Closing Urban-Rural Divide to Achieve Equity

October 19, 2018 - (5 min read)

This is the fifth post in a series about reducing the divide between urban and rural communities.

Far from being an “urban only” issue, both urban and rural communities in Minnesota struggle to achieve racial equity and immigrant integration. Two efforts within the state, Thriving by Design and One Minnesota Equity Blueprint, are working to spread the facts about these shared challenges, create opportunities to tackle them together and address the urban-rural divide as a crucial step in promoting racial and immigrant inclusiveness.

Diversity in Minnesota
Racial and immigrant diversity is growing throughout Minnesota. Immigrant and refugee families, as well as Asian, African-American, native-born Latino and other families of color, are increasingly settling in rural as well as urban parts of our state.

Between 2011 and 2016, 82 percent of Minnesota’s counties saw an increase in the number of households of color. Of the ten counties which saw the greatest gains, none were in our most urban region, the Twin Cities Metro. The number of jobs held by employees of color has more than doubled over the past 20 years. Students of color are, or will soon be, the majority of children in school districts in both urban and rural Minnesota.

As the population in Minnesota continues to diversify, inequities, unfortunately, have also surfaced in education, income, employment, health and incarceration. For example, Minnesota’s GDP in 2011 would have been $16.4 billion higher if racial gaps in income were closed. If the inequities are left unaddressed, the economic and social costs will only escalate and hinder future opportunity.

One of the biggest hurdles to achieving racial equity and immigrant integration in Minnesota is the assumption of competing realities and diverging priorities. Currently, rural and urban communities, as well as racially and ethnically diverse communities, are framed as distinct and dissimilar, and therefore competing for “scarce” resources.

As a result, policy-making on issues that impact geographically, and racially diverse, communities, is typically approached as a zero-sum game.

By employing this competitive lens, rather than an interdependent view, it has become more difficult for rural and urban communities to collaboratively achieve inclusion and equity. In May 2018, a Pew survey report showed that most residents of rural areas in the United States feel that people in metropolitan areas do not respect them, and vice-versa for residents of the urban core.

A New York Times report found that both the Pew survey and recent election results “…show that urban and rural Americans are increasingly at odds with each other… both believe the other group doesn’t understand their problems or share their values.”

In Minnesota, this view has major consequences. Despite statewide support from business and community groups, a major transportation funding package that would serve both rural and metropolitan regions has been blocked for years due to rural and urban legislators getting bogged down in factionalism. The result is that rural highways continue to deteriorate while Twin Cities’ highways continue to become more congested.

Despite perceptions of our differences, there is a deep connectedness between urban and rural communities. For metropolitan areas to become healthy and sustainable, the rural economy will need to flourish. Likewise, for rural economies to prosper, metropolitan areas will need to thrive as well. A study I conducted in 2011 found that in Minnesota, every $1 billion increase in rural manufacturing output produces a 16 percent increase in urban jobs, and significant increases statewide in business-to-business and consumer spending.


To bridge the urban-rural divide and ultimately achieve racial and immigrant inclusion and equity, Thriving by Design and the One Minnesota Equity Blueprint have been launched.

Thriving by Design is an initiative led by Growth & Justice and to build a growing network and a blueprint for policy development. This cross-sector network includes residents, private, public and non-profit-sector representatives, and academics from both rural and urban communities across the state. The goal of the network is to identify policies and opportunities to seed conditions for a thriving and inclusive state-wide economy characterized by increased and equitably shared prosperity.

The One Minnesota Equity Blueprint is being collaboratively developed now, based on input obtained during the Thriving by Design process, through decades of experience in rural-urban and racial equity organizing and from existing research on rural-urban and racial economic interdependencies.

The Blueprint will be “expanded upon, transformed and tailored to a statewide equity agenda.” These efforts are gaining traction amongst state and local leaders and the media, and are being promoted as core components of statewide economic and equity agendas.

Thriving by Design partners co-hosted a conference in the Upper Sioux Community this past June to kick off the One Minnesota Equity Blueprint creation process, attracting a racially and regionally diverse group of leaders to discuss strategies for innovative and equitable growth.

The hope is that the Blueprint can serve as a template for “constructive, nonpartisan cooperation over the next decade” featuring strategies that “welcome newcomers, invest in residents and places, and reduce regional and racial and economic disparities.”

Additionally, equitable investments in education from early childhood care to post-secondary development have been prioritized and implemented to sustain growth. Conference participants took the Intercultural Development Inventory, an assessment tool used to gauge and build cultural competence in schools and organizations, and now, in community members such as the Thriving by Design network.

Ultimately, the Thriving by Design process and the One Minnesota Equity Blueprint embrace a belief that racial and ethnic diversity and inclusion strengthen our rural and urban communities, and sustain our state’s economy. Or in six words: Equity IS the superior growth model.


Kate Searls Photo.jpeg About the Author: Kate Searls is the Research Director of Growth & Justice, a research and advocacy organization Growth & Justice focused on smart investments, practical solutions and public policy that makes Minnesota’s economy more prosperous and fair for all Minnesotans. Twitter: @GrowthandJust