In May 2020 I began this blog to share practical insights on rural regional development. I started from a desire to share some of the discoveries and lessons learned from a journey of over twenty years of working on economic and social development issues with communities across Australia and Latin America.
The timing was not coincidental. It was May 2020; the world was sweeping into the noise of COVID-19 panic. Top-down government mandates landed in people’s lives, human rights disappeared, and community voices were silenced. I could see the damage coming, but there were no words to name it. The public talk was in another language.
So I resolved to write in the language I know, to say what I could, about what I know well: as an anthropologist who works with rural communities. I felt that it was vital not to lose that other view of the world: the bottom-up view of how communities at ground level work, what they know, what they can do – and how much damage top down efforts to “fix” them can cause. These are topics I know, and evidence I have.
The blog was established for people who care about rural communities and their futures. Its mandate was broad, and its readership has been equally so: from different parts of the world, from development professionals to local leaders, students and former students; colleagues and friends; many of whom live and work in rural regions.
As ‘the Bush Prof’, I claim only two things: I am a professor, with a proper list of academic credentials in anthropology and regional development; and I am unashamedly rural, writing from a stone house in the Tasmanian bush, on the unceded lands of the palawa peoples, caring deeply about rural communities and ever fascinated with how rural people grapple with challenge, change and opportunity.
As a blog, the stated aim was to present Reflections on local knowledge, global knowledge, and a prosperous future for rural regions. “Reflections” is apt; this is not academic writing, though it is academically informed. It is not a policy blog, though it aims to provide practical tips and insights. It is a reflective pool for big questions and useful ideas, and like the lake outside my back door, it may vary in depth, muddiness, or its ability to reveal the world crystal clear but upside-down from the expected.
The first year has covered a lot of ground. The Bush Prof blog started with a series on Rural Economies: Secrets to Success, which identified some common characteristics of rural regions, and then described four concrete strategies that rural communities can use to create economic prosperity – quite simply, by mobilising their strengths. Strengths-based development approaches are a theme that continues through the blog.
From there, we moved on to our series on practical grassroots development approaches, Rural Development From the Ground Up. This series focused on the question of “development” and what is required for rural communities to create the futures they want. In many ways this series maps my own journey to understand social change and grapple with the pointy end that most academics do not engage: how to create change – or help others to do so.
By then it was Spring, and I resolved to tackle the popular topic of regional growth. The Growing Your Region Series identified nine different kinds of regional growth – yes, nine! – three myths about growth, and some key questions about growth to inform regional strategy. Whether or not you bother to remember all nine kinds of growth, I hope this series frees you up to ask the questions.
Finally, in 2021 we have looked at Regional Development Starting Points. This series took a slightly new tack, as I started with an essay on how my own personal background influences how I see rural regional development. Through an exploration of personal, professional, and social starting points, this series discusses the human dimensions of regional development and their practical implications – such as why collaboration can be challenging; and why inclusion matters.
Along the way the Bush Prof posts have introduced a wide range of concepts, from common ones like sustainability, collaboration, and value adding, to deeper forays into local knowledge, culture, exclusion, and the power relations of development work. We have considered frames, hats, crates, people-to-tree ratios, plastic grass, and shiny ideas.
Throughout the journey, we have linked theory with practice, practice with theory, and played with metaphors, graphics, and stories. Along the way, there has been one urgent refrain: to keep alive spaces for communities in local places to act, to create, to take charge of change and make the futures they want.
One year in, this message has not changed. The space is here for conversation and reflections, for questions and next steps. It has been a privilege to speak here, and to try to hold open a hopeful conversation about local communities and prosperous futures. I hope you will continue with me on the journey.