More than 35 years ago, Oregon’s rural communities experienced an economic downturn of epic proportions when the timber economy collapsed. While state and federal governments responded with significant resources and support for almost a decade, it was not enough.
The 2008 Great Recession, again, hit rural places hard. Now, the COVID-19 crisis will likely affect Oregon’s rural and tribal economies disproportionately and have repercussions for years to come. Our history tells us we have yet to invest the needed resources, provide the needed support, or allow the needed time for rural recovery after these major economic downturns.
In the past, we failed to create an environment where rural areas could propel themselves to an equitable, inclusive and resilient economy. Then we moved on, leaving them behind and on their own — with adverse impacts to the entire Oregon economy and our ability to work together toward common goals.
In Oregon, rural places face the same complex challenges as larger population centers, in more geographic isolation, with scarcer financial resources, fewer people to do the work, rarer models designed to fit their situation, and more confusing or less trusted information sources. The COVID-19 pandemic, the associated economic impact, and the current social and political climate combine to create a situation on a scale that may eclipse anything we have known. In this moment, we can clearly see the bad — inequities in our systems and the lack of resiliency of our local economies; and the good — shared values from which we can build.
Rural Oregonians are working hard to recover; sleeves rolled up, helping each other. Their resilient spirit leads them to look for opportunities to act locally, connect to one another, and access resources and support. However, they cannot do it alone — and this time, they shouldn’t.
Rural Development Initiatives and many other partners have been with rural communities through it all. For decades, we have worked to understand their needs, support their work, provide access to models and resources that work in rural, and help them set and achieve their goals. We stand committed to listen, support their economic recovery, and play an active role in connecting policy makers and resources to their efforts.
Together, we can ensure that Oregon moves forward to become better and more resilient than before. Right now, we have an opportunity to choose a path forward that creates a stronger future for all Oregonians. This includes investing resources to better understand the specific needs of rural Oregon — focusing on the further disproportionate impact on rural indigenous, black, and other communities of color — and to develop solutions in partnership with rural people and the rural organizations that support them.
Oregon’s legislative leaders must make proportionate investment in rural Oregon to address not only the immediate COVID-19 needs, but also the larger economic struggles felt by these communities for decades. We implore our state leaders to ensure Oregon’s economic recovery specifically includes rural communities, and that rural people and organizations be included in the policy decisions that ultimately affect their own recovery.
RDI is committed to advancing these priorities, and we look forward to being an active partner with our elected leaders, and others, in making sure all of Oregon recovers to become better and more resilient than before.
Heidi Khokhar is the executive director of Rural Development Initiatives, an Oregon nonprofit focused on strengthening rural communities.