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Last week, we visited Rock Island and Toulon in western Illinois as part of our ongoing collaboration with Free Street Theater and Illinois Humanities to learn about issues affecting communities throughout the state.

These were our fourth and fifth workshops as part of this project, and we’ve been learning a lot about what different communities see as their biggest challenges and about divisions among residents on how to address them.

Three distinct takeaways stand out. Each offers insight into these communities, our process with Free Street and what journalists can learn from them. Here we go.

“Variety” means very different things to people, and it affects local economies.

Logan Jaffe/ProPublica Illinois

Our Rock Island workshop drew about 40 people to the Hauberg Civic Center. Ald. Dylan Parker of Rock Island’s 5th ward had seen our callout and invited us to town — a city of about 38,000 people and also the county seat — back in January. In one of the first exercises, Free Street facilitator Coya Paz assigned four corners of the room to represent the four towns that make up the Quad Cities: Rock Island and Moline/East Moline in Illinois, and Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa. She asked people to stand in the corners of the places they felt had the best of different things, such as shopping, housing and schools. When she asked where the best housing in the Quad Cities was, most people stood in the corner representing Rock Island. When she asked where the best shopping was, most people then shifted to the corner representing Davenport, though some were in Moline. This shift signaled that people who live in Rock Island tend to spend their money outside their own community — and later proved to be a point of contention.

A map one group in Rock Island made of their ideal version of their community. Note the inclusion of both big box stores and “boutiquey” shops.

Disagreements started in a later exercise that asked small groups to map out their ideal version of Rock Island. One issue that emerged was the role of independent, local businesses vs. big box stores and chain restaurants, and how to attract development without losing uniqueness. One person said he’d likely spend more money in Rock Island if it had a Walmart, Target or Outback Steakhouse. But someone else pushed back, reminding others that Rock Island does have a local steakhouse: DJ’s. This opened a broader discussion about the kinds of options for shopping and services people wanted. While there was consensus that Rock Islanders wanted more variety in where and how to spend money locally, variety meant different things to different people. For some, it meant choosing from 10 different underwear options at a big box store, while for others it meant more places for people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to get their hair done.

Our conclusion: Understanding the nuances of how different people in the same community define “variety,” or any other idea, is important. For residents and journalists.

Journalists should talk to young people, especially in shrinking rural communities.

Louise Kiernan/ProPublica Illinois

Our Toulon host, James Nowlan, publisher of the Stark County News, calls Toulon a typical, Midwestern small town. It’s struggling to retain population — the school district has lost 17.6 percent of its enrollment over the past decade. Housing prices are sinking and there aren’t many jobs.

Our workshop — which drew about 40 people to the Newsroom Bistro, an event and community space in the Stark County News building — revealed a consensus that one of the county’s most pressing issues is people — particularly young people — moving away. Nowlan made it a point to invite younger people to the workshop, and it was clear that older community leaders welcomed their presence. One young woman at the event who had grown up in Toulon recently moved back to the town with her husband. It seemed everyone there knew them. When this couple spoke, everyone stopped to listen.

After Paz asked people to envision Toulon in 20 years, many participants were unsure how hopeful to be, expressing a shared concern the town will die if nothing changes. A few people suggested that overcoming this would require new, fresh leadership — a sensitive statement, considering many of the community’s current leaders were in the room.

Pay attention to how different communities try to change perceptions.

There was a lot of discussion in both Rock Island and Toulon about changing the perceptions of their communities. Many people said that if you learned about their community only from reading the news, you probably wouldn’t want to visit, much less live there. It’s a sentiment we hear a lot in Chicago, too: Many communities with high crime and gun violence say larger news outlets only cover the negative stories, which perpetuates an unfair and inaccurate image of where they live.

But different places address this in different ways. In Toulon, we heard a lot of people talking about marketing and rebranding. But questions remained: What are we marketing? What do we have to offer people? What are our strengths? Some participants felt Toulon’s survival was directly connected to the survival of the county and its other small towns. Figuring out how to work together was essential.

Logan Jaffe/ProPublica Illinois

That wasn’t the case in Rock Island. While many people said negative perceptions of the community were one of its biggest challenges, Rock Islanders talked specifically about addressing the community’s reputation as unsafe, and how that reputation may be wrongly tied to its racial and ethnic diversity. Many participants agreed Rock Island’s diversity is a strength, and a few people said a reputation for being racist holds it back. But rather than shy away from that conversation, I noticed small groups addressing the issue head on. It was clear that, in these workshops, there was work being done.