If they want to lead, empower them to lead.

Leaders are the essence of small towns and rural communities. The success or failure of any housing, community or economic development efforts in the places we call home often rests upon the level of engagement and investment of local citizen leaders. Yet, in so many communities I work in across South Dakota there is an invisible divide holding back the development of a strong leadership base. I hear experienced leaders saying, “Young people just don’t want to be involved in the community!”  and I hear emerging leaders saying, “The people in charge won’t let us try anything new!”

So, I am asking you, “How can we empower more people to lead in our rural communities?”

To begin searching for a solution to this question, I want to help you understand two community leadership systems that exist:

  1. Most community leadership systems currently operate in a traditional hierarchy – meaning top-down (like a triangle) – the board’s officers propose ideas to the members based on their knowledge of what the community needs. Then, following a decision of the board, the tasks gets allocated to the members who carry out the projects with board supervision. Traditional leadership systems define levels of authority and decision-making within the organization and invite you to join the work they are currently doing.
  2. The non-traditional community leadership system being implemented by some rural communities has a core leadership team that is structured as a network – meaning connected (like a circle) – with the basic goal of allowing distributed decision-making to empower and raise up resident leaders while giving everyone in the community the opportunity to identify priorities and go to work on projects they are passionate about. The non-traditional community leadership system can be chaotic and allows community leaders to collaborate, innovate, dream, and experiment which creates increased optimism and hope for new possibilities within the community.

The two systems listed above are quite different, yet if we are going to show emerging leaders that they do have the power to innovate and have real impact on the community, then we need to begin transforming the community’s leadership structure. Experienced community leaders can initiate this process by asking good questions, listening with curiosity, and taking new ideas seriously. Below are some sample questions to help these transformational conversations begin:

  • Open Ended Questions – What needs to be done?
  • Challenge Status Quo – Why must it be done that way?
  • Learner Mindset – What is good or useful about this?
  • Forward Looking – What possibilities does this open up?
  • Optimistic – What can we learn from this?
  • Empower Others – What are you trying to accomplish?
  • Build Relationships – How solid are our connections with others?
  • Understand Self – What do I need to reflect on to move us all forward?
  • Deal with Dependency – Would you like people to solve their problems rather than coming to you for answers?
  • Serve Humbly – How can I help you?
  • Encourage Action – What will you commit to do by when?
  • Evaluate – What does our leadership team do that gets in the way?
  • Listen – Are we listening to each other with curiosity?
  • Involve All Stakeholders – What are our common areas of interest?
  • Enable Change – What will you need from us in the future?
  • Develop Vision and Values – Are we being honest with ourselves?

The responsibility of building a pool of leaders in our rural communities falls to both sides. Experienced leaders must let go a little bit, and emerging leaders must build a foundation of trust. This will allow a smooth community leadership structure transformation with minimal chaos – ultimately good for the future of our rural communities.

So, if they want to lead, empower them to lead.


Old White Guy Stereotype

I often hear jovial stories and stereotypes, in and out of rural places, about how small-town people are stuck in the 1960s and refuse to accept change. They joke that we nostalgically hang on to our traditions, our history, our ways of doing things, and our small-town values. Personally, I choose to live in a small town because it’s safe, close to family, and offers me the quality of life I need.

I don’t appreciate these generalizations and stereotypes about how rural people are stuck in an outdated place. Those words certainly don’t represent the community leaders I work alongside every day. But don’t misunderstand, there are people leading and living in rural places that are stuck in an old system and their hard truth is, it’s not 1969 and it never will be again.

The conversation about change in rural places is certainly necessary, but hard. Often, when people courageously open up that conversation, it creates a barrier to progress because we aren’t listening to understand. The barrier occurs because the emerging system feels held back and the existing system feels pushed away. We must recognize that existing systems are not bad, but they do need to be nurtured toward the emerging system that is always certain to develop.

I have recently experienced some Aha! moments that have the potential to make our rural communities move toward an emerging system that can make us stronger, better, and hopeful again.

Aha! #1 – There is a new 3-legged stool of economic development.

The old 3-legged stool includes traditional areas of economic development:

  1. business retention and expansion;
  2. business attraction; and
  3. business creation/entrepreneurship.

The new 3-legged stool focuses on creating a community where people want to live. The reason for this change is because our emerging workforce is choosing a place before selecting a job. The three legs of this stool are:

  1. Business Development (create, attract, retain, expand);
  2. Talent Development; and
  3. Place Making.

Working on these three aspects together, creates a place where our main streets and industry connect; youth are being educated and encouraged to return home to add value to the local economy; and the community has a strong quality of place focused on the health & wellness, citizen engagement, daycare, housing, education, art & culture, and events.

Aha! #2 – We must acknowledge that our own presence does matter in our community.

Last week I heard Whitney Kimball Coe, Director of National Programs at the Center for Rural Strategies state, “Many of our communities are run by men of a certain age who like to explain things.” This stereotype of ‘old white guys’ struck a chord with me when I heard her say those words. I saw others in the room bristle at her words. I am grateful for the dedicated men who built a strong foundation for the community I call home. They have supported me in making change. Yet, I know Whitney’s words to be true. I was the only woman to serve on my city council in 113 years. I serve on many boards that are mostly men. I also work in other rural communities where this is a barrier to progress.

Similarly, Joe Bartmann, President of Dakota Resources says, “More leaders are not needed in rural communities. The old way of leading is obsolete. Something must change to engage the greater community so they become empowered to embrace the vision they have for their community and shape it into the place they want to live.”

There are people full of energy for change rising up in our rural communities. They are creative, passionate, and want to change the existing systems of leadership and organizations to accommodate a more empowered citizen-base. This emerging system allows more people to step-up and support the creation of a thriving community. It takes in to consideration things like work/life blend and working on what matters to individuals and their crowd.

Aha! #3 – Make thriving more important than growing your community!

The Argus Leader recently posted a headline, “Rural South Dakota is losing people while bigger metros gain.” This article was also picked up by the The Seattle Times with the headline, “More than half South Dakota communities losing population”. You can’t just read the headlines to get the full story. Jessica Schad with South Dakota State University Data Center provided the numbers to prove those headlines true and, also stated, “Population loss doesn’t mean that communities aren’t strong.”

Many small towns are beginning to take a different look at how they define and measure success in rural South Dakota. Instead of measuring success on traditional sales tax and population growth, these communities are looking at what matters to them and coming up with their own indexes and definition of success.

There is a new rural emerging and it looks like a place where the community is:

  • Making thriving more important than growth.
  • Filled with courageous people willing to have hard conversations; facing the reality of where they’ve been and where they are going.
  • Empowering people to take part in planning for and creating local outcomes.
  • Building up spaces that create community connections through education, art, culture, and more.
  • Becoming not-knowers; a community willing to ask questions and find the answers together, rather than pretending to need to know all the answers.
  • Acknowledging and embracing the many visions living within the community.

Together we can become the shapers of a thriving new rural. Let’s release old stereotypes and visions of our past to create the community we all want to live in. And, the key to making this happen is that we ALL need to keep showing up, over-and-over-and-over again, even the old white guys.

What’s the Secret Ingredient to a Winning Team

The Langford Area High School boys’ basketball team recently made it to the State B tournament for the fifth time in the past six years. As I travel across South Dakota for my job people ask me, “How can Langford (being such a small school) continue producing winning teams year-after-year?” My answer is always, the same – it’s because of the coaches. Successful coaches realize that winning teams are not run by one individual who dominates and reduces the rest of the group to mere followers. Winning teams are more like open forums in which everyone participates in the decision-making process, coaches and players alike, until the decision is made. Then, once a decision is made, the team is motivated to move ahead and execute it.

This winning team scenario had me thinking about the community engagement work I do with small towns in South Dakota. What would happen if our small-town leaders and residents started working together as a winning team, like our high school athletes and their coaches?

If we can envision the possibility of shaping our small towns into winning teams, then the first task for local leadership is to bring together groups of motivated people to make joint decisions and move grassroots ideas to action. Successful leaders, like winning coaches, recognize that they need to become more knowledgeable and competent in dealing with and developing local people and their ideas to create a dynamic small town. This team approach is a fundamental shift from the hierarchical leadership style we are accustomed to where the one person in charge provides instruction and the others in the group follow by doing the work.

Starting this process of building winning teams through community engagement can begin with local leaders inviting all residents to take part and volunteer their thoughts, impressions, and ideas. Effective community engagement requires 1) local leaders to be idea friendly, and 2) local residents to share ideas in a friendly way.

If you are a motivated resident with a great idea to implement, then here are a few pointers to help you prepare to share that idea in a friendly way:

  • Start by finding a team of residents who support the creation of this idea;
  • Brainstorm with the team a list of possible outcomes;
  • Document the skill sets of each member of the team and assign roles;
  • Identify any gaps that exist on the team and find outside resource partners;
  • Determine what success will look like and how the team will measure that success;
  • Consider any barriers to success or consequences if the team doesn’t meet their goals;
  • Create a method of team communication that is direct, fact-based, and flow two ways;
  • Ask the team what they heard so you can be sure everyone has shared agreement; and
  • Lastly, present the idea in a friendly way by explaining the why (make them care), the what (impacts to the community), and the who (team and partners) rather than bounding in to tell the how.

I can’t speak to the secret ingredient of coaching a winning basketball team. But, I am certain it is similar to the secret ingredient of a winning community which is being committed to developing people. These communities create a strong sense of belonging among their residents. They are friendly to new ideas. And, they develop their residents into future leaders that will carry the winning team approach forward.


Is Your Business on the Map?

About sunrise on Thursday, November 16, 2017, there was report of strong smell of petroleum and a potential oil leak along the TransCanada pipeline that runs through Marshall County. The leak was identified by a farmer 10 miles west and north of Langford (where I live) and approximately 10 miles from Britton. By mid-morning Thursday, TransCanada had people on the ground planning for a long-term stay in Marshall County.

Early on Friday morning I received a message on The Front Porch (our local bar/restaurant) Facebook page from someone I didn’t know, which happens often. The person said they would like a catered meal for 50 people that evening at an offsite location. I called the restaurant manger with the information so she could be prepared. It turns out that man was a logistics director with TransCanada. By the time, he made direct contact with The Front Porch manager he didn’t need an evening meal for 50, it had ballooned to 7 onsite catered meals for 120 oil spill workers from Friday until Sunday when their contracted food truck would arrive.

When we drove into the corn field that first evening with 7 roasters of hot food to set up on a table out in the cold winter air, I asked the logistics director, “How did you find the Front Porch?” He said he Googled us. That is also how he found access to portable toilets, hotel rooms, dumpsters, trucks, and other needed items to set up shop. This was good for us and the other businesses he accessed through Google, but bad for several businesses in nearby towns who also could have provided some of these much needed items. But, these other nearby businesses had never claimed their business location on Google maps, nor did they have a social media presence or website.

Because of that initial connection through Google, The Front Porch is now serving a hot lunch onsite, Monday-Saturday to 80 workers from December through March. This is a financial boon for a small town restaurant especially during the slow winter months. Thanks Google!

Every month, as the social media manager for The Front Porch, I get a report from Google. On November 17, 2017 our activity skyrocketed! (see photo below) The red spike shows searches from Google maps.

front porch google

Paula is a co-founder, investor, and agent of the board of directors for The Front Porch, a local community-owned bar/restaurant that also holds office space for three additional businesses in Langford SD.

Not Too Small to Have It All!

There have been too many years of disinterest and disinvestment in rural America and at times I grow weary of defending the value of the rural place I call home to a national audience. I recently read multiple articles about the rural underclass and the poverty that plagues our landscape from Bloomberg Business, NY Times, and Wall Street Journal. One of those articles written by Paul Krugman stated, “once upon a time dispersed agriculture ensured that small cities serving rural hinterlands would survive. But for generations we have lived in an economy in which smaller cities have nothing going for them except historical luck, which eventually tends to run out.”

I need to ask, is your community living in this fairytale and just running on historical luck, like the author suggests? Or, are you investing in your community and taking responsibility for the inherent change that is affecting your future?

We have all heard about the changing rural landscape from a national perspective…population decline, low median household income, high poverty, high unemployment, dilapidated housing, decaying Main Streets, etc. Yet, according to the 2010 Census research done by Ben Winchester of the University of Minnesota Extension Service, “People in small towns can stop talking negatively about what things their town has lost or what it used to be like. The changes in the rural Midwest are almost all microcosms of globalization. Rural is changing, not dying,”

Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity is Near states, “At the given rate of change, we will experience the equivalent of 20,000 years of change in this century.” This kind of fast-paced change means we have more choices and less time to make those choices. Today’s rural communities and the people willing to lead them need to be prepared for this environment. From my observation, communities that succeed in the face of change are connected to: data, outside resources, other communities, engaged residents, and global trends. Having insight about this ever-changing knowledge-base makes communities ready to move in a forward direction, quickly.

Here is a story of Neligh, Nebraska. Neligh is a community that refused to begin their story with once upon a time or let themselves slip quietly into obscurity. Since 2012, this community of 1,600 people has seen a colossal reinvestment. Neligh has welcomed 27 new businesses – a 17 percent increase in total businesses – and transitioned 14 businesses to new ownership. Antelope County has seen more than $600 million in capital investment. In a few years, when they complete all the projects in their pipeline, capital investments will clear $1 billion. Neligh didn’t pull up its bootstraps by itself. They asked for help. Their network of partners is long: engaged citizens, local businesses, nonprofits, education community, elected officials and more.

This story may sound like an overwhelming task or a one-of-a-kind success story. However, I am here to tell you that this kind of local development is realistic and beginning to take hold in many small communities because they are investing in themselves! Your community can replicate this type of development when residents like you are willing to be engaged and do the internal work necessary to establish a community development culture, clarify local values, and set priorities. This internal work is then balanced with external forces (e.g. resource providers, peer network, investors, developers, etc.) while seeking regular feedback, support, and advice from empowered community residents.

Let’s invest in rural places and build a community development culture that believes we are not too small to have it all.

We tried that before and it didn’t work!

When was the last time you heard someone say, “We tried that before and it didn’t work!”  In my early days as a local leader those words spoken by an experienced leader often stopped me in my tracks. Their words indicated to me that they had the experience of knowing what worked and what didn’t work in the community.  Sometimes I would ask, “Why?” and rarely get a strong explanation about the failure that occurred, which left me determined to learn more.

My confidence as a leader has grown over the years and I have gained much more experience. Now when someone says, “We tried that before and it didn’t work!” my response is…”and, what did you learn from that?”

Learning about failed attempts, missed opportunities, and community history requires honest and focused conversations with local leaders. I strongly believe that as current leaders, we must know the history of things tried in our community, the work that has been accomplished and why decisions were made.  So often, the reason history repeats itself is that leaders don’t own their part in the community’s history. We must look back and own our part of history to move ahead.

Let’s begin by asking a question – How do we start an honest and focused conversation with community leaders about what has been learned in our past?

There is an art to initiating and carrying out a focused conversation that creates positive results.  Here is a 4-step method that enables your conversation to flow from surface to depth. You can lead a focused conversation to reflect with your community leaders through a series of questions at these four levels:

  • Step 1. Objective Level – Begin with the data, facts, and external reality. Ask your conversation participant(s), “What did you actually see, hear or read?” or “What surprised you?
  • Step 2. Reflective Level – Next, evoke immediate personal reactions, internal responses, sometimes emotions or feelings, hidden images, and associations with the facts you discussed in step one. Ask your conversation participant(s), “What was your gut reaction?” or “What were your biggest frustrations?” or “What has worked well?”
  • Step 3. Interpretive Level – Then, draw out meaning, values, significance, and implications. Ask your conversation participant(s), “What are your hopes and dreams?” or “What would you say were your most significant contributions?”
  • Step 4. Decisional Level – Lastly, bring the conversation to a close, eliciting resolution and enabling the participants to make decisions about the future. Ask your conversation participant(s), “What do you think we should do?” or “What steps could we take to move forward?” or “Who else should be involved in local leadership?”

The results of focused conversations can help develop awareness to accept the things that have been done in the past and follow the lessons learned from each situation to move our work forward. When a leader starts asking “How can we learn from this?”, automatically it affects the future of the community. Having focused conversations is a transformational process that starts from one person wanting to learn more and ends with moving toward a more positive future by learning from the past.

As a local leader I want to empower younger generations to take their ideas and act on them. I want to be asked about successes and failures from the past. And lastly – I, Paula Jensen, vow to never say the words, “We tried that before and it didn’t work!”

What’s the Life Expectancy of Our Community?

I remember in 1997, just following the birth of my second son, when more than one elder in my community told me, “It is so sad that your children will never graduate from Langford High School like you did!”  Those comments told me that the local leaders were questioning my decision to return to my hometown and had lost all hope in their community and themselves. Well I am pleased to say, now 20 years later, that the prediction made by those folks has not come true. I could go on and on about the growth, development, and community pride that has erupted across Marshall County in opposition to those dire comments made two decades ago.

Pretty much all my life, I’ve been told that small towns are dying, drying up, and disappearing, and that there’s nothing we can do to change it. But what if, just once, there was some good news about rural communities? Guess what, there is! Big trends are moving in our favor:

Trend #1 – brain gain (youth returning home after getting education)

Trend #2 – changing retail dynamics (entrepreneurship is on the rise)

Trend #3 – new travel motivations (people love getting away from the city to visit)

Trend #4 – declining cost of distance (people can work from anywhere)

Trend #5 – creative placemaking (adding quality of life amenities to our towns)

During most of my years in Marshall County, the population has followed typical national trends. In 1970, Marshall County had 5,885 people; we hit our lowest population mark in 2009 at 4,160, which was a 30% decline in our county-wide population. However, since 2009 our county-wide population has reached 4,801, which shows a 13% gain in population.  Our trend line is moving upward and this is uncommon in rural places from a national perspective. In my day-to-day work across rural South Dakota I have observed pockets of growth in other rural communities, much like Marshall County. The commonalities I witness is that these unique rural places have strong leadership and care about what their small town will look like in 30 years from now.

I recently sat in on a webinar where Zachary Mannheimer was a featured speaker discussing Creative Placemaking: Economic Development for the Next Generation, co-sponsored by the Orton Family Foundation and the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design.

What is creative placemaking, you ask? Zachary Mannheimer defined it like this, “Basically, it means, how you enrich a community through cultural and entrepreneurial ideas.” For the most part he explained that it’s been done in urban areas, but not a lot has been done in rural areas.  He identified the future population trends that are emerging and how he sees the future of our country moving toward rural areas because of urban population growth and they are running out of space. Places that were once out in the sticks are going to be part of urban areas. This is going to be happening in the next 30 years. Are we prepared for it in Marshall County? If we aren’t prepared for the shift, we are going to lose out on potential social and economic growth in Marshall County. Rural city and county leaders, economic development corporations, and others need to begin planning to adapt now and create amenities that people are looking for or we will struggle to remain a vibrant rural community.

Marshall County is on the right track with new development, entrepreneurship, strong philanthropy, inclining population, strong schools, recreation opportunities, and so much more. But we must all step up as local leaders to support improvements and growth. Our small towns don’t need to spend any more time in the past. Things will never go back to the way they used to be. We need to start from here and keep moving forward toward a bright future that provides opportunities for our youth to return and a place where new residents want to live and contribute. Enormous changes are coming our way in rural South Dakota and our future has never looked brighter. Let’s lead the way and extend the life expectancy of our community!

Wishing vs. Hoping

The 1964 classic song lyrics from Wishin & Hopin by Dusty Springfield say, “Wishin’ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and prayin’, Plannin’ and dreamin’ each night of his charms, That won’t get you into his arms…”

So is there a distinction between wishing and hoping?

Wishing is feeling or expressing a strong desire for something that is not easily attainable. It’s like wishing to win the lottery but you don’t buy a ticket.

Hoping is to look forward with desire and reasonable confidence that something can happen. You can hope that you win the lottery because you have purchased a ticket.

Dusty Springfield continues in her song, Wishin & Hopin, “…So if you’re thinkin’ how great true love is, All you gotta do is, Hold him and kiss him and squeeze him and love him, Yeah, just do it and after you do, you will be his…” My conclusion is that the differing factors between wishing and hoping are the process of looking forward and taking action which can entirely change the course of your circumstances!

I had never considered the distinction between wishing and hoping until I attended the Helping Small Towns Succeed Conference. I attended a breakout session to explain and foster the trait of hope for community leadership. From the presenter’s research it appears that followers of community leaders want two things 1) stability in the moment; and 2) hope for the future. But unfortunately, the vast majority of community leaders do not spend enough time creating hope.

Think about it: growth is all about looking forward. A sapling becomes a mighty oak by growing slowly over time. An infant grows into a child, who eventually becomes an adult. Hope is the same way. It looks forward. When we have hope, we can create a vision and takes steps toward a better future for ourselves and our communities, not just wishing for things that could be.

Planting the seed of hope requires a change in mindset; leaders who believe community growth is possible and commit to pursuing it. The change in focus from wishing to hoping is only the first step. This movement begins a cycle of growth, increased hope, more growth, leading to contagious hope. Because when hope rises in our communities―everything changes.

Assessing Your Own Current Level of HOPE

Directions: Read each item carefully. Give yourself a score of 1-5 points based on the following: Strongly Disagree (1 point); Disagree (2 points); Neutral (3 points); Agree (4 points); Strongly Agree (5 points)

  1. My future will be better than the present. ___ points
  2. I have the power to make my future better. ___ points
  3. I am excited about at least one thing in my future. ___ points
  4. I see many paths to my goals. ___ points
  5. The paths to my important goals are free of obstacles. ___ points

Score Questions 1-5 is your HOPE score. TOTAL ____

  1. My present life circumstances are the only determinants of my future. ___ points
  2. My past accomplishments are the only determinants of my future. ___ points

Score Questions 6-7 is your READINESS to HOPE score. TOTAL ___

  1. I make others feel excited about the future. ___ points
  2. I spread hope through modeling or support of others. ___ points
  3. I spread hope through the way I live my life. ___ points

Score Question 8-10 is your HOPE CONTAGION score. TOTAL ___

Analyze your current level of HOPE

Questions 1-5 is your HOPE score (ranging from 5 -25).

  • 5-15, it will take hard work and much practice to raise your score.
  • 16-20, hope is an asset to you every day, but there are many strategies that can help you increase your hopefulness.
  • 21+, you are a high-hope person whose thinking about the future is an asset.

Questions 6-7 is your READINESS to HOPE score (ranging from 2-10). The higher your score, the more you believe that your future is dominated by your past and present circumstances, and the less room you have for hope. Learn to expand your sense of personal freedom without denying the realistic constraints we all face.

Question 8-10 is your HOPE CONTAGION score (ranging from 3-15). If you scored above 12, you are a model for others and consciously boost the hope of those around you. A low score suggests that you would benefit from seeking out the support and companionship of high-hope people in your daily life.

Pick a Promise | There are 30,000 to Choose From

Did you know that there are approximately 30,000 promises in the Bible? But, which of those promises could help strengthen your marriage?

The purpose of your wedding day is promises — vows that you will make to each other and to God. Your life will never be the same after you make those promises to each other. You are choosing to tell your future partner that you love them and would like to be with them forever, that you are promising to give yourself to them, no matter what the future holds.

You’re going to promise to stick with your partner in good times, but also in the hard times, in times of health and times of sickness, in times of plenty and in times of want. You’re going to be there with them no matter what season of life you are in — a newlywed and there is not enough money, or you want to have a baby and you can’t, or you have a baby and the child has a difficulty, or you are raising a teen, or you are fearful that your child is getting ready to marry the wrong person, or your parents’ health is declining, or you are going to have to make a serious career change — whatever is going on in your lives the promises take you through.

Some of us have had the privilege of growing up in families where marriage promises were made as life-long commitments. The generations before us worked hard to keep their promises and whether we know it or not our lives have been profoundly affected by those who made promises and then chose to keep them.

Those marriage promises made generations before us were also fully covered by all of God’s 30,000 biblical promises – encompassing one main promise to us all — God will act on our behalf, be by our side, and never leave us alone. That’s what our Christian faith is built on – God’s faithfulness to keeping all His promises to us and in return we keep our promises to others with God’s guidance.

On your wedding day, you promise to always be by your partner’s side. In the years that follow, you will have the opportunity to glorify God and reflect His character by being rock-solid faithful to your marriage promise. There will be times when that promise is hard to keep, when times are tough or mistakes are painful. What you decide to do in those challenging times will determine who you become and what your marriage will be like.

My marriage prayer for you is that your faith in God continues to grow and that your marriage is filled with joy — joy in sharing your life, joy in being loved, joy in caring for others, and the greatest joy in reflecting God’s character as you promise to love your partner unconditionally; standing with them no matter what life may bring you. 

Just a few biblical promises to keep you on track…

  • My grace is sufficient for you. 2 Corinthians 12:9
  • Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight. Proverbs 3:5-6
  • “For I know the plans that I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.” Jeremiah 29:11
  • I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Philippians 4:13
  • If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. James 1:5
  • Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort; who comforts us in all our affliction. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4
  • Those who know your name will trust in you, for you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you Psalm 9:10
  • My God shall supply all your needs according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:19

Why does nothing ever get done in this town!

Having a passion for rural community development and leadership is what drives my personal and professional life. My personal vision statement reads, “I will be a clear voice for rural people and places by mobilizing and empowering rural changemakers to build vibrant communities.” It has taken me a number of years, a lot of support, much personal and professional growth, and many mistakes to realize that vision.

A turning point for me as an emerging rural community leader was in 1999 at the age of 32 years old when I was sworn in as the first woman to ever serve on the city council in my hometown’s 113 year history.

Serving as a Trustee and Mayor of my community allowed me to organically develop leadership and management skills. I was empowered by the knowledge and understanding I was gaining. As a learner, I sought innovative ways to accomplish things in our community by engaging residents and seeking new resources which often created challenges with my fellow trustees, yet they permitted me to try and supported our successes as the community was developing and growing.

I am grateful for those five years of opportunity in city government because they built my foundation as an emerging leader. I was given new opportunities that allowed me to graduate from Leadership Plenty, co-found a regional economic development organization, start a community daycare, co-create a community foundation, and craft a new career for myself as a grant writer and community & economic development professional in the nonprofit sector.

Engaged, diverse, and collaborative leadership are essential components of vibrant communities, they are also the missing link in many of our small rural communities. In order to keep those small communities* vital and advance the future of South Dakota, there must be a focus on building our local leadership capacity. (*Small community definition = currently 95% of all communities in South Dakota have less than 5,000 residents.)

Statistics show that the prospect to serve as a rural leader in South Dakota is 1:27, as compared to 1:57 in our urban centers. However, the current scenario of rural leadership can be described by this familiar story:  Someone has a great idea for engaging in a community project, but no one wants to take the lead toward accomplishment and success. Too often all they get out of these great ideas are a few working group meetings and many frustrated residents that profess, “Nothing ever gets done!” When this destructive cycle is set into motion, it is difficult to get people involved and excited about the future of their communities or rural places as a whole.

The need for new rural leaders to rise up is great. According to the Center for Small Towns, South Dakota needs 357 new leaders every year. When we identify good leaders in a community they are priceless, and often depleted to the point of burnout. Therefore, we must have continuing support, tools and resources available to the existing leaders while simultaneously developing emerging leaders.

An important next step toward developing emerging leaders in our rural communities is to cultivate a leadership philosophy centered on community building and shared leadership for two major reasons: 1) the growing complexity of problems in rural communities does not lead to easy solutions. One leader cannot filter all the information available to address problems, therefore, they need to rely on the experience of other community leaders; and 2) a growing number of people in communities are no longer content to behave as followers, but want to share in the responsibilities and decisions.

We must all believe that each of our rural communities have unique flair, history & culture, economic opportunity, neighbors who care, a great quality of life, leaders that believe in strategic thinking, ideation and innovation, stimulating conversation, engaged residents, strong asset base, and understanding that leadership development begins at home.