problem that we have ignored.

But in the last five years, there has been really interesting and heartwarming progress: Business Oregon’s focus on small businesses and entrepreneurship, Main Street’s partnership with communities to be more economically focused.

How have investors shifted their approach to investing in rural communities?

There is more curiosity about how rural investment must work. Nobody is doing it at the level that I think they should, but it is working better. The Oregon Growth Board has been focused on understanding rural more than in the past. The rural intersect of it matters and needs to be considered: Investing in women-owned businesses is one thing; investing in rural women-owned businesses is another. Investing in BIPOC businesses is one thing; investing in rural BIPOC businesses is another.

What has been the biggest impact of the pandemic on rural communities in Oregon?

Some of the hardest-hit sectors are disproportionately important to rural economies: tourism, the service industry, Main Street businesses. Josh Lehner, the state economist, rightfully states that numbers show rural wasn’t hit as hard [by COVID-19]. I am begging us to not pay attention to that. For decades, rural economies in our region have experienced relentless economic downturns and instabilities. The decline of the timber industry and previous recessions have hit us hard, and few of us have recovered from that. When we talk about COVID, it is just one more thing that puts us further back in our recovery.

Josh did say that rural recovers more slowly. It always has. You are seeing rural investment, but because we recover more slowly, we have never managed to keep support going long enough to recover fully. We could get it right this time if we recognize the length of time rural economies need to recover.

What about the recent fast rebound in tourism, which could potentially be a boon to rural economies?

In my mind, tourism continues to be an extractive strategy. The problem of rural is that it is natural resource-based: Everyone wants what you have in relation to your natural resources. Tourism is still in service of urban people and urban places. It is not about building the local economy. If we can do sustainable tourism — tourism that builds wealth in communities — then it is something that is valuable. The way we are doing tourism is a threat to local economies. It is not the answer to building economies in rural places.

Rural communities are not there to serve other people. The community needs to serve itself.

What is the main barrier stopping rural communities from progressing economically?

It is us. It is our culture of extraction. It is our ingrained urban biases and stereotypes. It is the urban and rural separation. It is our collective lack of understanding and will to truly understand the value that investing in rural people and places will bring to our state. It is how we have placed rural in our collective understanding.

How do we get over that?

It is equity work. It is understanding how privilege and bias and concentrated power negatively impact those who don’t have it.

To what extent can the new wave of remote workers, who no longer have to be tied to the office in large cities, give rural communities a boost?

We are exploring a remote-worker bill that would incentivize remote workers to look past the suburbs to rural communities when they move. The opportunity is there to extend that to small firms that still want to get together with staff but don’t want the expense of staying in the city. It could really make a difference to rural economies to have small firms and businesses. But they have to be integrated into the community. How can remote workers move into these communities, get to know them, help build them?

Tech companies such as Google and Facebook have opened large data centers in rural communities. How much have they helped rural communities economically?

Those industries extract local wealth, local assets, local resources. They are extracting the power needs, potentially the water needs, of communities. Are we compensating those communities for that?

We have created this idea of business attraction as the gold standard in economic development. There are many communities in our rural spaces who have done a good job of finding success with that strategy. However, I don’t see business attraction as the only right economic-development strategy or even the best one for rural communities. It dangerously sets us back to this one-industry silver-bullet mentality of our past, which left us gutted with the timber industry. We need to remember that building local sectors and Main Street economies is at the heart of rural economy building.

What do you predict will be the fastest-growing sector in rural Oregon over the next decade?

It is probably related to resource sustainability, and how it intersects with technology: It is energy, ag, forestry at the intersection of economy building and community. Rural entrepreneurship is a big sector too.

Is there enough being done to lift the economic fortunes of rural communities of color?

Aren’t we all now on this journey of knowing what it means to get equity right? What it means to undo our biases, projections of privilege? The opportunity of rural is that we are uniquely positioned to get it right. We need homegrown approaches to equity that are not imposed on us, that match our diversity. Some of this is rural’s strong suit. We are close-knit; we are neighborly by default.

I have enjoyed the emphasis on equity. I can’t get a grant to do technical assistance in rural places from my own economic development organization unless it is BIPOC. I love it. Thank you. It shifts my own mentality that rural is its own equity. We have to figure out BIPOC and racial equity from a rural perspective so that rural isn’t left behind. Otherwise, those approaches won’t work well because of the urban bias and urban constructs of what equity should mean.

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