T. ALLAN COMP
Former Program Officer
DOI and OSMRE/VISTA Teams, Department of Interior
Why is it to important to find the “rebel” in your town?
It’s important to find the rebels in your town because they are the source of new energy that I think a lot of our rural communities are really needing. If it’s the same old good ol’ boys—girls or boys—just trying to do the same old thing, it’s just not working. There are people out there, young and old, who’ve decided they’ve had it and they want something to change. That’s where the energy is in our little rural communities and that’s why I think seeking them out and finding ways to really engage with them is important.
What are the top two challenges you would say that small towns are facing today?
Beyond the usual needs that we all know of, I think our communities are aging a lot. Young people are moving out, so you have to find people who are still left and not overwork them as volunteers. One of the big challenges is how to better support volunteers and keep them active.
I think another big challenge is governance. I think it is very difficult to be an elected official in a small community these days. You’re basically a volunteer—you’ve probably got a life, and maybe even a job. Trying to keep up with all the complexities of local government as required by the state, the county and the feds, it is really challenging. To overcome all that, and still do all the other stuff you want to do with your life as a local elected official, is not easy.
What do you wish that mayors and town managers of small towns knew that they don’t know?
What I wish they knew most was more about how to engage the whole national service world: AmeriCorps and VISTA, the NCCC teams. Those are huge sources of capacity that is so challenging in so many of our rural communities. It’s the chance to have a full-time, college-educated young person who really wants to make a difference in your town for a year at very low cost, who can just be there to help. A lot of times, just that much more help could make a big difference.
Are you optimistic about small towns?
I am determined to be optimistic about small towns, because I think it’s a really important part of America. I lived a lot in Washington, D.C.—I’d been there since 1988. I also had a weekend place in Rappahannock County that I’m slowly migrating to over time. The difference is we lived in a very viable small neighborhood in the District. The small town of Virginia is very much like that, and I think it sort of anchors me. A lot of the people move there because it anchors them too.
I think that is a sort of tie to a real place and real people, as opposed to what can be a sort of artificial urban life of new buildings and new places and new things—nothing that is kind of rooted. Maybe that’s an old prejudice of mine as a historian, but for me, it’s a sense of place over time. Some place that has some meaning developed over time; those are, I think, important parts of the American character.