Revving the rural engine

By Patrick Woodie - Guest columnist
Patrick Woodie -

Give a creative, curious couple a single engine airplane and a half decade of travel time, and you might be surprised at what they can discover.

Such was the case for James and Deborah Fallows, two accomplished writers who flew 100,000 miles, spending two weeks in each of two dozen rural and small urban communities. The Fallows have shared their journey in the New York Times bestseller “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America.”

Here’s the surprise: As they stated in a recent interview, the Fallows found that despite the national narrative about economically declining communities and political polarization, “the basic resilient capacity of the country hasn’t been extinguished.”

In fact, during their five-year journey, the Fallows visited east and west, north and south, known and unknown communities, and found that all thriving communities shared certain strengths, values, and characteristics. For example, effective community leaders are apt to recognize problems—opioids, economic stagnation, etc.—and are then hands-on in finding solutions. They are more visible, accessible, and better able to advocate for change. Reinvented main streets and revitalized downtowns have helped resuscitate community identity and pride.

According to the Fallows, most of America is doing better than most Americans imagine. America is still

America, strong and resilient.

Resiliency and strength are two characteristics North Carolinians have exhibited abundantly in the recent aftermath of Hurricanes Florence and Michael. Our resilience fortifies the strength of our communities, helping North Carolina maintain the second largest rural population in the United States. This statewide rural community is more than four million people strong today, having survived both economic downturns and natural disasters over the years.

Yet we all know survival isn’t enough. The Fallows saw hope, reinvention, and fellowship throughout their travels. Their journey sketches a hopeful portrait of reinvention taking place across the nation. The Rural Center experienced this first hand as we spent one year travelling 8,457 miles to visit rural leaders in each of the 80 rural counties we serve. The common denominator of thriving communities we visited included a committed core group of dedicated leaders, public-private partnerships, a community college, a shared knowledge of their unique civic story, and a capacity to dream big.

James and Deborah Fallows will provide the keynote address at our upcoming NC Rural Assembly, held in Raleigh on Nov. 15 and 16. Their story, along with other featured keynotes from North Carolina natives Bill Bynum, president of the Mississippi Delta’s HOPE Credit Union, and Scott Hamilton, executive director of the Appalachian Regional Commission, will spark a conversation about how inspired, motivated leadership is driving local innovation, spurring us to build bright futures in our rural communities and across our regions.

For our neighbors living in hurricane-impacted communities, we will host a pre-conference session prior to the start of the Rural Assembly, bringing local leaders to the table with key state and federal recovery leaders to work together on creating long-term recovery strategies for our state.

Perhaps there hasn’t been a better time for rural leadership to come together to not only rebuild, but to reinvent and reinvigorate.

We plan to start that conversation on Nov. 15. We hope you can join us. To learn more, visit

Patrick Woodie×700-002-.jpgPatrick Woodie

By Patrick Woodie

Guest columnist

Patrick Woodie is the director of the N.C. Rural Center.

Patrick Woodie is the director of the N.C. Rural Center.