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Inside the Buffalo Ridge Brewery, one of the sights for RuralX 2021.

Callie Tuschen (center), co-founder of Buffalo Ridge Brewing, Hartford SD, with Ellie Naasz (center, right) and Ali Sheley (right) of Dakota Resources. Photo credit: James Fallows.

“Our Towns” Reader Response Roundup features film screening feedback, a unique effort to support libraries nationwide, and national perceptions being addressed at the local level.

After the “Our Towns” journey began in Sioux Falls, South Dakota in 2013, its path has since snaked the country, from Eastport, Maine to Winters, California to Brownsville, Texas, serpentining throughout the vast land in between. While many towns and cities have pins on the “Our Towns” map, there are many more miles yet to travel and many more stories yet to tell – which is why the Our Towns Civic Foundation was launched.

In addition to featuring the ongoing reporting begun by our Foundation’s founders, Deb and Jim Fallows, back in 2013, the Our Towns Civic Foundation provides a platform for communities to connect and a place where those leading the story of today’s American renewal can be in concert with each other. We continue to include these stories in our Voices for America section of the website and in Reader and Viewer Response posts.

After our inaugural Response post, which captured reactions to the “Our Towns” HBO documentary that debuted on April 13, we’ve continued to hear from “Our Towns” readers and viewers – with one viewer in particular picking up right where our journey left off.

Hailing from South Dakota, one responder wrote in after the Fallowses’ recent trip to his home state, which included the first-ever in-person, big-screen presentation of “Our Towns” at renovated State Theater in downtown Sioux Falls on June 23.

“I went to the premiere in Sioux Falls and loved the movie,” he wrote. “I will keep your thoughts on towns in mind. Thanks, and keep on the journey! My wife is from South Dakota; I was born in Iowa and lived all over the USA but am glad to be here now.”

During their time in South Dakota, the Fallowses were interviewed by Mike Knutson, of Dakota Resources, presented at Rural X, an annual conference designed to connect rural communities throughout the country. Dakota Resources is a 25-year-old economic and community development organization serving the Dakotas and, more recently, beyond. For one attendee, the conference sparked a memory of a past experience:

“Thank you for doing this work. My first engagement with public policy was with a group called Rural America. The issues are the same, only exacerbated.”

Behind the scenes last month at RuralX, from Buffalo Ridge Brewing in Hartford, South Dakota.

Speaking of Rural America, Jim and Deb sat down with Whitney Kimball Coe of “Everywhere Radio,” a podcast produced by The Daily Yonder, an all-things-rural America digital media outlet that’s part of the Rural America network, to talk about the “Our Towns” story in the on-going Red-State-Versus-Blue-State narrative that continues to grip the nation.

You can listen to that episode here

In De Smet, South Dakota, after losing its newspaper, the community banded together to create a new one. James Fallows writes about that here.

Today, what it means for a state to be labeled Red or Blue (or Purple) is national-political terms is nearly universally agreed upon, but it wasn’t always this way. As a convenience for the color-TV era, stations began illustrating which presidential candidate won which state. Which color represented which candidate was more or less arbitrary. But a call for uniformity across stations in 2000 led to Republicans ending up being Red and Democrats being Blue. And rather than focusing on which candidate won which states, broadcasters fell into a pattern of noting states that Republicans won as Red and Democrats as Blue. And it stuck.

Perceptions are sticky, too, but like the usage of colors to represent political parties can be changed over time. Take the case from one Our Towns writer from North Wilkesboro, a small town in the foothills of North Carolina:

“To the outside world we’re a town that lost furniture and textiles, a NASCAR race, and the corporate headquarters of Lowe’s Home Improvement after the company began in our downtown. Locally, we’re a prideful, resilient place ready to write a new chapter.

I’m a fan of ‘Our Towns’ and the work y’all are doing. I’d love to … help tell the story of my place as an example to others in areas like rural Appalachia that are finding their place in this new economy.

I came home after working in state government to make a go of it here and do my part as the community rebuilds. I’m hopeful that more will come back, too. Thanks to telework, thanks to new opportunities in this moment, the wind is finally at our back again. Y’all will appreciate that story and the lessons we’re learning here.”

Addressing challenges present in rural communities have been a part of the national conversation for decades and remain today, but North Wilkesboro isn’t alone in feeling the wind at its back again or that the rising tide is lifting a community’s proverbial boats. Sharing the stories here, like that of North Wilkesboro, is a way to do that and to evolve national perceptions many of us might have of places we’ve never been to yet but might visit or be glad to be from someday.

Looking at lessons from our past, too, may help communities solve problems in the present. Take, for instance, the New Deal era Rural Electronification Administration’s efforts to bring electricity to millions of households outside of metropolitan regions. We see the country and its communities learning from its past with “new old ideas,” like this one here on a modern CCC.  

Another reader wrote about a perennial Our Towns topic: local libraries. He wrote about how that’s personal to him:

“I read your book a few years ago and loved how it brimmed with a sense of possibility and positivity. One particular theme that resonated with me was the importance of public libraries at the community level. You’ll see why if you (click here).

The “here” leads to the website for the James D. Hill Run to Read, a charity 5K race being held Friday, July 30 through Sunday, Aug 1.

Three days to walk or run five kilometers? More on that in a minute. 

Who was James D. Hill? More on that now.

The short answer is: An avid lover of running and reading who deeply loved his family. But no life is summed up in a dozen or less words, so it’s worth reading the longer tribute his family wrote of him on that site.

While you’re there, you’ll see that James D. Hill has run many races, from 5Ks to marathons. You’ll also learn that he loved libraries so much that his family amassed a collection of pictures of him posing in front of libraries throughout the country and abroad.

After his death in 2016, folks began giving donations to the Albright Memorial Library in Scranton, Pennsylvania in his memory. Celebrating his passions for reading and running three years later, his family married his two loves at the altar of charity.

For the first two years, proceeds from the 5K went to support the James D. Hill Memorial Fund, which the Albright Memorial Library set up, and Reading Is Fundamental, the nation’s largest children’s literacy nonprofit.

“We will continue that support, but we are also trying to expand our reach and align with my father’s spirit – he loved visiting libraries everywhere he traveled – by distributing funds to local libraries,” his son wrote to us.

Now, back to this year and why folks would have virtually three days to complete a 5K. Well, that’s because it’s virtual – meaning virtually anyone anywhere can participate, and participants can support virtually any library anywhere, including their local library.  

How? Participants who register can register their library of choice. All libraries who meet the minimum requirement of $1,000 receive 100 percent of the proceeds. Funds raised by those not specifying a library or not meeting the minimum threshold will be donated to Reading Is Fundamental, as well as a scholarship fund for a graduating senior at Holy Cross High School in Dunmore, Pennsylvania, where James D. Hill was a volunteer assistant coach for the girls varsity soccer team.

James D. Hill’s son asked us to help spread the word. We hope you will, too, as Friday, July 30 draws nearer.

So, with the wind at our backs – maybe even as we run a 5K in support of local libraries – we push onwards. As we connect with more communities, share more stories, and learn about new ventures, we continue to invite you to share your stories of your towns with Our Towns here