Looking for America
LEAD — Carolyn Campbell has travelled more than one and a half times the circumference of the Earth through the back roads and rural towns of America documenting the adventures and experiences she encountered.
Campbell said the project started last fall as a social studies trip to find the places in America where real, honest conversations could occur about the topics that matter most.
Fallowing the 2016 election and the political division it caused, Campbell, an international leadership/communications consultant with more than 30 years experience bringing people and ideas together, wanted to find a group of people who weren’t so jaded by politics and could point her in the direction of the issues that truly matter to the future of our nation, so she turned to high schoolers.
“People couldn’t get past talking about politics,” Campbell said. “So I realized that getting adults to tell me where to go was just not going to happen.”
Campbell engaged with local high schools and assembled a list of issues young adults were concerned about. She then asked the kids where they thought she might find the best discussions on those issues. The students sent Campbell to small towns all across America in search of answers and opinions, Campbell would record interviews with people in the small towns were she was sent, then send the recordings back to the schools as discussion points for the students.
As Campbell traveled the country gathering information for her students, she began to notice patterns forming in the small rural towns she visited. She said as she drove back to Oregon from the East Coast, she realized there was much more to the story than simply asking a question and getting an answer.
“I just kept thinking, ‘I don’t really know anything yet,’” she said. “’I’ve just not even scratched the surface.’”
So within three weeks of returning home, Campbell had assembled a new mission and acquired some major sponsorship and was back on the road; in her home away from home, a tricked out van. This time her goal was to ‘Give voice to rural America.’
Her travels have taken her from border towns, to dinners with senators; from cowboy whiskey bars, to Salem witch hunt sites. She’s seen the world through rural eyes and has found that no matter what part of the country it might be nestled in, more often that not rural American cities share much more in common than most people think.
Campbell observed that many rural towns were built around a specific industry, and when that industry leaves, the town is left aimless and without an identity of its own anymore.
“When people come from ‘company towns’ or ‘industrial towns’ they dedicated themselves and their family legacy to be a good employee,” she said. “In some places this has gone on for generations. Losing the company, or the industry is like losing a parent. They never were taught how to survive without them. Some towns, after 30 years, are still hoping the parent will return.”
Through talking with the people and researching the history of the towns she visited, Campbell said the dedication and perseverance in rural towns is unparalleled in larger cities.
“There is a form of realistic optimism that is a rarity in American life,” Campbell said. “This form of optimism is grounded in the reality of what can happen when life is ‘taken away’. The determination to never have this happen again creates a potent force of intention and action beyond the scope of normal life ‘reason’. These are the optimists who are believed in, will be followed, and will be sought out to learn from. This is the heart of Lead!”
Campbell said this optimism in Lead is palpable, and even as someone who had only spend a few days in town, she was taken aback by how far the city has come since essentially losing the industry it was built on, and its identity as ‘a mining town’. She recalled meeting Mark Hanhardt, a support scientist at the Sanford Underground Research Facility whose father was a miner for the Homestake Mining Company, and likened his story to the path she see’s laid out for Lead as a whole.
“This is how we identify as one thing, but we’re fluid,” she said. “People like Mark, whose dad was a miner, but he’s a physicist and he’s still here.”
Campbell said now that the industry Lead built its identity around has left, it’s that kind of generational reinvention that needs to take place for Lead to find its new identity.
Campbell’s visit to Lead was scheduled to last two days; she ended up staying for two weeks.
“There has been so much done on a grassroots level,” she wrote. “Reclaiming the Boys and Girls Club, starting SouperStarz, celebrating Cowboy Christmas, the mural project … to name a few. I wish I could be here longer to learn more. Every day I find another project underway (in Lead) that I want to find out about and share with other towns.”
Now that she’s back in Oregon, Campbell is already planning her next big trip, and said she has every intention of returning to spend more time in the mile high city and with the people who make Lead such a unique and interesting part of the Black Hills. To learn more about Campbell and her adventures, visit www.lookingforamerica.today.
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