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First Person: Commentary by UO student Joy Gipson

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

JoyGipson0207.jpgThe Finland connection

An international partnership project promotes vitality for rural Oregon.

By Joy Gipson

As a full-time planning and public policy student at the University of Oregon, a year and a half ago, I had a crazy idea that wouldn’t leave me alone. It involved rural communities, international partnering and community development, and arose partly from the cultural isolation that I experienced growing up in rural Oregon. I took my idea to my professor’s office, expecting him to tell me it was too big and too strange to contemplate. Instead he pondered it for a while with a little gleam in his eye and suggested I start writing a proposal.

While I was writing the proposal over and over (and over), I looked for information about overseas rural-development programs that might be interested in my concept. I discovered an inspiring program in Finland and e-mailed Peter Backa with the Swedish Study Centre, which supports community development efforts of Swedish-speaking villages in Finland. When I didn’t hear back for a few weeks I wrote him again. I fully expected him to put me off, but he responded to say he was intrigued.

My persistence landed me in Finland. I worked with Backa’s organization to create a development-focused rural community partnership program between Finland and Oregon. The purpose of this program is to give locals more tools for generating grassroots answers to their communities’ challenges and to build community capacity through broadened perspectives. Oregonians could learn a lot from Finns about how much is possible to accomplish on a local level, and Finns could learn from Oregonians about finding creative, off-the-cuff solutions to obstacles. My thesis is that industry development and job retention are easy when you have an active community working on issues. 

Another primary purpose of the partnership program is to introduce new perspectives on values and culture, as the cultural narrowness of rural communities can interfere with effective problem-solving.

Rural communities in Europe are tackling the same issues that our rural communities face — dwindling populations, closure of small schools, consolidation of farms. Finland is at the forefront in supporting grassroots solutions to these challenges.

We started small. We connected a pair of communities in Western Finland and Eastern Oregon and  are working out the structure of the program as we go. While I have a fairly concrete vision for these partnerships, I also believe that the communities should decide how they want to connect, what they want to do and discuss, and what they want to get out of it.

One main function of this program is to involve students in learning about how their community works and how it is affected by rural policy. I also figure it can’t hurt to have an exciting foreign partnership program right in the old hometown. Certainly all rural areas would like to see more of their young people stay local or come back to settle down, so anything that makes the countryside more attractive to young people is welcome.

First, the students participating in the program document their town’s situation with local stories and pictures. Then they gather information from people in the partner community about their rural-development issues.

And at the same time that the young people are learning all this, the adults will also be learning. Some will choose e-mail partners, and they will have access to question-and-answer forums in which rural-development ideas, frustrations and solutions are shared.

As these partnerships multiply they will all be accessed from one website, (yet to be developed) to make all of the ideas available for anyone to read.

The first communities involved are Halfway and Jeppo (pronounced YEP-po). They have begun by having fourth- and fifth-graders e-mail each other and pairing up adults by position and interest to e-mail each other. Halfway put together a successful Finnish Christmas celebration. The Village Association in Jeppo has officially adopted this project, and the Lions clubs and their members in the two communities are connecting.

I have more villages in Finland interested in joining this project and I’m exploring the possibility of giving it a permanent home at the University of Oregon. Gauging from the enthusiasm in Halfway, I know there are other Oregon towns that would benefit from the connection.

Joy Gipson, a 36-year-old native of the rural Willamette Valley, returned from Finland in December. She will graduate from the University of Oregon in June.

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