Benya Kraus went to college in Boston, studied international relations, and figured she would move between cities every few years for the rest of her life. She even committed to a two-year fellowship with a law firm. She left it after two months, realizing that trajectory of her life wasn’t rooted in the community she wanted to be in.

She came home to Waseca and co-founded Lead for America, where she serves as executive director for its state affiliate, Lead for Minnesota, a nonprofit that aims to attract young leaders to small communities, providing them with a means of solving community problems through fellowships. LFM has fellowships all over the state, including Waseca, Owatonna, Mankato, Winona, Red Wing, and White Earth Nation, to name a few areas.

“Let’s create these visible, structured, highly networked pathways that celebrate coming back to places where the narrative means leaving and not coming home,” Kraus said, recalling conversations with her co-founders.

Kraus is starting to gain national attention for her efforts to revitalize rural communities. Kraus was featured in a Wall Street Journal essay about small town natives moving home in March and spoke about college graduates returning home for a segment on CBS News earlier this month.

On her journey to creating Lead for Minnesota, Kraus described a pivotal moment in her life, when a difficult family situation brought her back to Waseca. Her father grew up on a farm there, which is now in its sixth generation of farm stewardship, and Kraus spent summers and Christmases visiting, splitting her time between Waseca and Bangkok, Thailand. She was going into her junior year of college.

Thinking of that summer, Kraus describes the new lens through which she saw the town as a young adult: the pockets of entrepreneurship, newcomers starting promising new businesses, the ambition and hope of Waseca’s Vision 2030.

“And at the heart of it was saying, ‘We can’t accomplish any of these things if we don’t find a way to attract and retain our young people,’” Kraus said.

Debunking the negative rural narrative

There is a name for this problem: brain drain. While used often in a national or international context, rural brain drain is another oft-discussed issue: young people from small towns leaving for larger cities after high school. The list of reasons often given for young people leaving small towns: a lack of jobs or economic opportunity, a shrinking population, businesses and plants closing, as labor is outsourced overseas.

For Ben Winchester, a rural sociologist at the University of Minnesota Extension, this sort of negative narrative around rural communities is all too familiar. Prominent, too, is the more apocalyptic idea that rural areas are dying. He has spent his career debunking this.

“My key line here is, ‘If rural areas are truly dying, then why can’t I find a house to buy?’” Winchester says. “This myth about rural death is greatly exaggerated — it tends to be used to get resources, and you do want to get resources for rural communities — but I’m a researcher, and it’s not based on actual research.”

For Winchester, the data is key: the rural population has gone up by 11% since 1970, not down. The rural economy has diversified beyond just agriculture and manufacturing, protecting it from market fluctuations and lending it opportunities to grow. The median income of Waseca County residents is $55,000 compared to $54,000 in Hennepin County, even as Hennepin residents pay double in rent.

None of this is to say that rural areas don’t have problems, Winchester explains. It’s merely to hold rural communities’ closed manufacturing plants and lack of broadband internet access next to urban centers’ gun violence, homelessness, and traffic, to understand that rural areas are not unique.

People often tell Winchester they’re thinking about moving to a rural area, but are concerned they will be unable to find a job there. He responds by telling them that they can do anything they could want in rural Minnesota: tech, finance, even work-from-home opportunities that have existed long before the pandemic normalized the practice everywhere.

This fear, Winchester says, is the power of the negative narrative.

“When we talk about this (urban-to-rural) migration, especially when it comes to returnees, they are seen as failures,” Winchester said. “Like, ‘Oh, you didn’t make it in the broader world, so you moved back to Hancock?’ There is that narrative out there as well, including among locals.”

Kraus, who has commented that her program is motivated by Winchester’s research, recognizes the stakes of that negative narrative. Just as young developing-country entrepreneurs often migrate to rich countries because they perceive their places of origin to be lacking in economic opportunity, the perception that rural areas are dying disincentivizes young leaders from returning to their hometown and contributing to its success.

“I loved Waseca and had a lot of nostalgia, but I didn’t quite see what the opportunity was for me here,” Kraus said, recalling her college visits to the town. “I don’t think that was something that was shared as I was growing up, and then I think as I got older I was like, actually the opportunity is huge.”

Making an impact in Owatonna

When Maddy Fisher graduated from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities in 2019, she got a job in a call center, working for a health insurance company. Later, she worked at a liquor store in Northeast Minneapolis. Having volunteered in college for human services organizations like Lutheran Social Services, Fisher knew she wanted to join a mission-based organization, working to engage with and improve her community. She just wasn’t sure what form that would take.

“I take pretty seriously the sort of investment that I like to make in my own community — where I choose to shop, who I choose to rent with, where I get my gas,” she explained.

Lead for Minnesota reached out to Fisher in October 2020 through LinkedIn, and she signed on as a Hometown Fellow in Owatonna. She has been with them for nine months.

Splitting her time between the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF) and Southeast Minnesota Together — among the “host” organizations Lead for Minnesota uses for its fellowships — Fisher works to build “inclusive ecosystems.”

At SMIF, she’s the program manager for an economic development program called Prosperity Initiative, which provides one-on-one coaching for small business owners or early-stage entrepreneurs from a diverse background — Black or indigenous, veterans, women — in the 20-county region SMIF serves. The coaching they provide can be anything from getting them registered with the state of Minnesota, becoming an LLC or a small business, to seeing if they’re eligible to receive a loan, or helping them with a marketing strategy.

“Our biggest thing, honestly, is just the connection,” Fisher said. “Encouraging them, lifting them up, putting them in peer networks.”

This means connecting entrepreneurs with nonprofits other than SMIF or SE MN Together, to get them the services that they need.

The thing Fisher loves about her work for Lead for Minnesota is her capacity to make an impact.

“I can pick up projects and see them through,” she explained. “With it being a two-year program, I have the opportunity to really create systems that have longevity, rather than a fits-and-starts program like AmeriCorps, where it’s hard to get a really good idea of the playing field in a single year and get a lot done.”

Seeing Waseca as an option

Molly Byron, a community catalyst with Lead for Minnesota, had a somewhat less straightforward path than Fisher. Coming from a six-generation farming family in Waseca, Byron left her hometown in 2010 to go to school in Chicago, where she lived for 10 years.

She had just put her notice in at work in Chicago and was planning on moving to Washington, D.C., when everything shut down due to COVID-19. She heard recommendations that people quarantine for two weeks, and thought that would be a nice amount of time to spend on the farm. She went there, and never left.

“I’m here to stay,” Byron said.

While figuring out next steps, Byron had a meeting with Tim Penny, president and CEO of SMIF, thinking they would talk about potential political connections to continue her career in politics. Penny asked if she’d considered staying in Waseca.

“I had never thought of that,” Byron recalled. “It never occurred to me that that was an option for me.”

She started work on a congressional campaign in her district, and as she remembered it, everything changed for her.

“My whole direction of where I thought my career was going completely switched, and turned into, ‘What can I do here in my hometown community, where I’m from, where I know everyone?’ That is something special that I had forgotten, living in a big city. I wanted that,” she said.

One of the projects Byron has worked on is the Waseca New Business Challenge, which is a team effort between the Waseca Area Chamber of Commerce and Lead for Minnesota. The challenge is Waseca’s first-ever new business competition, aiming to stimulate economic growth in Waseca by providing a 10-week training program with a business pitch competition at the end.

Now Byron is working on the Waseca Summer Social Calendar, which aims to show young adults working or commuting from Waseca all the things the town has to offer, and provide them with local connections. The official goal is to help with workforce attraction and retainment.

Byron thanks Lead for Minnesota for providing her with the infrastructure needed to help her achieve the sort of workforce goals she wants to see in Waseca, which she believes will help her hometown thrive.

“I know what I want to do, and now I get to just go do it,” she says.

For Kraus, all that economic and business opportunity is inseparable from the unique opportunity for community that small towns afford. Speaking about everything she wants to accomplish with Lead for Minnesota, and why she’s devoted these years of her life to it, she starts recalling the way that people she hadn’t seen since childhood came out of the woodwork to help when she returned for a difficult family situation in college, people she said “really had no reason to care for me and my family and just did.”

“It was just these stories of reconnecting with people, and just how special it is to know your neighbor — so much of your dreams and what you want to build and create, you can do because you have that depth of social fabric,” Kraus said.

Reach Reporter Julian Hast at 507-333-3133. © Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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