Rural Action member Ted Bernard has been with Rural Action since the beginning — through a friendship with Carol Kuhre, he helped the organization transition in the 1980s from a local service organization to one responding to Appalachian Ohio community needs. And he’s been involved ever since.
“Forty years ago is a very long-term affiliation,” Bernard said. “Rural Action has been a major part of my experience in Athens and in this region.”
Bernard, a retired Ohio University geography professor, was drawn to Rural Action because of its vision of community asset-based development. He first came to Athens at 26 and he’s not regretted it once, he said.
“My career at OU through the ‘90s was working on community-based conservation, and Rural Action was very much a part of that,” Bernard explained.
Bernard is the author of several books, including “Ecology of Hope: Communities Collaborate for Sustainability,” which he wrote in the ‘90s alongside Jora Young of The Nature Conservancy.
“It was a compendium of about nine case studies across North America, where communities came together across political and even institutional lines, and collaborated to solve environmental problems,” Bernard said. The Monday Creek Restoration Project was one of the chapters in that book.
Years later, Bernard went back to revisit those case studies in a book called “Hope and Hard Times: Communities, Collaboration and Sustainability.” It looked at how those nine projects fared over the years, he said.
“There were cases that were spectacularly successful,” Bernard said. “I would say the Monday Creek Restoration was one of them; There were some that were stumbling because of the political winds, and because of changes in federal agencies and partnerships in the community. But there was still a fair amount of hope in all of those communities, when that second book came out in 2010.”
Bernard’s career also took him to Africa “time and time again, from the time I was 21 years old, basically.” Beyond just working on environmental restoration in North America, he also worked on restoration in Africa.
“From 2001–2004, I worked in the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana — one of the world’s largest and most spectacular interior wetlands,” Bernard said. “Some 100,000 people live there among a vast array of plants, fish, amphibians, and large mammals. These people depend on the delta for water, fishing, and other livelihoods. Communities are poor amidst an increasing flow of high-end tourists who buy into the inaccurate narrative that the delta is ‘pristine wilderness without human residents.’”
The project there, Bernard explained, was to try to redshift the local tourism industry to benefit the delta’s local, longtime residents.
“Our challenge was to try to refocus the tourism sector toward directly benefiting the human residents of the delta,” Bernard explained. “The idea that we were working on in that project was to bring awareness not only to the tourists and the tourism industry, but to the country at large — that these people needed to be not only part of the narrative, but also part of the income flow.”
“And that, to me, is similar to tourism development in rural southeastern Ohio,” he added. “Local people — residents — must benefit with job creation and cash flows to local governments and businesses.”
When Bernard was on the Rural Action board in the early 2000s, there was an obligation.
“There were tough decisions to be made and not a whole lot out of money,” Bernard said. “It was rewarding, but I imagine being on the board today would be a whole lot different, because the organization is so much more elaborate and has so much more in the way of resources to work with.”
Seeing Rural Action’s growth over the past 30 years has been astonishing, Bernard expressed.
“Seeing what we dreamed about 20 years ago manifesting itself in the present structure and mission of Rural Action is absolutely gobsmacking,” Bernard said. “It’s impressive that Rural Action has adhered to its core mission. It kept its eye on the prize and stayed focused on environmental and community restoration in this needful region.”
For Bernard, Rural Action is “exemplary” for the nation. “I’m just in awe at what they’re doing, what they have been doing, in the ways of agriculture, forestry, stream restoration, and more.”
As for hopes for Rural Action’s future, Bernard hopes it continues to stay true to its roots and continue to put in the hard work.
“I hope it can hold onto its purpose and its mission, and work with passion as it has in the past.”