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Rural Minnesota’s ‘Brain Gain’: Our future rests not in whether we lose young people, but how we welcome them back

sprig by Posted in Rural Capacity Building, Vibrant Rural

For a few years now, Blandin Foundation has been interested in the concept of brain gain and the promise it holds for the future of healthy rural communities. Recently, we were surprised when our broadband partners at Intelligent Community Forum published a book entitled Brain Gain that seemed to echo the brain gain research of Ben Winchester at University of Minnesota Extension. We contacted Iron Range-based author Aaron Brown to take a deeper look into the uses of the term and what implications they might have for rural Minnesota communities. Enjoy!

High school graduates might leave rural areas for college and jobs in the big city, but more are coming back with college degrees, careers, professional contacts, and young families. Still others with these credentials are moving to rural communities for the first time. These “newcomers” repopulating small towns increase diversity and ensure the sustainability of a future for rural America, says researcher Ben Winchester.

The loud pipes of a rusty pickup rattle down the quiet main street of a small town in Northern Minnesota. Paint chips off the brick walls of a shuttered business, a fading advertisement from another era. An elderly person ambles slowly down the sidewalk, throwing a suspicious look your way before easing across the avenue with fearful caution. The school up the street graduates fewer students than ever, and most of them leave the area thereafter. Empty houses are everywhere.

One might conclude that this town has been mortally wounded; it is dying, and only a miracle can save it. Yes, only a miracle could save any rural farming town or woodland mining burg from this idea called “Brain Drain,” the notion that our best and brightest are leaving their small towns behind. For years, rural planners and even the very leaders of these towns have essentially agreed with this narrative, buying and selling false, fruitless hopes like magic beans.

But what if everything we assume about rural Minnesota is wrong?

What if the goal is not to chase our future like it was a fast dog in the corn, but catch it as it comes back toward us like a boomerang? What if we don’t see the young professionals in our towns because we aren’t looking in the right places? What if the miracle is already happening? That is the essential argument of the concept of “Brain Gain,” a popular new term gathering support from new data and observable trends about modern rural America.

“The narrative that rural areas are dying and struggling just isn’t true,” said Ben Winchester, a sociologist with the University of Minnesota Extension Service. “The rural population has gone up since 1990. It’s gone down in some parts, but we can’t let this term [brain drain] drive our narrative.”

Yes, Minnesota’s rural areas have lost overall population and school enrollments since 1980. That’s something particularly true on the Iron Range. But Winchester says those figures are entirely attributable to declining birth-to-death rates. The population of 30- to 50-year-olds in their prime professional years has, in fact, increased. The reason? Reverse migration. People are either coming back to rural Minnesota, or seeking it out. Harnessing this population’s true potential is the true economic challenge of our times.

“We need to expand the view of economic development,” said Winchester. “Of these newcomers, few listed a job as the top reason they moved. It was all quality of life, cheaper housing and other factors. People move and find a job. That’s why we need to center our efforts around people-attraction strategies.”

In doing so, Winchester said efforts to build and attract industries and jobs will find more natural footing. We shouldn’t worry about young people leaving for a college education, or even their first jobs. We should be poised to welcome them back when they have the earning power and skills to choose their location.

Sociologist Jim Russell delivered a keynote talk entitled “Age of Rural Migration” at the Center for Small Towns symposium “Understanding Rural Migration: Myths, Trends and Opportunities Exposed” in Morris, Minnesota on June 5, 2014.

“Migration is aspirational,” said Russell. “People leave places for something, not from something. We want to attract people, yes, but attract them to do something. We want to develop people, not just amenities.”

It’s part of what Russell calls the Legacy Economy, in which the central challenge of rural regions is how they handle return migration and develop people. In this, the idea of “brain gain” inspires workable strategies for communities seeking a local renaissance.

“Brain Gain” is also the title of a new book by Robert Bell, John Jung and Louis Zacharilla, co-founders of the Intelligent Community Forum. These authors argue that we are entering an “age of disruption” in economic and population structures — increasingly automated and decentralized — and that cities that harness innovation are poised to succeed.

“We are seeing for the first time in the history of the world that ‘location, location, location’ is becoming less and less important,” said Bell from his office in New York. “It’s never unimportant, but the ability to transact almost anything instantaneously online has all kinds of disruptive impacts on the world, but offers rural areas a hope they’ve never seen before. It will take people awhile to realize how powerful this opportunity is. It’s not like a highway that someone builds to your town, but something you have to build yourself.”

For communities that have depended on natural resources, whether that’s farming, logging or mining, it can be difficult to realize that potential, Bell said.

“You are constructing a new economy on top of the old one,” said Bell. “You don’t want to get rid of the old one, but how do you produce another level? You have to start from square one. You have to have infrastructure. You have to have people who know how to use that infrastructure to create knowledge and value.”

Bell and his co-authors find that high-speed internet connectivity is a cornerstone in the attraction of returning professionals, something Winchester echoes after his research for U of M Extension Service.

“People almost expect to have [broadband internet],” said Winchester. “They’re surprised not to have it. It’s not something people search and hunt for; it’s something they expect to be there.”

Winchester said rural areas where high speed internet is available to the home see significant telecommuting opportunities from all over the country.

But internet alone won’t do the trick, either. Bell said that community collaboration and a responsive higher education system are also required elements for successful 21st Century community.

“What matters is that so many people take it personally and consider it urgent that they create the potential for broad collaboration,” writes Bell and the other authors in “Brain Gain: How Innovative Cities Create Job Growth in an Age of Disruption.” Throughout the book, stories of regrowth in industrial burgs like Stratford, Ontario, or Pittsburgh, join tales of success in smaller cities like Mitchell, South Dakota — home of the Corn Palace and also a modern tech infrastructure that’s generating jobs and growth.

Winchester believes that rural Minnesota needs a narrative that is both more accurate and indicative of the coming age. Winchester warns against the danger of “anecdata,” an informal sociological term referring to the substitution of personal anecdotes for data. We see struggling downtowns and lagging membership in community groups and assume the worst. Winchester said it’s just a matter of how professionals and young families are spending their time nowadays.

“[Younger] people want interest-based groups, not place-based groups,” said Winchester.

That’s why it might be easier to find volunteers for 5K races and bike clubs than for civic groups or chambers of commerce, or why many rural school boards seem to attract more young candidates than city councils.

“Minnesota’s population has gone up 7-10 percent,” said Winchester. “But nonprofit organizations went up 19 percent. Even in areas with less population, nonprofits went up. People are still active socially, they’re just doing very different things than they used to.”

So what does the future hold? Bell points out that there will be winners and losers, and most if has to do with local leadership.

“It comes down to, ‘how much do you love this place?’” said Bell. “If you really love it, what can you do today to ensure that your grandchildren could live here and enjoy a good quality of life? If that’s not enough to motivate people, I don’t know what is.”

On a bike trail on the edge of town, a family pedals up a steep hill and takes a rest. The mother’s phone buzzes — an e-mail telling her that her proposal was selected. She looks down at the town. Perhaps that building for sale would be a good place to warehouse her new product? The family gets back on their bikes, excited for what comes next.

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range-based author and instructor at Hibbing Community College. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio (


For more on brain gain: (links to Winchester’s talk on Rural Narratives and Russell’s talk on Reverse Migration)

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