Creating agency in small towns

margaret_stoutMARGARET STOUT

Associate Professor
Department of Public Administration, West Virginia University
Phone: (304) 293-7978



What do you wish that town managers and mayors knew that they don’t know?
I think what I wish that they knew is that we need to start with relations and relational practices.  I think we all want to come for money, and doing and taking action, but we haven’t taken the time to build the relationships within the community and levels of agreement that will enable that money and action to be effective. Basically, we go cart before the horse.  The cart is all the great stuff that investments bring, but the horse is the community’s ability to work together effectively.

What has been the biggest surprise to you in working with small towns?
I think the biggest surprise for me is a lack of efficacy, the lack of the sense of agency.  I’m one of those people who doesn’t really believe in apathy. I believe in alienation, I believe in cynicism that’s bred from experience. It’s really hard to confront the deep level of that lack (of efficacy) in Appalachia.  It’s very challenging work.

Are you optimistic about the small towns of Appalachia?
I am. I actually think that the transition economy context is the best crisis that could ever confront this region.  It really is just the absolute “we must change” situation. It’s the same kind of thing in our response to climate change and the flooding that’s occurring because the weather patterns are so very different.  These are the kinds of crises that make us grapple with the tough decisions.

Do you think that small towns know the kind of resources that research universities can be?
I actually don’t think of it that way. I think that the problem is that we make promises that WE are delivering something at all. I don’t think that’s the right way to go about it. I feel that we need to work as an accompaniment to community-based organizations, leaders and individuals. If they have the attitude that we are going to change something, it certainly won’t change, because they are the ones who are at the helm.

So change comes from within the community?
Right, and then we can help. We can accompany, we can bring knowledge, we can bring expertise, we can bring outside perspectives and creativity, but we can’t make the change.