Thinking outside the brain drain
I'm the guy who overcame all of the odds. I went away to college and came back home to the community I felt responsible to make a difference in, to improve, and to care for. The numbers are stacked against most people who want to come back to their hometowns like I did. Or are they? We hear over and over again how there just aren't any jobs, so, swoosh, another brain drains from this precious Hoosier soil for greener grass.
This past summer River City participated in the one book-one town program and read Hollowing Out the Middle, a book that investigates the brain drain experienced in the Midwest. The book suggests this hollowing out is causing the loss of our best and brightest, and those whose leadership we need to move our communities forward.
Every time I hear about the wringing of our hands over this issue, and the call to alarm and action for what can be done, I have to admit I get a little incensed. And generally the inside-the-box answer is always more and better jobs.
I swear I don't want the next few statements to sound as if I am applying for martyrdom, but I think we need to wake up to some inconvenient truths (to steal a line from Al Gore), and rethink this issue. For all of my friends and peers out there who managed to keep their brains here locally-thank you. You've probably never been thanked for being the ones who went against the grain, "overcame the odds".....and in some cases put community over career. And you know exactly what I'm talking about. I've got friends with a wide spectrum of careers-doctors, accountants, attorneys, teachers, cops-who, whether they were born here in Republicania County or not, are Hoosiers who chose to stay and make this their home. You likely gave up a heck of a lot of money to not put career at the top of your list and, like me, said that money wasn't everything.
I don't buy the line that the kids we spend a fortune educating and losing would stay here if the right job were here. Sorry. I know far too many who have moved away, if not out of state, at least to Indy. My cousin is a marine biologist over an aquarium in Hawaii-obviously, we don't have those kinds of jobs here. However, most jobs we do, but we're teaching these kids that $$$ is the definition of success. By doing so, of course we are going to lose them. When they graduate they already have a built-in sense of entitlement to the best the world can offer. If I did the same job in Chicago, Denver, or pick any coastal town, I'd make a lot more of the green stuff. But that's not success....at least not in my book. I had someone tell me that "somehow I found a way to make it work". Yeah, my wife and I committed to live simple lives.....that's how we made it work, along with a whole lot of faith.
Besides the false definition of success we are feeding these kids, we have another problem. We're raising kids who have to be entertained-in fact, it is there right to be entertained. They no longer are capable of producing or being a part of ways in which social entertainment once occurred. No, they want on-demand entertainment that most small towns simply can't afford or have the infrastructure to provide. Let me put this in simpler terms. At one time if a few people felt it was important to have some form of performance theater.......they got together with more like-minded folks and created a community theater. I feel that River City needs an art gallery. I'm not going to move away because we don't, but I've been trying like heck to figure out how to make it happen. I think it's the difference between givers and takers and what I am suggesting is that a chunk of the brain drain is full of takers. Sorry.
Now-that's not an excuse for allowing our towns to crumble around us, both physically and culturally. If there are things that we, as communities, can do to better ourselves to be more attractive to compete for brains-then by all means we should do it. I remember the fight in River City just to get a bike trail constructed because of out-dated thinking. Now, everyone loves it. But we need to be honest with ourselves and take a critical look at what our communities look like and ask "why WOULD someone want to come back here?" Many of our neighborhoods and downtowns look worn out. When we see another shooting in South Bend reported on the news and they pan the neighborhood it happened in it seems I can always say, "geesh, that neighborhood looks better than most in River City". But God forbid we do anything to change the course of slumlord control (our rental to homeowner rate is nearly 50%). So, ask yourself, if YOU wouldn't live there why would you expect anyone else to, much less these gifted, college-educated brains we're losing?
Maybe I'm saving the best for last here, and maybe this is going to sound like sour grapes, but I don't think we really want the best and brightest anyway. We can talk all we want about needing these young minds to become our community leaders-but certainly my experience tells me that it's best to check your brain at the door. Critical thinking in most Indiana small towns....well heck, I'll throw in the statehouse while I'm at it, is dismal at best. Critical thinkers are needed for solid leadership in moving our communities and our state forward. The problem is that critical thinking leads to very non-partisan solutions. And in River City and Republicania County.....and most of Indiana it appears, you're not going to be allowed to lead unless you've got a mouthful of right-wing nonsensical banter. I have several good friends that I may not agree with wholly, on both sides of the aisle, but we can sit down and have dialogue on how best to solve problems because we think critically about the problems at hand. Sorry, but I am far too familiar with way too many politicians sitting on local boards all the way up to the state level who gave up thinking 20 or more years ago. Just tell me the way the party wants me to vote and I'll be a good boy and toe the line.
My problem is that I've never been a good boy.
There needs to be a multi-pronged approach to solving the brain drain if we really want our kids here. Jobs is a part, but a very small part of the answer. We need a shift in the culture or definition of what success is. We need to teach kids what it actually means to be part of a community and not lead them to believe they need a ticket for the first flight out....but to dig in and make it what they want it to be. And we need to value everyone-all ideas-and work toward solutions bred from critical thinking. People gravitate toward where they feel valued and can contribute. This occurs in social organizations, the work place, churches, and yes-our communities; those of us on the outside, if we haven't already taken our brains elsewhere, become cynical in the hope for change. We need to end the good ol' boy system that protects and perpetuates the disease that is leading to our "hollowing".