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‘YES Houston’ projects look at issues of small-town life

February 7, 2019

Tiffany Michels wanted to know why so many people from her hometown of Spring Grove commute long distances to their jobs.

Lillian Carlson was interested in exploring what impact the opening of a national chain store might have on her hometown of Houston.

The results of their months-long investigations will be unveiled Saturday when their short documentary films are shown at the Houston County Historical Museum in Caledonia.

“I’m really excited about it,” said Lillian, a senior at Houston High School.

Lillian and Tiffany produced their films under the ”Stories: YES Houston” program coordinated by Erin Dorbin, and funded in part by the Smithsonian institution. “YES” is an acronym for Youth + Engagement + Skillbuilding. The films will be uploaded to the Smithsonian’s “Stories from Main Street” website and used in a traveling exhibition about small towns.

First, though, comes the showing for the hometown folks.

“I want the audience to realize all the qualities and skills that exist in our young people,” Dorbin said. “Maybe they’ll invite them more in community involvement.”

As the project intended, the girls now know much more about their hometowns.

“The significance of these projects is getting these young people to make very strong connections, to help them realize they do have a voice, that they also play a role, that they are history makers,” Dorbin said.

Lillian’s film takes a look at the impending arrival of a Dollar General store in Houston, where a locally owned co-op grocery store and a hardware store might be affected by the outside competition. She interviewed store owners and other citizens, and then visited nearby Caledonia, where a Dollar General store has apparently been well-received by shoppers.

Her interest in the topic, she said, was sparked by what is happening to small rural communities like Houston.

“It’s already been shown that small towns seem to be declining, especially my own town,” Lillian said. “Bigger chain stores are coming in and taking business.”

Tiffany, meanwhile, discovered that the demise of rail and bus travel, along with the shortage of certain jobs in rural areas, has forced those who want to live in small towns to drive long distances to work.

“I realized how many people don’t work in the area,” she said. “They have to commute far away.” Commuters from Spring Grove travel to La Crosse, Rochester, other surrounding towns, and even to the Twin Cities, she said.

Those stories are interesting, to be sure, but even more important from an educational standpoint is the skills the girls had to learn to complete their projects. They had tutorials on photography, oral history, research, film editing, interviewing and storytelling.

“It really pushed me out of my comfort zone,” Tiffany said. “Before, I couldn’t imagine myself actually going up to a stranger and asking ‘What do you think about this question?’”

“You learn so much about your community and yourself,” Lillian said.

And while these girls are still in high school, there’s nothing amateurish about the projects they completed.

“The critical thinking and analytical skills — it’s really sophisticated work,” Dorbin said.