This November, Indiana Humanities is focusing on our One State / One Story selection, Jean Thompson’s The Year We Left Home. The Year We Left Home explores ideas of rural, urban and suburban experiences, the American Dream and how we connect to a place. To help us explore these ideas further, we’re connecting with Hoosiers who have unique perspectives to share on the future of rural.
Today we’re talking to Jackie Swihart. Jackie is the Main Street Program Manager at the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs. Learn more about the Office of Community and Rural Affairs here.
Tell us about yourself and your role at the Office of Community and Rural Affairs (OCRA).
I’ve been with OCRA for a little over a year now. I started in August 2019 after graduating with a master’s degree in public history. My background is in education, so I brought that lens with me to OCRA. I started my career teaching social studies at an alternative school exclusively for teen moms in South Bend. It was mostly an urban experience, but now I primarily serve rural communities around the state as OCRA’s Indiana Main Street coordinator.
For context, Indiana Main Street is a coordinating program of Main Street America that helps communities revitalize the economy, appearance and image of their downtown commercial districts. It’s a comprehensive, incremental approach to revitalization built around a community’s unique heritage and attributes. The program relies on local resources and initiative, but the state program helps communities develop their own strategies and provides support for implementation.
My day to day always looks different, and in a non-COVID world, I usually spend a lot of my time traveling to visit with different Main Street programs around the state to provide technical assistance.
How does OCRA work to support rural communities?
OCRA’s vision is to build relevant and economically thriving places where people want to live, grow, work and play. We achieve that vision by working with local, state and national partners to provide resources and technical assistance that aid communities in shaping and achieving their own vision for community and economic development. The Indiana Main Street program is just one program under the agency’s umbrella that contributes to this mission. OCRA also administers the state’s Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), which help rural communities with projects like sewer and water systems, community centers, health and safety programs, and more. Most recently, CDBG funds have shifted toward COVID-19 response and relief to small businesses and communities. Another significant program OCRA administers is the state’s Next Level Connections program, which is designed to promulgate access to reliable and affordable broadband service to all areas of the state. Fundamentally, all OCRA programs aim to improve the quality of life of Hoosiers around the state.
Where did your interest in supporting rural communities begin?
I’m originally from a small city called Mishawaka. (Go, Cavemen! Yes, that’s really what our high school mascot was.) With a population of almost 50,000 people, I quickly realized that it wasn’t that small when I started student teaching in Lakeville. The population in Lakeville is somewhere around 800, and the school had an enrollment of around 350 across grades 7-12. It was mind blowing that some students seriously drove their tractors to school (no judgment—I was truly envious!) and that everyone in the school knew each other (my graduating class alone equaled their total school enrollment!). It opened my eyes to a different way of living. By that time, I had some urban exposure from having worked in South Bend schools during undergrad, but this was my first exposure to a real rural experience.
What are the problems and challenges facing rural communities?
COVID-19 has touched everyone, in every community, in some way, shape or form. Small businesses around the country have been hit especially hard by the effects of the pandemic. In a survey measuring the impact of COVID-19 on small businesses conducted in March by Main Street America, 82% of survey respondents in Indiana said their business had suspended operations because of the pandemic. Meanwhile, 87% reported loss of revenue while 70% said their business did not have an online sales component. Nationally, the survey indicated that the pandemic was having devastating impacts on the revenue of small businesses, and millions of Americans who are employed by the smallest businesses in this country would be at risk of unemployment during the pandemic. Small businesses are the heartbeat of downtown rural communities, and they’re really hurting right now. It’ll be a big challenge to keep them all afloat and sustain economic vitality in our rural downtowns.
What are some creative approaches or solutions to these problems that you have seen?
A lot of business owners have instituted requirements that staff and customers at their business wear face masks. They’ve also taken measures like placing hand sanitizer stations at the entrances of their business, posting information focused on steps their business is taking to prevent the spread of the virus, as well as limiting the number of customers, diners, or clients in their businesses at any given time. Outdoor dining has also been a great addition. Beyond those initiatives, I’ve seen a lot of new, creative partnerships form because of the pandemic. In Madison, the Main Street program worked with the Community Foundation of Madison and Jefferson County to offer grants reimbursing up to half of a business’s rent or mortgage costs during May. They also pivoted their “Fourth Friday” event to a virtual format and featured videos of shop owners showcasing their businesses and providing contact information so viewers could follow up for purchases or gift cards. In Shelbyville, the Main Street program partnered with the Blue River Community Foundation and the Shelby County Development Corporation to pay local attorneys to help small businesses apply for disaster relief loans or paycheck protection. The Main Street program also deployed a “downtown dollars” promotion, where the program provided $10 worth of downtown dollars to spend at local shops through September for every $25 spent on local gift card purchases. Lawrenceburg Main Street partnered with the city to award more than $270,000 in emergency grants to small businesses. What these activities and partnerships demonstrate is just how quickly everyone realized that it had to be all-hands-on-deck. We truly are all in this pandemic together, and to make it through this crisis, we must also work together. Place attachment, community pride and looking out for your neighbors have always been core values of rural America. That wasn’t going to change because of a COVID-19.
Our statewide read, The Year We Left Home, asks us to think about the American Dream and who it is for. How do you feel rural Hoosiers connect to the idea of the American Dream?
When I consider the American Dream, I gravitate immediately toward FDR’s Four Freedoms. These freedoms (freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear) were publicized as fundamental values in American life at the time in which they were described by FDR. Since his initial speech in 1941, we as a country have slowly begun to reckon with the reality that those freedoms aren’t necessarily given to, or experienced by, all Americans. We find ourselves in a time in which we cannot justifiably talk about the American Dream without also discussing who’s left out of it.
My background is in American history, like I mentioned, so I’ve been personally interested in how rural communities around the state have responded to current social justice issues and calls to action regarding equity, inclusivity and equality. I’ve seen both ends of the spectrum. In one community, a Main Street board member decided to leave the organization because they didn’t agree with the program’s public statement supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. In contrast, I’ve seen an outpouring of public support for social justice through public demonstrations, signage and other promotions. This contrast tells me that the definition of the American Dream in rural Indiana is nuanced. Messy. Controversial. And its meaning is questioned more than ever before. Above all, though, the definition is changing.
In your job at the Office of Community and Rural Affairs, what is something you have seen that gives you hope around the future of rural?
People care. They care about each other, their community, their public spaces, their business owners, their heritage, you name it. I haven’t met a single person in this job who wasn’t proud of the community they called home. To get people from outside of the community to invest in rural (whether that be financially or emotionally), there needs to be some sense of pride because pride is contagious. I think that’s what Main Street does so well. It rallies residents into community-driven action to make their downtown the best it can be—a place where people want to be. When I see people dedicate their free time to serve on a board or committee of their local Main Street organization, I know it’s because they care. Seeing people care for their neighbors and demonstrate spirit of generosity gives me hope.