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Getting to Work in Small Town America

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I spent my 4th of July weekend as a tourist in Wilmington, Ohio. While Wilmington may not be on a lot of New Yorkers lists of top tourist destinations, I had one of the most interesting and inspiring holiday weekends of my life. That's because I went there to spend some time with two fellow millennials, Mark Rembert and Taylor Stuckert. Mark and Taylor have returned to their beloved hometown of Wilmington, Ohio -- both after flirting with the Peace Corps -- and formed an organization called Energize Clinton County that is working to help revitalize their town and the surrounding county.

If Wilmington sounds familiar to you, it may be because it has been in the news frequently in the past year as a case study in what's ailing America's heartland. It's a town with a population of about 12,000 and the current unemployment rate is 18%, one of the highest citywide rates anywhere in the nation. Wilmington lost 8,500 jobs in one fell swoop when a DHL plant closed in 2008. Between the DHL closure, the brain drain of young people out of the middle of the country, and the overall high unemployment rate, Wilmington has become a poster child of the economic crisis. Rockstar Jon Bon Jovi even wrote a song about it. If you read the news accounts (or listen to Bon Jovi's song) you'd assume that this is the worst case scenario of the big employer forced to shutter, leaving in its wake a depressed town facing extinction, full of fear and misery. In fact, however, that's not the whole story. If you spend some time in Wilmington you immediately realize the town is full of life and energy, something that Mark and Taylor have a lot to do with.

Through their passion, commitment, and what one Wilmington millennial I spoke to described as their "incredibly persuasive abilities," Mark, Taylor, and their Energize Clinton County organization have brought dozens of young people who originally hailed from Wilmington back to their hometown, or otherwise encouraged people to stay. The energy is infectious: they've built a countywide campaign called Buy Local First to encourage people to buy local products and food. They've worked to certify the region as a Green Enterprise Zone (a special classification which allows government resources to be spent in the region on green economic development endeavors), the first area in Ohio to receive such certification. They've created an innovative fellows program that partners young people with local businesses to help the fellows learn about business and local needs, while allowing the local business community the opportunity to learn about everything from social media to green technologies and processes. They've only been at this for 18 months. But rest assured this is just the beginning. Taylor and Mark are committed to this for the long haul. A local businessman and chairman of the local Chamber of Commerce, Phil Swindler, had this to say of these two hometown boys' work, "Working with Mark and Taylor you would never get the impression that things are as awful as they are because of the possibilities and the changes that they've made, you'd see a very bright, hopeful future."

I was interviewing Mark and Taylor on assignment for my upcoming book, Millennial Promise, about the impact and actions of the millennial generation. Mark, Taylor, and I are all members of this remarkable demographic cohort (young Americans who are 18-29 years old today). The story of Energize Clinton County is representative of actions and impact that can be found across this generation and this nation, as a generation of pragmatic idealists figures out new ways to address America's longstanding challenges. We are a generation that deeply wants to change the world and we believe we can, yet we realize that this idealism must be tempered with a pragmatic approach and a plan to deal with the problems we want to solve.

Taylor and Mark showed me, just as they have shown their neighbors and colleagues, why we need small town America. A lot of people assume that small town America is backward and boring or empty of intellectual challenge or economic opportunity. But it's quite an experience to walk around the streets as I did with Mark and Taylor and see everyone wave to each other, offer help on the smallest task to a neighbor, and exhibit all the bedrock values of a true community of people who care about each other. Within a few hours in Wilmington, I was ready to move there.

Places like Wilmington supply a vast amount of the corn and soybeans that fuel much of our agricultural economy. Yet farmers have been pushed out of being able to grow the wide range of crops that they traditionally grew in the past. And we're not taking care of the people in these towns, without whom, many of the products we eat and use would not exist. Saving small town America by reinforcing its opportunities and possibilities is not a sexy issue, and it's not a simple issue, but it's an important one. In Mark and Taylor's case, it's a problem that many young people see all around them, and now have decided to take action on, instead of complaining or sitting around and waiting for someone else to take up the cause.

And as I sat there watching the July 4th fireworks with Mark and Taylor, I realized that when we look for American patriots, these are the kind of people we should be thinking about. The people -- many of them members of this millennial generation -- who just dig in and get to work trying to solve a problem that matters.

Learn more about Mark and Taylor's work and support them here