The Power of Future Thinking in Rural Oregon

FBO’s Janet Soto Rodriguez reflects on opportunities to engage rural voice, vision, and strength wherever decisions are made.

FBO Deputy Director Janet Soto Rodriguez visits home in El Varal, Guanajuato, Mexico.
FBO Deputy Director Janet Soto Rodriguez visits home in El Varal, Guanajuato, Mexico.

Louis Wheatley is Strategic Communications Director at Foundations for a Better Oregon.

Louis Wheatley is Strategic Communications Director at Foundations for a Better Oregon.

For Janet Soto Rodriguez, connection to rural people and places runs deep. From a childhood spent traveling between rural Mexico and rural Ohio for seasonal migrant work, to becoming a high school educator in Texas’s Lower Rio Grande Valley, to serving as the chief architect of the Rural Opportunity Initiative for Business Oregon, her ties and commitment to rural vitality have been a constant. 

Today, as Deputy Director at Foundations for a Better Oregon (FBO), Janet is working to unravel a paradox in Oregon civic life and policymaking:

“While there is growing interest in the vitality of rural communities in statewide conversations, rural Oregonians themselves are not consistently or meaningfully included in these conversations. Why is this the case? How can and will this change?”

These questions underpinned “Can We Start With the Story of Who We Are?”, an overview of insights gathered in conversation with rural Oregonians throughout the state. Building on this initial phase of community engagement, Janet is working with rural stakeholders to develop a potential rural collaboration network, exploring opportunities to address the structural and cultural forces that inhibit many rural people from meaningfully engaging in state-level policymaking and decision-making.

In recognition of her longstanding commitment to rural people and communities, Janet was invited to join the inaugural Field Trips to the Future Cohort, an effort sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The fellowship was created to foster the practice of futurism among leaders across the United States who are working to ensure rural communities and Native nations are healthy places where everyone belongs, lives with dignity, and thrives.

In this interview, Janet reflects on the practice and power of futurism, and how FBO is working alongside rural Oregonians to create space for future thinking.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

“Practicing future thinking together is a way to assert our individual and collective right to exist, belong, and thrive.”

This fellowship brought together leaders from across the U.S. and tribal nations, setting out on “Field Trips to the Future.” Where did these field trips take you?

Our field trips were opportunities to explore the practice of futurism and future thinking with practitioners and experts from the field. For so many of us in the fellowship, futurism offered an opportunity to step out of the urgency of our day-to-day work and expand how we make time and space for visioning. Through these virtual gatherings, we honed the skills needed to recognize social patterns, identify emerging trends, broaden our strategies for change—and, in some cases, to imagine something better that does not yet exist.

The field trips also brought together an incredible cohort of participants who are deeply connected to rural places and Native lands. I was so grateful to be among them, and left inspired by the leadership and work happening everywhere from Appalachia to Minnesota to California. On every field trip, we practiced future thinking together and supported each other to discover new latitudes in our work with rural communities.

How far into the future is the future? 

The future is immediately upon us, because we’re constantly moving forward. We learned that most futurists look two to three years forward, scanning for emerging trends—social, technological, architectural, agricultural, biological, local, global, and more—that could shift or transform the way the world works. Just as importantly, we learned that future thinking does not ignore or reject the past and present, nor does it promote naive optimism about a better future. Instead, it’s about developing the skills to thoughtfully embrace reality while staying open to possibility. Then we can give ourselves permission to try new things while still being rooted in our strengths as individuals and as entire communities.

How does futurism become a collective effort?

This might sound funny, but futurism isn't one person looking into a crystal orb and telling you what they see. It is fundamentally a collective endeavor.

Futurism braids together many skills: tracking trends, assessing shifts at scale, measuring the impacts of disruption, and identifying opportunities to meaningfully engage these patterns and shape the future. To do this well, we have to examine the interdependence between one another, the land, and our livelihoods. It reminds me of the way some Indigenous peoples practice looking seven generations into the past and thinking seven generations into the future to inform present-day decisions. This approach to decision-making takes into account the balance and harmony of natural systems, and imagines what healthy, vibrant futures are possible. When we make decisions not only as individuals but more holistically with attention to future generations, we are engaging in a collective effort.

Many of the experts we met during the fellowship also spoke about how the discipline of futurism is rooted in many of the same practices that we see in movements pursuing justice and healing. When people or places are being written out of the mainstream story or even written out of existence, we are called to reinstate ourselves—both individually and as a collective. Practicing future thinking together is a way to assert our individual and collective right to exist, belong, and thrive.

“When we tell a more nuanced and authentic Oregon story, we can all see a future for ourselves here.”

How has futurism showed up in your work with rural Oregonians?

Future thinking has been a constant in my work with rural communities over the years. So many rural leaders embody the practice of futurism in their work on behalf of places and communities they love: They honor the past, embrace today’s strengths and complexity, nurture strong relationships and collaborations, and strive to build vibrant futures. Sadly, many decision-makers don’t always approach rural Oregon in the same way.

This year, I’ve been meeting with rural partners to explore how we increase rural voice in the systems and decisions that will shape Oregon’s future. Our conversations quickly moved beyond specific issues, like housing or the economy, to focus on deeper structural and cultural barriers that stall change or progress on any issue. The people I spoke with envisioned how rural strength, diversity, and collaboration could become the starting point for engagement with decision-makers like government, philanthropy, and more. By building stronger bridges between rural communities and decision-makers across sectors, we can practice future thinking together and make decisions that better reflect nuanced needs in communities across the state.

In Can We Start with the Story of Who We Are?, you write about how your conversations with rural Oregonians highlighted a need to demystify systems, shift power dynamics, and reframe narratives. How do each of these pathways create space for future thinking?

Demystifying systems starts with making our public systems accessible to the public. Most importantly, we need to reveal how systems work without asking rural people to change how they show up in order to participate. All Oregonians deserve the opportunity to authentically contribute their wisdom and experiences in a way that meaningfully informs state policymaking from design through implementation. By demystifying systems, we can insist on upholding the integrity of rural people as they engage state government, which is essential to imagining new possibilities and vibrant futures.

Shifting power dynamics is about expanding who has access to power. We have to make sure that those who feel distant from power get to participate in state-level decisions not because they are granted permission, but because they have the right. Only then we can create the sense of belonging and possibility that is so necessary for people and places to practice future thinking. To make this a reality, we need to strengthen relationships and widen circles of connection between rural people and decision-makers at every level.

Lastly, there’s a deep desire among rural leaders to push back on dominant narratives that imply rural Oregon is one-dimensional, moving backwards, or dying. These narratives fixate on deficits and fear, and erode hope for an alternative future. We have an opportunity and a choice to lift up rural narratives that start from a place of strength, engage complexity, and foster a sense of possibility and optimism. When we tell a more nuanced and authentic Oregon story, we can all see a future for ourselves here.

How is this work moving forward? 

The work is still germinating in its early stages, but I’m excited by the possibilities that are emerging. A small group of rural stakeholders are working with FBO to co-create the vision and purpose for a potential rural collaboration network. Unlike a traditional coalition that will typically organize around a specific issue in a time-bound way, a network can work to address the deeper structural and cultural barriers that suppress rural voice in state-level decision-making.

At FBO, we’re eager to support this potential network by leveraging our role as a bridge builder between community, policymakers, and philanthropy. There’s also so much opportunity to interweave this work with existing groups, collaboratives, and networks already addressing a variety of challenges facing rural Oregon.

There are many people across the state who reject false narratives about rural Oregon; who inherently understand that our systems are not working for everyone; who want to raise consciousness around race and equity; who champion the well-being of all children and families; and who want to cultivate greater belonging. From forest collaboratives to childcare hubs, there are countless examples of Oregonians collaborating across difference and across place to forge a shared future for us all. My hope is that we continue to reach people interested in this work and that anyone who is interested to learn more will contact us.