At a forum hosted by Stanford University, a speaker panel discussed the gap between Silicon Valley and rural America and sought to bring more awareness of rural issues to students in the Bay Area.

Thursday’s panel, which comprised experts on rural politics and business, highlighted how Bay Area students can avoid impeding on rural development and why it matters to all Americans, including those in urban areas.

Former Montana governor and presidential candidate Steve Bullock told the congregation of about 100 students that urban and suburban regions like the Bay Area must “drop what [they] think rural America should be.”

“We’re next door neighbors yet we’re so far apart,” said Karen Warner, founder and CEO of BEAM Circular Bioeconomy Hub, about the Bay Area and Central Valley. Warner, who is originally from rural Central Valley, noted that places like her hometown bring Silicon Valley technology “up to scale” as it continues to be a hub for innovations for many industries such as biotechnology.

Audience members listen as Andrew Berke, an administrator with USDA RURAL Utilities Service, presents an idea during the Rural Development Panel discussion at Stanford University on Jan. 19, 2023. (Photo by Mark Allen Cu/Bay City News Foundation)

Along with supplementing technological developments, rural areas bring other resources to surrounding urban cities. “Where does the food come from? Where is the production of materials?” said Dr. Cora Neumann, chief health officer of the Native American Development Corporation.

According to Neumann, the “future of this country is rural” due to the unique culture and resources that small towns provide. Because of this, she emphasized that Stanford students who return to their rural towns would “see a revolution” in the opportunities they bring from their school to their home.

People from rural places should be in a position of power where they’re “actually making decisions,” said Keaton Sunchild, political director of Montana-based nonprofit Western Native Voice.

Respecting culture and bringing together Stanford students from rural areas were amongst the main reasons that Isaac Nehring organized the event. According to him, his time in the Bay Area has given him more perspective on the dichotomy between urban and rural and that he’s inspired to bring this knowledge back to his home state of Montana.

“I would ask people in urban areas like the Bay to have empathy, to seek and understand rural communities. It should go both ways,” said Nehring.