EDITOR’S NOTE: Madeline Dickerson Moore, an Ilwaco High School alumna and Ocean Beach Hospital board member, attended Rural Women’s Summit in South Carolina Oct. 27-29. In addition to running a workshop on uplifting rural voices, she presented this main-stage speech. Local residents Jessika Tantisook and Tiffany Turner also attended the conference.

I grew up on a skinny, 30-mile long sand spit wedged between three of the most beautiful bodies of water in the country — the roaring Pacific Ocean, pristine Willapa Bay and the mighty Columbia River. The seasons of my childhood were digging for razor clams in spring, fishing for Chinook salmon in summer, crabbing in fall, and running naked on the beach in winter. My life was transplanted here when I was 5, when my dad, Mike Dickerson, and his friend were asked to spearhead a nonprofit loan fund that would focus on supporting rural livelihoods. In deciding where to put the office of their new endeavor, they chose the community that wanted them the least. They knew good work is never easy, and a place so resistant to outside support probably needed it the most. So they bought a small empty cannery building smack dab in the middle of the working Port of Ilwaco.

In the early years, after 5 p.m., or sometimes before, my dad and his partner John Berdes got to know the locals by sitting out on a bench in front of the squat one-story, grey concrete cannery building to smoke. They’d watch the boats and fishermen move fish from boat to processing plant, offering up a bottle of whiskey when a fisherman would linger and ask, “What are you guys doing here?” Their first loans were to a family-run oyster company, and a small cannery owner, just a few doors down, businesses that traditional banks wouldn’t touch.

Summers meant loading into the truck with my mom and dad, and driving up and down the coast of Oregon and Washington from one small tiny town to the next; meeting dairy farmers, holly farmers, mayors, and lots and lots of fishermen. I saw first hand that supporting one key business could turn the tide for an entire community, and multiple families and generations along with it. When people asked me what my dad did, they usually got a shrug of the shoulders and a “Uhhh, he gives money to farmers so they don’t lose their farm? He runs a nonprofit? I think?” I didn’t know what nonprofit meant. I didn’t know what rural economic development meant. I just knew that my dad knew a lot of interesting people, in beautiful, charming places, and he helped them by supporting what made up their livelihoods.

My rural childhood was simple and idyllic, but the idea of staying never crossed my mind. Get out, go to college, get a job, be successful. Success could not be found at home, in a place that had seen its “bust generations” before, and which was still wallowing in the rubble. Or so I’d been told.

The path home

In 2011, at the height of the recession, I graduated from the University of Oregon with $28,000 of student loan debt and a journalism degree that was proving to be mostly useless in an industry that was tumbling head-first off a cliff. I’d followed the rules, gotten out, but a 9-5 success story was still very out of reach. So I stuck my degree in a drawer in my childhood bedroom and left the country to work on organic farms through the WWOOF program. It was here, standing in fields in the most rural, middle of nowhere parts of Ireland, that I started to think back to my childhood growing up in places similar to this. I craved the quiet beauty of rural, and the ability to be deeply tied to nature and uniquely needed and appreciated by people within the community. Setting roots among the many people who helped raise me felt right and comfortable, but it meant I couldn’t make it elsewhere, that I failed somewhere along my journey.

After three months in Ireland, I moved home, taking over a part of my parent’s garden to start a small farm for a CSA and pursuing a dream I’d always had in the back of my mind, starting a bakery. But starting a small business was not a part of the get out, be successful plan. Even though ironically, some of the most inspiring and community-centered people I knew were small business owners back home. When I first moved back, my mom, would run into people at the grocery store who’d say, “I heard Madeline moved back to the peninsula. Is everything OK?”

But I loved being home. I loved the freedom and hard work of owning my own business, of seeing the fruits of my labor in such a tangible way as a pack of seeds becoming a basket of cucumbers in my market stand. And I loved having a business that could give back to my community the way I’d seen small businesses give back constantly as a kid. Buying my first bakery ad in my old high school yearbook was an especially satisfying moment.

Getting involved

As my business flourished, I dug in deeper and got involved in local politics. At the beginning I was the ideal Pollyanna. Good people get elected. Period. Full stop. But a serious run-in with the good old boys club that kept an incredible born and raised, female business owner from being appointed to a seat in the state legislature, shattered my idealism. I’d always been a big fish in a little pond, and even though I knew my community well, mingling among the politically savvy was new territory. I was also often the youngest person in the room, which sometimes left me feeling weak, naive and consistently shoved aside. Imposter syndrome started to rear its ugly head.

When an opportunity arose to run for the local hospital board and I was asked to run, I laughed out loud. Was my voice valuable at the table? Surely there was someone more qualified, smarter, more experienced that deserved that seat. My opponent had served over 18 years and was a respected doctor. It felt audacious for a 25-year-old with no medical experience to step up and say “No, you’re missing someone at this table and it’s me.” Eventually the poking, prodding, and support added up, and I ran and won. And with the help of another young woman also elected that year, we lowered the average age of the board by almost 20 years and added needed perspectives to the table.

Over time, working for change just in my community didn’t feel like enough. It also felt like doing this work in isolation was crazy in an age of connectivity. I remembered when I was a kid, traveling with my dad if one business did better, then the community did better. What if young people like myself, who were devoted to rural as a piece of their identity could network and work together? It was out of this simple idea and a simple need to connect with other millennials like myself, tied to the rural places they love, that I formed Rethinking Rural.

Changing communities

The face of this work is changing. The faces of our communities are changing.

Despite popular rhetoric, young people are moving back and investing in rural on a large scale. But they often lack access to resources and tools that could help them overcome large barriers that new leaders face within small, insulated communities. Rethinking Rural bridges this gap. We are a national network of rural millennials working together to uplift diverse voices and make small communities more diverse, vibrant, and resilient. Through small, place-based symposiums that are celebrations of the culture and livelihoods of a particular community, we connect local millennial leaders with a national network that they can work together with to achieve the dreams they have for their homes. We will be in Nauvoo, Alabama in 2020 and Indian Country in the Pacific Northwest in 2021.

At the same time I birthed an organization, I also birthed my daughter, Quincy, and became Mom. Watching her childhood follow in the footsteps of mine, from sandy afternoons at the beach, to walking in local parades, has created incredibly deep meaning to creating a vibrant future for our home.

Unlike when I was a kid, I am now all too familiar with what rural economic development means and what a nonprofit is. I now consider myself a rural advocate who was raised in this work just like a farmer teaches their kids to milk cows or sow seeds. My dad’s small rural loan fund is now Craft3, which spans eight offices in the Pacific Northwest and has loaned $500 million over the last 25 years to help rural people, families, and businesses simply do better. And I’m following in those footsteps in my own way, learning to embrace my special understanding of rural America and finding ways to do the work that will lead to better communities for all of us, led by all of us.

For the under-30-somethings in the room who feel like you are banging your head against a brick wall generations deep, keep going. Keep digging in. Keep saying, “No, my voice matters. I am here.” And for the over-30-somethings, look to the future and use your experience and wisdom to uplift, inspire, and cultivate the next generations, even if that generation looks, talks or swaggers differently than you. Raise a rural advocate or help lift one into the world to walk with you.

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