Written By: Juan Campos Collazo, Community Specialist
The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Thomas Vilsack, hosted a discussion with stakeholders in Puerto Rico, including community groups and economic development officials, to discuss the importance and impact of the Rural Partners Network (RPN). The purpose of this conversation was to encourage further development of the community networks. Secretary Vilsack wanted to hear directly from stakeholders about the benefits, opportunities, and their hopes for the RPN in Puerto Rico.
Background: In April 2022, the Biden-Harris Administration and USDA launched the Rural Partners Network, an all-of-government program to help people living in rural areas access federal funding and resources to create thriving communities. The network is working in 36 rural and tribal community networks; three of those community networks will serve regions in Puerto Rico. These community networks were selected through a series of deliberations with state directors and teams from RPN states, and additional consultations with prospective community networks. Each of these networks will be supported by up to four full-time federal staff who live and work locally. These community liaisons help communities navigate federal programs, build relationships, identify community-driven solutions, and develop successful applications for funding.
Cohort I: The first RPN Cohort was announced in April 2022 and included the launch of community networks in Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and New Mexico.
Presently, participating community networks are selecting their initial projects and refining their long-term priorities (i.e., future projects); USDA will organize federal partners to support these initial projects in an effort to secure early wins on behalf of the network. Additionally, thirteen staff have been hired to support these community networks with the only outstanding positions being an additional liaison in Mississippi, Kentucky, and New Mexico, and supervisory positions in Mississippi, Georgia, and Kentucky. Every Cohort I state has some level of RPN staff in place that are engaging with networks to facilitate a community-driven vision.
Cohort II: The second RPN Cohort includes Wisconsin, West Virginia, Nevada, Puerto Rico, Alaska, and North Carolina. Secretary Vilsack announced the inclusion of Puerto Rico in November 2022, but did not announce the specific community networks in Puerto Rico (nor in Alaska) since the selection process was interrupted by recent natural disasters.
Secretary Vilsack wanted to know from each of the panelists about the kind of work we do and how it relates to the Rural Partners Network. RCAP Solutions staff explained that we are part of a national affiliate, the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP), providing rural communities with on-site technical assistance and training to help small, rural communities address their drinking water, wastewater, and other community development needs. In addition, RCAP Solutions staff elaborated on how we help these communities access dollars from state and federal agencies for necessary infrastructure upgrades and improvements. RCAP Solutions also acts as a liaison between these communities and USDA Rural Development funding programs in Puerto Rico. The technical assistance provided by RCAP Solutions to the communities is free of charge and is funded under the grants from the USDA , EPA, and HHS.
A question arose from the secretary about what we consider to problems in achieving economic development. The mayor of Coamo, Puerto Rico pointed out the decrease of population as one of the most relevant problems, because of the lack of professionals, the decrease of laborers, and the decrease of economic movement. The mayor of Villalba, Puerto Rico mentioned the lack of agriculture development in Puerto Rico as a problem, and noted a dependance on foreign imports.
RCAP Solutions expressed that not all the rural communities have the commitment to improve their capacity and our work depends on community collaboration to achieve their goals and improve their quality of life.
Finally, the secretary advised to all the partners, especially the mayors, to first identify an economical driver and then write proposals based on it. He referenced the example from the mayor of Villalba, who identified the agriculture as an economical driver. The meeting ended with the thanks from Secretary Vilsack and from the USDA Rural Development State Director for Puerto Rico, Maximiliano Tujillo.