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This project is made possible by a grant from the Otto Bremer Foundation.

What we’re doing in rural Minnesota (and how you can help)

I’ve been driving these roads and I’ll be driving them for months to come looking for young people who will sit with me for a few minutes or a few hours and talk about what rural Minnesota is to them — their corner of it at least.

Rural Minnesota: A Generation at the Crossroads

Editor’s note: In the coming months, “Rural Minnesota: A Generation at the Crossroads” will feature both traditional stories and ongoing interactions with young people throughout the state. The project will explore their lives, the decisions they face, and how their choices might shape Greater Minnesota in the years to come. We’ve created an interactive map you can access by clicking any of the highlighted town names. And at the bottom of the post you’ll learn how you can help with the project.

Young people are rarely given the opportunity to narrate the rural experience. I was in the middle of a conversation with a small group of high-school students in the rural Minnesota city of Finlayson when I realized this. Maybe that’s why everything they said seemed so fresh, even electric.

For weeks, I have been driving the roads that criss-cross the state like rivers. Up and down Highway 35, which starts in Duluth and ends at a stoplight in Laredo, Texas. Up and over on Highway 61, which needs no introduction. I’ve been on the tributaries, too — the roads that were unpaved until not that long ago and a few roads that still aren’t paved. Many of the conversations so far have been in the north-central and northeast areas.

The young people who’ve carved out time in their busy schedules (I forget that the hustle begins at such an early age) have sat down for anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours to talk about their corners of rural Minnesota.

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I talked with an ebullient 17-year-old near Sandstone who offered an illustration of young people’s relationship with power-holders in small communities. “What would you change if you woke up mayor of your town?” I asked. She laughed to herself. I asked if it was a funny question, or if she had a funny answer.

She responded: “It’s just that our mayor is, like, our old shop teacher.”

In Grand Marais, a 21-year-old University of Minnesota graduate who had recently returned from the Twin Cities told me she sometimes talks to her friends about one of them running for school board or some other office. The problem is it seems like something the elders in the community do — most of them retired and looking for something to keep them busy.

Then there is the always-present question: To stay or to go? In Hibbing, a 19-year-old aspiring computer programmer who is enrolled in the community college was desperate to leave — to go somewhere with “new ideas.” Another 19-year-old, seated next to him and planning a transfer to North Dakota to study radiology, gets discombobulated in big cities. [To hear from others who are dealing with this issue, see Thursday’s story, “To leave or to stay? Few jobs in Pine County make the tradeoff difficult, but friends, family and the outdoors give Sandstone an edge” and today’s story, “Should I stay or should I go? Voices from rural Minnesota.”]

In Little Falls, I watched a board of directors led by middle- and high-school students with candy spread out over the table. There were serious issues on the table, too — the Youth as Resources board meets monthly or more to consider grant proposals for initiatives that empower the youth of the small communities in their county. Running a foundation in eighth grade. Who knew?

And just how do we define “small town” anyway? In Finlayson, I talked to an 18-year-old who had recently returned from a visit to the University of Minnesota’s Morris campus. In presentations, university representatives repeatedly spoke of the benefits of small-town life.

“I was just sitting there in disbelief,” he told me, laughing, “because they have like six fast food restaurants and a Pamida — so much stuff! That is not a small town!”

Next up are Willmar, Redwood Falls, International Falls and Aitkin.

We are always planning new journeys. Can you help? I would be glad to visit your rural Minnesota community. All I need is a minimum of three young people, let’s say in the range of 17-24 (but we’re flexible). We can meet at a school or community center, in a park or a living room. I’ll bring a little food — how’s that?

Or we can talk on the phone, via chat or email. Conversations are informal and painless — I promise.

You can listen to me explain my corner of this project a bit more on Grand Marais’ community radio station WTIP. And hey, we’ve got a Twitter feed, a Facebook page, and a Tumblr blog — help us spread the word!

Join the conversation — email Jeff at

SATURDAY: Somali college student bears out census findings: For him, rural Minnesota is home.