Vital Signs

Optimism and a can-do attitude attracted the OSU Rural Studies Program, the Ford Institute for Community Building and the University of Oregon to take a closer look at indicators of rural health in the Coquille Valley.

Optimism and a can-do attitude attracted the OSU Rural Studies Program, the Ford Institute for Community Building and the University of Oregon to take a closer look at indicators of rural health in the Coquille Valley. (Photo: Patrick Satterfield)

By Lee Anna Sherman

In late April, lush vegetation hems the Coquille Valley in hues of emerald and chartreuse and the forest-greens of Douglas fir. The fertile earth, alive with new growth, suggests vitality and prosperity.

On Main Street, the truth is more complicated than that.

Like so many rural Oregon communities, the small towns snuggled against timbered hills in this southwest Oregon valley have seen their economic base shrink alarmingly. Two-thirds of their once-thriving dairy farms have gone out of business in recent decades. New forest policies have forced small timber outfits up and down the river to adapt or die. And, with the Pacific Ocean breaking just 15 miles to the west, collapsing fisheries have harmed yet another vital economic sector here.

Yet the three neighboring communities of Coquille, Myrtle Point and Powers, dotted along the Coquille River southeast of Coos Bay, have faced these downturns in farming, fishing and logging with remarkable optimism, says Tom Gallagher, director of the Ford Institute for Community Building. So they stood out when the institute was trying to find places ripe for renaissance. The communities also impressed graduate students in OSU’s Rural Studies Program, who visited the valley as part of a seminar on rural sustainability, jointly offered with the University of Oregon. Like Gallagher, the students were struck by the fiercely determined, forward-looking leadership there.

“They have great passion and enthusiasm,” says Laura Rose Misaras, a Coquille native and a student in the inter-university seminar, which grew out of an OSU research project funded by the Ford Institute.

The valley’s diverse, energetic leadership helps immunize it against curmudgeons. That’s the term Gallagher gives to residents who’ve dug in to a dying way of life. Sarcasm and incivility can be their shields against an uncertain future. When curmudgeons run things, communities are poor candidates for change, says Gallagher, who was a leadership development specialist with OSU Extension before joining the Ford Institute, an initiative of the Roseburg-based Ford Family Foundation. The leadership training and small grants that the institute offers to rural communities in Oregon and Northern California’s Siskiyou County are reserved for places like the Coquille Valley, places that embody the institute’s core values of civility, tradition, creative change, hope and action.

“We’re just a catalyst for change, a convener,” says Gallagher, who lent his expertise to the OSU-UO seminar. “If local people hunker down, we can’t help them. They have to believe in their future. They have to own it.”

Collective Vision

The graduate students took this bottom-up philosophy as a mandate. Their experiential course, taught last fall by professors Bruce Weber and Brent Steele (OSU) and Michael Hibbard (UO), is emblematic of the OSU Sustainable Rural Communities Initiative, which Weber coordinates. In partnerships with local leaders statewide, Weber and his colleagues exchange ideas and expertise. Their goal: improved environmental, economic and social well-being in rural communities. When the students set out to identify “indicators” of the Coquille Valley’s well-being, they were guided by Weber’s oft-spoken words: “Well-being is universal, but it is also a locally defined concept. You have to learn from local people what well-being means to them.”

So, as their guiding framework, they used the community’s collective vision, which is embodied in an official grassroots statement of pride and progress. They also took a field trip to the valley, where they met local leaders and saw such assets as the state-of-the-art water filtration system, the regional bank headquarters, the logging museum and the OSU Extension offices.

The seminar required the fledgling social scientists to find indicators of the “triple bottom line” — economic, environmental and social well-being — as well as institutional health. They studied the history of the indicators movement and scoured case studies from across the U.S. (Sustainable Seattle and Missoula Measures, for example) and from around the globe (Zurich, Hong Kong, New Zealand).

Then, one snowy night in late November, distilling all possible indicators through the filter of the Coquille Valley’s goals and values, the four groups, one for each indicator, presented their recommendations to Gallagher and Rita Conrad, director of the Oregon Progress Board. The slick roads prevented invited leaders from Coquille from attending.

“Well-being is universal, but it is also a locally defined concept. You have to learn from local people what well-being means to them.”

Bruce Weber

“After doing an analysis of the Coquille Valley’s vision statement and meeting with the residents, we narrowed the field of possible indicators to five general areas, based on local values: youth retention, friendliness/neighborliness, housing costs/affordability, civic participation/volunteerism and commute time,” said Nora Cronin, a master’s student from Chicago, who led the social indicators group. Conceding that measuring qualities such as neighborliness would be tough, given their subjectivity, the group suggested surveys to measure such indicators as summer work opportunities for youth, civic participation levels, housing costs divided by a local “affordability” factor, and “return migration” figures — that is, how many young people come back to live in the community after college or trade school.

Not surprisingly, the students’ recommendations included such commonly used indicators as median household income, unemployment rates and educational attainment. But novel indicators outnumbered the old standbys. These included: number of young residents trained for locally available jobs; growth in nonextraction jobs; volunteerism in schools and nonprofits; client satisfaction with local agencies; involvement in such organizations as food banks and art associations; and level of church collaboration with the wider community.

In the end, the project was a three-way learning loop. The students, the community and the Ford Institute all gained insights from one another. Gallagher, who is developing a master list of critical rural indicators for the institute, says the students’ applied research validated his own work. It also gave him leads for new indicators and prompted him to add institutional indicators (such as “perception of local schools”) to his mix.

“The seminar,” he says, “confirmed that we were on the right track.”

Roots of Change

If you wonder how “friendliness/neighborliness” made the social indicators list, swing by the Kozy Kitchen on Highway 42 for coffee with Ranelle Allen Morris. This former mayor and city councilor, described by student Laura Misaras as a “do-it” person, has radar for people in need — and all the locals know it. So whenever an out-of-towner asks a question of the waitress or cashier, she points him to Morris. One recent afternoon, Morris cautioned a grateful couple against traveling the snowy road where a California family was tragically stranded last winter.

“My roots are pretty deep right here,” says the granddaughter of German dairy farmers who settled in the valley more than a half-century ago.

From the Myrtle Point beauty shop she owned for 25 years, Morris had a front-row view of the struggles. But she saw the resiliency, too: gyppo logging companies embracing forest stewardship; dairies computerizing; historic buildings, once destined for razing, being renovated with the combined efforts of the Ford Institute and local leaders — buildings that have become hubs for community cohesion.

Having served on many boards and committees over the years, Morris was the logical person to guide the OSU-UO students through her community. The Coquille Valley’s next step will be to convene, through the Ford Institute, the fifth and final training in the institute’s leadership series.

“I like my community, and I want to see it grow and prosper in the right directions,” she says. “In the past, there were lots of times I would see us just spinning our wheels and not getting anything done — not knowing where to look, so giving up.”

With the help of a catalyst, and a set of indicators to guide progress, the Coquille Valley has good odds for fending off curmudgeons.