A Conversation on the Rural Midwest and the Sustainable Development Goals
People across the U.S. are using the Sustainable Development Goals as a road map to build back better by turning these global ambitions into local action.
In the Midwest, that means investing in community-based solutions that address the unique challenges facing rural areas. To learn more about what this looks like, I spoke with Anna Wasescha of West Central Initiative in Minnesota about sustainable agriculture, pandemic recovery, and welcoming newcomers to small town America.
Tony Pipa: Let’s start by talking about your organization, some of the hallmarks of the communities that you serve, and some of the challenges they’re facing as well.
Anna Wasescha: In our area, the economy is mostly agriculture, recreation, and tourism because we have so many lakes. Minnesota is known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and the county I live in has over a thousand lakes on its own. When you fly over it and you look down, it looks like it’s more water than land. It’s quite remarkable.
So all of those things — agriculture, recreation, the outdoors — are directly related to the Sustainable Development Goals. Those are chief assets that we need to protect into the future.
I would say some of the challenges have to do with the viability of communities with populations under a thousand people that might lack the larger school districts, hospitals, retail, and commercial industries that draw people to them. There’s a sense that we’re isolated from urban areas, maybe looked down upon, so there’s an inferiority complex.
At the same time, we have a really strong sense of independence and power, that what we contribute to the economy overall is essential to American life. We feed the world, so to speak. There’s a lot of pride in that identity. But while agriculture used to be very labor-intensive, now it’s not, so the population in rural areas is declining even as agricultural output increases. That’s a contradiction, but that’s the way it’s working. So people in rural areas like ours have to find new roles and new identities within the economy.
West Central Initiative in Minnesota was created by the McKnight Foundation in the 1980s following tremendous financial loss as a result of farming bankruptcies and a timber and mining crisis. The idea was to create six regional foundations on the ground closer to communities to help them recover. We serve nine counties, and a portion of the White Earth Nation, a Native American community, also lies within one of our counties. We provide grants and loans to local nonprofit organizations and also hold convenings to bring different groups together and change the conversation.