Resuscitating a Dying Town

I came across an article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education that focused on life in an area of rural southeast Missouri known as the Bootheel; the piece was grounded in research findings that have connected the dots between education (or the lack thereof) and health. The current findings so far? “Educational disparities…economic malaise and lack of opportunity are making people…in the Bootheel sick. And maybe even killing them.”

While reading A Dying Town, I read about good hearted, salt-of-the-earth people who have spent a lifetime loving this country, taking care of their families, and doing what’s right. They know the importance of a good reputation and hard work. They believe that a person’s word is their bond, and that a handshake is as good as any legal contract. So then why are these individuals in such dire straits? It’s partly because over the years the fabric of our nation’s culture changed, and they didn’t get the memo.

Nobody told them that at some point, doing unto others as you would have them do unto you would no longer be the way we treat each other. Now, it’s get them before they get you.

They were too busy cutting logs or getting up at 3:00 in the morning to drive a milk truck to realize that a person’s word or promise means little anymore. Today, we can look someone square in the eye or through the lens of a camera, lie through our teeth, and not give it a second thought. We now live in an era where the end justifies the means, regardless of who gets hurt or forgotten.

These people were too innocent to realize that in today’s Land of Milk and Honey people are sorted into groups based on how they look, how they talk, the label found in their clothes, and which iPhone version they have. Those that don’t make the cut are sorted into a group apart from the rest—and it seems the only time they are remembered is when we want to reform their entitlements, making them feel as though they are a bunch of freeloaders.

If you think I take this personally, it’s because I do. I can relate to every person in that piece, because I know every person in that piece. Personally? No. But I grew up in rural southern Missouri, in an area very much like the Bootheel. My widowed mother who raised four kids on an elementary education always told me, “Your education is something no one can ever take away from you.” She was right, and today I have a PhD to show for it. I was one of the lucky ones. But my heart still breaks for those who were not as fortunate, and I know something must be done so that these people and others like them in dying towns all across our nation can get a quality education, earn a decent wage, receive quality affordable healthcare, and feel like they matter.

After reading A Dying Town, I felt compelled to alert President Trump as well as Missouri elected officials to the plight of those individuals featured in the article and those who share their fate. I was convinced that once they learned of the tremendous needs of residents in that area they would take action—I wasn’t sure what—but action of some kind to help them. I sent the link to the article and pleaded:

Please, please read this. These are Missourians who desperately need both short-term & long-term help. What can we all do to make their lives better? How can we work together? I’m willing–are you?

The response? Crickets. Zip. Nada. Nothing. I guess an area where only 1 in 10 residents has a bachelor’s degree probably isn’t considered a hotbed for donor activity, photo ops, or a voter block worthy of their time.

But the article did gain the attention of some, as I learned in the follow-up commentary The Lack of a College Degree Is a Public-Health Crisis. Here’s What Higher Ed Can Do About It. Dartmouth Professor Ellen Meara, for example, shared some excellent insight regarding how to get started in addressing this issue; she could prove to be a valuable resource moving forward.  I will confess to being less impressed, however, by what was shared by two university presidents from Missouri. While they are in prime positions to make a significant impact on the lives of disadvantaged residents, it seemed their columns were little more than public relations releases—box checked, then moved on.

Of course, we all know that this is not just a Missouri Bootheel problem; there are dying towns all across our country in desperate need of resuscitation. I would encourage all readers to take a moment and identify the one(s) in your local area. Every dying town takes a toll on its state, and eventually on our great nation. These problems are not going to take care of themselves, and it is essential that we tackle them together. We need leadership from the governor’s office, from our state legislators, and from Washington, DC. We need it from healthcare, social services, workforce, and educational agencies. We need commitments from faith-based institutions and from everyday citizens. We need a strategic plan with long-term and short-term goals, and we need a sincere commitment over the long haul, not just lip service. I’m just one person but am willing to roll my sleeves up and try—how about you?

–rrf

Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher is a national leader in education transformation, teacher preparation, and academic quality assurance. An accomplished presenter and writer, she currently supports educational institutions and non-profit agencies in areas such as educational systems design, online learning experiences, competency-based education, and accreditation. Roberta also blogs about academic excellence and can be contacted for consultations, webinars, and on-site workshops through her site (www.robertarossfisher.com). 

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