Brian Vincent: Make Farmville the model. Make decency viral.

Published 12:45 am Monday, May 20, 2024

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“There are two things we can all support, two things that always draw bi-partisan congressional support – the military and outdoor recreation,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of WV as he spoke to our dinner gathering at the Decatur House, a block from the White House. His comments mirrored a conversation I’d had with the Gov. of Arkansas, Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R), earlier in the day. Both of us expressed a desire for more recognition, and celebration, of the things that bring us together. That’s as true in Farmville as it is in Arkansas. 

This sentiment was a through-line during the first ever National Outdoor Recreation Executive Forum in DC for which we’d all come together. The event was invite only, with panel discussions and networking in the Ronald Reagan Building by day and a reception, awards and dinner at the Decatur House that evening. There were 150 thought leaders from across the outdoor recreation industry and political realm who spent the day together. The gathering was composed of senators, governors, White House advisors, Federal Agency heads, CEOs and recreation champions from across the country. It was a great occasion for the outdoor recreation industry to flex its strength both as an economic engine and a public health benefit. Not only does it “contribute $1.1 trillion to the economy, support 5 million American jobs, and make up 2.2 percent of GDP” (according to the U.S. Department of Commerce) but it does so by facilitating memorable moments outside that provide clinically proven therapeutic benefits to our citizens.

Outdoor recreation can create social bonds and improve communication skills when done in crowd settings such as walking groups or mountain bike clubs. Playing outside in green spaces also reduces stress by reducing cortisol levels, releasing serotonin and endorphins which elevate your mood, lowering depression levels and sharpening focus. And of course, moving outside is good for your body as well as your mind. 

‘Recreation can help us course correct’

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Throughout the forum, the discussion of these mental and physical health benefits were often held in tandem with discussions about our toxic political culture. The screens we are locked into everyday can contribute to us being siloed out into islands of psychological desolation. The digital communities found in our pocket computers become barriers to authentic interaction. Meanwhile the algorithms of social media are skewed to draw out our worst instincts of tribalism. We are increasingly incentivized to be cynical, outraged and downright contemptible in our online interactions. 

Every form of new media, from cable to digital seeks to drive us to ever more extreme views, forcing a culture of divisiveness. It has permeated everything. This country feels on the brink of constant chaos because we’ve allowed ourselves to be led there. We abdicated our responsibility to cultivate personal interaction, community resiliency and national unity. We spend more time being told what to think as opposed to thinking for ourselves. 

Outdoor recreation can help us course correct. It’s one of the reasons I champion it passionately. It’s increasingly difficult to disparage people under the simple-minded guise of partisan political generalizations when you are outside smiling, laughing and having fun in the great outdoors together. 

Farmville, county, nation needs healing

At the DC forum I ran into an old WV climbing buddy, Chris Fussell. Fussell is a former Navy Seal turned Vice Chairman of the McChrystal Group. During his panel discussion on ‘Recreation Rebuilding Rural America,’ he touched on the nuance of language and how impactful it can be to understand communities from an intergenerational perspective and to find ways to invite everyone across diverse demographics to engage. It’s a philosophy that I’ve tried to embody. I’ve sought to understand people, to use the nuances of language to invite people into conversations that eschew cable news buzzwords and the culturally divisive language of today’s infotainment. It is my belief that outdoor recreation opens the door for that kind of community interaction. And I’m not alone. 

This forum in the nation’s capital proved that many, from the heir to the Walmart empire to policy makers from both sides of the aisle were hungry for healing. The aforementioned Walmart heir, Tom Walton, CEO of Runway Group, talked with me about his efforts to turn Bentonville, Arkansas into a cycling mecca by focusing on lowering the barrier of entry for beginners and families with easy access and opportunity. I told him of my dream to do that very same thing, albeit on a much smaller scale, here in the Farmville area, because it brings people together.

From Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Interior, to Governor Doug Burgum (R), to Sen. Hickenlooper(D), to US Rep Don Beyer (D), to US Rep Ryan Zinke (R), to C-level leaders from Winnebago, Yamaha, Orvis, REI; everyone agreed that the nation needs the kind of healing that outdoor recreation can provide. Everyone expressed a strong desire for civility, collaboration and the strengthening of community.

We used to look to our leaders

We used to look to our leaders for guidance, and to show us the way. But increasingly it seems our leaders are looking to us to be the example we wish to see in leadership. It’s on us. This is an election year. We are once again faced with bitter, ugly political battles. On the grand stage we are faced yet again with the oldest Presidential candidates in history (their previous election battle was also the oldest), and their election is poised to be very divisive, again. We’ll be asked to demonize them and all who support them. 

I’m tired of it. Industry leaders are tired of it. Congressional leaders are tired of it. Citizens are tired of it. It’s time to turn the page. It’s time to embody the principles of morality and thoughtful etiquette we wish to see exhibited by our leaders. But it’s our responsibility. We don’t need to fight each other. We need to fight ourselves, and help our “better angels” win. 

Throughout my conversations, whether with the CFO of Orvis whom I sat next to at the forum, or a surprise chat with political pundit David Brooks on the trail in Farmville, or with my crew at the shop, I ask the same question – “How do we make decency viral?” That is my mission. I believe we can do it by putting down our phones, going outside and interacting with each other. It is proven to lower stress. It is proven to elevate our mood. It’s proven to make us stronger individually. It’s proven to make us a stronger community in Farmville. I’m ready to do my part. Will you join me?

Let’s walk away from the divisive rat race. I’m not asking you to abstain from voting. Please vote. But let’s abstain from spreading cynicism, outrage, or attacks online.  Let’s walk outside instead. Let’s make Farmville the model. Let’s make decency viral.

BRIAN VINCENT is the mayor of the Town of Farmville. He can be reached at