The future of the Iron Range is already here

Orange hawkeye, or hawkweed, or "Devil's Paintbrush," a common yet beautiful summer plant that grows easily in the Northern Minnesota summer.

Orange hawkeye, or hawkweed, or “Devil’s Paintbrush,” a common yet beautiful summer plant that grows easily in Northern Minnesota during the summer months. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Flickr CC)

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

“Where are all the young people?”

Anyone involved in a graying committee, civic group, city board or arts organization has probably heard a comment like this. The words often come from someone who wouldn’t know what to do with a young person if they saw one, like the dog who caught the proverbial car.

And yet the query is based on a false assumption: that there are no young people on Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range.

For one thing, you are reading something right now written by an under-40 Iron Ranger who has three kids aged 9 to 11. I’m not on your committee or in your group because I’m driving kids all over the countryside, working, writing, and producing a radio show — all of which fulfill me as a person. And I’m not alone.

Our region might have a strong population of retirees and those nearing retirement, but go to the clinic or hospital and you will scores of young doctors, nurses and medical professionals. Most of them have young families and kids in the local schools. My dentist and dental hygienist both have young kids, as does my financial guy and my department colleague at work. Road construction sites. The gas stations. The stores. Parks. Trails. You see young people everywhere!

You just don’t see many young people on city councils, school boards or civic groups. You won’t see them at the chortling confabs where Spanx and liquor hide age, or in the secret meetings where insiders hatch deals. They won’t answer ads in the paper and most of them aren’t in the1997 phone book that still dwells on our region’s metaphorical refrigerator. They have no interest in repetitive conversation, or in propping up old ways of thinking.

Census data and research by people like Ben Winchester, a sociologist with the University of Minnesota Extension Service, show young professionals moving back to rural Minnesota in steady numbers. Some counties are doing better than others, but all show distinct communities of young professionals.

This fact is often overlooked because those young professionals are not participating in traditional rural community activities. This disconnect blurs the perception and reality of life in rural Minnesota.

“Millennials don’t want to sit on boards,” Winchester told me in an interview last fall. “They don’t want traditional leadership. They are more about getting things done than about having meetings with Robert’s Rules of Order.”

Winchester will speak this Thursday, July 14 at the Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm. Sponsored by the Iron Range young professionals group ReGen, Winchester’s 6 p.m. presentation is entitled “Brain Gain in Rural Minnesota – Why young people are choosing rural and what it means for the future of the Iron Range.” Admission is free, but donations will be accepted to develop a ReGen website that would be a professional resource for young people on the Iron Range.

“Often times, people leave here, start a family and acquire an education,” said Jessalyn Sabin, ReGen president. “But what we’re seeing now is a trend of people coming back in their 30s and 40s with a skill set that they can apply in their hometown. What we’re trying to do is help people think about how we can utilize the talent of people who come back here with those skills.”

That kind of involvement will have significant long term benefits, Winchester told me.

“We know from the ‘Brain Gain’ research that newcomers are leaders,” said Winchester. “They give more money and time. Where they’re choosing to spend their time is not where traditional residents think to look.

To reinvigorate the region from its economic doldrums, we should look to leadership in these new places. We will quickly see that the future of the Iron Range is already here.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, July 10, 2016 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

 

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