Last summer, I worked with six of our graduate students to learn more about small towns in Texas. In our project, called “Economic development in rural Texas: A study of heritage, assets, barriers, and stakehohttp://economic development in rural texaslders in six rural communities,” each Ph.D. student was assigned to a different community in rural Texas. None of them had visited their communities before. But that summer, each of them got to know their community: they visited, walked down the streets, and met people. They collected a total of 277 documents, from economic development plans to city websites to newspaper articles and tourism materials. And they interviewed a total of 61 community leaders. By the end of the summer, they knew their communities well—and they knew what problems those communities faced.
During their research, those graduate students investigated these questions:
- How do community leaders understand their community heritage as constraining or enabling development?
- Where do community leaders and members see potential for change and growth in community development? Where do they see barriers, threats, and hard choices?
- How do community leaders describe the relations among community development stakeholders, including expectations and trust among them?
And the results were fascinating. Because even though the communities were different from each other, located in different areas, facing different challenges, they still had a lot in common.
In one community in the Permian Basin, community leaders expressed low solidarity: the ties that bind people together in a community or society. This community relied heavily on the oil and mining industries, which go through boom and bust times. Last summer the region was enjoying a boom—but community members weren’t enjoying it. The town was full of RVs occupied by temporary workers who might shop in local stores, but who didn’t participate meaningfully in the community. Since the industries were outside of the town, C1’s tax base didn’t benefit. And the community itself had little trust: residents didn’t trust government officials, while government officials felt that residents failed to volunteer or participate. One resident told us that “There was more of a sense of community” in previous years, while another complained that “The town is just very poorly run.” On the other hand, a government official complained: “the city residents do not get involved in city councils or commissioners or anything like that, you know. They’d just rather just stay at it, and moan and groan.”
Interestingly, when we examined their interviews for evidence of societal tensions such as dilemmas and double binds, C1 had very few of these—the fewest of all the communities. The community whose interviews reflected these tensions the most was C2, which had just lost a major industry—mines for sand used for fracking—to C1. As we looked more closely at the interviews, it quickly became clear why: whereas people in C1 perceived each other as being at cross purposes, people in C2 knew they had a bigger problem, the problem of finding new major employers for the community. They had to think about the dilemmas and double binds facing C2 if they were to move forward.
One common problem that C1, C2, and all of the other communities faced was that of infrastructure. On one hand, how could they build out the infrastructure their community needed in order to function? On the other hand, how could they make sure the community didn’t lose its identity in the process? Every community faced the same growth problem related to infrastructure: large tracts of land surrounded each community, owned by a handful of families. In fact, one resident of C1 told us that for real change to happen, “four expensive funerals have to happen.” But communities also had to deal with water rights and water infrastructure, electricity infrastructure, building codes, and other ways that factions used to shape the community. Talking to people about these issues was fascinating—especially in C4, where town leaders actively used building codes and water infrastructure to slow and shape the town’s growth.
When we talked with people about how change happened in their communities, they often pointed to volunteering rather than taking community action. When people volunteer, they are individually doing something about a problem. And that individualism was important to these communities: they wanted to do good, but they didn’t want their taxes to go up. We heard this over and over, especially in C5, which saw its low taxes as its major value proposition. So we were surprised when C6 passed a bond initiative for its schools. In C6, voters have consistently opposed new bonds that would benefit the school district. The last successful bond election was in the 1990s, and the most recent attempt, in 2013, was voted down by over 70% of voters. But in 2021, two bond initiatives were passed—by over 70% of voters. Looking back on the coalition that supported the 2021 bond initiatives, one of our informants remarked that in the past, people used to work on individual issues in silos. But in the 2021 bond election, not only did a coalition form, it crystallized a shift in viewpoint from individual issues to interconnections: from me to we. As one leader told us, “[F]olks have finally picked up their head and looked around and said, ‘Wait a minute. How this is gonna affect the university, how’s it affect the county, how’s it affect the city, how’s it affect development, how’s it going to affect the dentist that wants to do business here in town?’ … There’s a wave going on in this community that has never existed before.” We spent some extra time in C6, looking at the coalition that formed to pass these bond initiatives.
Finally, we became fascinated by the origin stories that people in each community told—how the town was founded, where its people came from, how the community had changed over the years. We found that participants used origin stories in at least three ways. First, they market their community to tourists, using these stories and histories to provide the community with a cohesive and attractive image to outsiders – using not only stories and celebrations, but also building codes. Second, they explain current characteristics of the community, appealing to history when characterizing the community’s current attitudes, decisions, and even temperaments. And third, they negotiate present contradictions and conflicts among themselves — specifically the historical injustices related to race and culture as they play out in the current community. In one case, a community that has taken great pride in its origin story has begun to realize that this origin was not at all positive for some of the historically disadvantaged members of this community: people they had long regarded as heroes were understood by others as villains whose misdeeds had to be confronted in the present day.
At the end of the summer, we sent individualized reports to the communities. But we are also working on publishing academic papers about the community aspects I covered above. Two of the graduate students are continuing to research their communities, and we hope to continue to provide them with insights.