Being a Better Board Member

If you live in a small town, it’s likely that you are serving on multiple boards. The school board. The city council. The economic development board. The church board. The library board. The co-op board. The arts council. The bank board. The list could go on and on and on.

Ben Winchester from the University of Minnesota has stated that even though most rural counties experienced a population loss in the last census, the number of nonprofits increased by an average of 15%. These nonprofits all require boards of directors and serving on those boards requires our time, talents, and resources. His research also shows 1 out of every 26 people in rural communities has an obligation to lead versus 1 out of 56 in urban communities.

This research causes me to wonder — if the pool of potential leaders is declining yet the need and obligation to serve as a leader is growing, then how is that directly affecting the quality of leadership skills required to serve on any board?

I have served on a few boards over the past few decades and only once has any one vetted me to serve as a leader of their organization by asking what leadership skills I would bring to their organization or defining my role as a board member in their organization. In most cases I really didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing, I was just eager to serve. However, to become a quality leader and build my skills, I observed others, asked a lot of questions, and figured it out as I went along. I also read a lot of leadership books to improve my skills. Sometimes that worked well, other times there was failure.

I believe we need to improve how we are preparing people to lead organizations in our small towns by clearly defining leadership roles in organizations and mentoring younger people through the process of service. And, if we are already in leadership, then we must continually be practicing and improving our leadership skills to help our communities be stronger. We also have an obligation to be an engaged and educated when we are willing to serve on a board of directors.  As a minimum entry point to serving on any board, we must start by understanding the three fundamental legal duties of each individual board member, which include: (source}

Duty of Care — Each board member has a legal responsibility to participate actively in making decisions on behalf of the organization and to exercise his or her best judgment while doing so.

Duty of Loyalty — Each board member must put the interests of the organization before their personal and professional interests when acting on behalf of the organization in a decision-making capacity. The organization’s needs come first.

Duty of Obedience — Board members bear the legal responsibility of ensuring that the organization complies with the applicable federal, state, and local laws and adheres to its mission.

Ultimately, we need people who have a passion for the community and a willingness to lead and learn. Serving on the board of an organization that you care about is one of the most fulfilling jobs you can have, so get engaged and begin learning more about maximizing your potential as a local leader to help your community thrive.

The Stop Doing List for Communities

Have you ever experienced a time when you could envision what needs to happen but had no idea what to stop doing in order to reach the point of success?

Here is a simple example: This year at Santa Day in my community someone asked, “Why do we give away turkeys to families during this event – it seems like a waste of funds and fundraising time?” My immediate thought was – it’s a long-standing tradition. In my community we have always collected money from local businesses to give away turkeys on Santa Day. Over the decades the number of volunteers hosting Santa Day has decreased along with the number of businesses, so now businesses and individuals generously donate to our local community group to provide turkey donations for Santa Day. The truth is raising money isn’t hard in our community, but no one has ever asked the question, “Do people really want a turkey for Christmas?” How do we continue the tradition of generosity, but do it without the turkey?

Sometimes we get stuck in a cycle that loses the real purpose of why we started something. Communities often just do what they’ve always done and honestly, it is frequently good work. But when that good work stops having a purpose or producing results because our world has shifted, people really can’t understand why. This is where conflict can begin. A good question to ask each other at times like this is — What should our community stop doing to reach our fullest potential?

The Stop Doing List can be an important conversation for any community, and it should include its companion the Do Differently List. Together they offer an innovative path toward your fullest potential. What could your community stop doing in 2020 that would brighten your future?

Below is my short list of things communities could stop doing and replace with new ways of leading and doing.

  1. Stop having meetings. So often we sit in unproductive meetings that go off track, last too long and never produce results. It really makes people not want to be involved. Try setting a purpose for your meeting in advance, ask people to co-create the agenda and then set time limits for each agenda item to keep you on track.
  2. Stop saying “rural is dying”. The truth is, if you’re not trying, you’re dying! In the past decade, the communities who are collaborating regionally and actively working on housing, community and economic development will likely see an uptick in population in the 2020 Census. They are trying! You can check for population estimates in your town or county.
  3. Stop relying on elected leaders. While many communities have excellent leaders, others struggle to fill important community positions, contributing to a wide divergence of capacity. Believe in yourself and cultivate the leader within you. Then cultivate leadership in those around you to develop local vision, community approaches to problem solving and generate funding for projects. We all can contribute to local success.
  4. Stop believing more jobs is the answer. Entrepreneurship is the key to creating jobs and retaining young residents in small towns. Creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem strengthens communities and regions by building partnerships among education, industry, and financial sectors.

Now it’s your turn (leave a comment) — What else would you add to your community’s Stop Doing List that could help reach its fullest potential?

Does Communication Really Have to be So Hard in Small Towns?

One-by-one, sixteen local leaders from multiple neighboring rural communities, courageously, yet with some hesitancy, walked through the door of the community room. They did not know what to expect from this gathering. They didn’t even all know each other. The group, representing city councils, county commission, and economic development corporation, had been personally invited by the county-wide economic development director to hear from a special guest on the topic of how they could work better together to make their region stronger.

As each leader entered the room the smell of pizza greeted them, making them feel welcome. After some small talk while they ate their pizza, the local leaders were asked to sit down at the tables that had purposely been positioned into a large rectangle, so they could see each other. The meeting began with introductions and each of them shared why they chose to be a leader. The group was off to a great start, and after two swift hours of conversations in small groups and the large group, one of the local leaders said, “It seems to me that in a world of more communication tools than ever, we are so much worse at communicating with each other in our community. How can we improve this?”

This group of leaders is not the first to ask that question. But, what is holding them back from healthy, productive communication that has the potential to move them forward and make them stronger together? A few of the barriers that make communication hard, include: 1) Differing expectations, assumptions and perceptions; 2) Tendency to pick and choose what information is retained when a message is received; 3) Distractions; 4) Not asking for clarity; and 5) Failing to listen with curiosity.

Taking that first leap toward great communication in a community takes trust, determination, engagement, and accountability from everyone. Here are some ways to get started:

  • Start small. With a core group of local leaders, agree to make communication a priority. Start by naming the old habits. Commit to listening to others, asking questions, building relationships, and then meeting regularly to report what has been learned.
  • Build the capacity and confidence of local leaders by hosting generational leadership workshops for youth and adults together. There are many leadership books that can be a catalyst for these gatherings. At your first meeting consider asking: What does it mean to be a leader? How can you learn to lead? What do I need to do differently to become a better leader?
  • Through a survey or focus group, monitor how people best receive communication in today’s environment. Then be willing to make some adjustments and try communication tools that support inclusive communication.
  • Encourage participation from residents by asking them to share innovative ideas for the community in a dropbox that is placed at the gas station or bank. Then host community events where residents can pull an idea out of the box and have small group conversations to brainstorm what might be possible.
  • Create one collaborative Media Strategy for the entire community. This might include a web-based community calendar with the churches, school, city, and community events or a common community brand and logo for the Chamber of Commerce, Economic Development, City, School.

At the end of the 2-hour gathering, the group of sixteen leaders from multiple communities agreed to begin meeting quarterly for communication check-ins and expand the group to include more elected officials and school leadership. Communication doesn’t have to be so hard in a small town, you just have to start by sitting around the table to listen, ask questions, learn and talk to each other. When this new habit is put into place, the discovery of how to work better together to make their region strong will happen.

How do I Know He’s ‘the One’?

(written for the future bride of my nephew on August 4, 2018)

Dear Kayla,

I have heard people caringly ask brides before the wedding day, “How do you know he’s the One?” Our culture tells us, if you find “the One,” then you can most certainly avoid broken vows and crushed dreams.

One of the Bible’s most romantic love stories is the account of Isaac and Rebekah, found in Genesis 24. If there were ever a situation in which God clearly said, “This is ‘the One’ you should marry!,” it was this couple. It was truly a match made in heaven. Fast-forward about 30 years. These star-crossed lovers are now parents of twin boys who despise each other. Isaac loves Esau, and Rebekah loves Jacob. We find this husband and wife in a web of manipulation, anger, and deceit. Finding “the One” certainly didn’t guarantee them a life-long, stress-free love affair. Selfishness and bitterness compromised their unconditional love, even though they were ordained by God to fall in love and marry.

So, Kayla, instead of focusing on the single question, “How do I know Sean is ‘the One’?”, I want you to consider these three questions, not just now but throughout your marriage to Sean:

Question #1. Am I in God’s will?  Unfortunately, God does not reveal our entire life plan to us all at once. So instead of spinning your wheels trying to figure out what you don’t know, seek the truth about what God HAS revealed in His will for your life. As you grow in love through your marriage to Sean, God will continue to give you some very clear guidelines, such as 2 John 1:6 promises, “And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands.”

Question #2. Am I seeking wisdom?  God leads through the wisdom of His word and those He has put in your life, so just ask for what you need. Solomon tells us in Proverbs that a wise person is open to feedback.  As James 1:5 promises, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”

Question #3. Am I realistic about marriage?  The truth is, Kayla, … marital happiness isn’t solely based on finding ‘the One’, even though we know Sean is your one and only love based on the way he looks at you and only you. A strong marriage will depend largely on the work you both are willing to do in your marriage. Any couple that is willing to grow, to love, and to communicate through challenges can have a dynamic relationship. As 2 Peter 1:3 promises, “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.”

Kayla, I want you to expect that marriage will be a tremendous gift, and one that will require unconditional love, lots of work and lasting commitment. Expect that along the way your concept of love will be refined. Expect that by leaning on the Lord, you will have everything you need to be a great wife to Sean.

A good marriage is not something you find, instead it’s something you make with the love and support from God, your family and your church community.

God, thank you for the gift of marriage and for the companionship that Kayla and Sean have found in each other. I pray that you will walk beside them and strengthen them for this life journey together. Let them daily remember the words from Ephesians 4:2, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”  In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.

Raise Your Voice for Rural Communities

It seems to me the only voices being heard in this world are from big companies, big cities and big government. The news blasted on my car radio as I drove across the prairie a few weeks ago, “the nation’s Gross Domestic Product growth has risen to a booming 4.1 during the second quarter of 2018 and consumer confidence is high as we go into mid-term elections.”  I wanted to yell at the car radio, “What about the news that is affecting rural communities!”

That brief tantrum brought a question to mind for me. Where are the voices willing to explore and discuss issues facing rural communities?

There is an online news feed called The Daily Yonder that understands rural and puts our issues in perspective, but I’m guessing since it’s not one of the national news mediums, not many are looking at it.  Jim Goodman, a writer for the Daily Yonder recently wrote, “In February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) predicted 2018 crop profits would hit a 12-year low. Dairy farmers’ prices have fallen 30% in two years, while pork producers have seen a price drop of roughly $20 per head. Overall farm incomes are down nearly 50% from 2013. Long before the trade war began, I and many other farmers feared we were in a farm crisis as bad as that of the 1980s. Now we know it will be even worse.”

The success or despair of agriculture will ultimately trickle down to us all in small South Dakota towns. Yet, how we as individuals and the collective community choose to raise our voices and prepare for those times of success or despair equates to whether our communities will thrive or die.

The small towns that are successful in South Dakota are focused on creating a new rural – a vision and strategy to thrive. These small towns and regions are exploring the strategic possibilities of community and economic development. Here are a few strategic ways communities of the new rural are choosing to thrive:

Initiating Community Conversations – Because of the culture and leadership structures in small towns, we often lack a voice to raise difficult and challenging questions on issues facing our communities. With little cost but plenty of leadership, thriving rural communities are hosting community gatherings to talk about the issues, surveying residents, commissioning housing studies, empowering citizens to take action, and elevating other issues of priority.

Educating the community – Local community and economic development organizations are providing easy-to-understand public education on issues that are at the forefront, such as housing, business, leadership, daycare, quality of life amenities and more. By presenting and sharing quality data, information, and even opinions this puts communities and their residents in a better position to understand and address complex issues in a local context.

Building local infrastructure – This strategy is not about sewer, water and streets even though we know that type of infrastructure is necessary. Thriving communities make a lasting commitment to developing an infrastructure of community engagement (citizen leadership) and economic development (leadership focused on business development, people attraction and quality of place). For example, a community that is committed to building local infrastructure may see value in employing a community and economic development specialist that will wake up each day ready to engage residents, build outside connections, leverage resources, and keep their finger on the pulse of the community and region.

Grow local voices – Thriving communities empower residents and local leadership to speak out for their community to elected officials, resource providers, funders, neighboring towns, national platforms and, most of all, each other. This strategy begins through community engagement, education, connections and regular communication. Growing local voices allows a thriving community to solve a wide range of issues that may be affecting them, such as broadband access or the ability to maintain healthcare.

Are you willing to raise your voice to explore and discuss issues facing rural communities? Creating a thriving rural community requires your voice, new strategies, and your commitment to creating change around the issues you are passionate about. I challenge you to find your voice and begin speaking up for rural. It starts in little ways, like sharing a new idea with a group at the coffee shop, saying thank you to a long-time community volunteer or sharing on social media #Iamrural. Go ahead, I give you permission to use your voice for the good of rural.

It’s time we begin to think for ourselves!

I stood with a blue marker in my hand writing on the white flip chart paper as I facilitated a community group that was brainstorming all the factors that needed to be true to accomplish their purpose of building stronger community connections. As they named multiple statements, I wrote them on the flip chart – “strong communication, hosting hard conversations … and lastly, people must have their own thoughts and ideas.” The last statement had me curious and needed some clarity from the group. I asked for an example of why people currently aren’t thinking for themselves. A member of the group spoke up, “When the negative voices in our community start to make noise it pulls us away from our purpose and each other… pretty soon people start believing what is the loudest rather than search for the facts.” This breakthrough led me to do some of my own research to discover an answer to the question, “How can we help people learn to think for themselves?”

My research led me to a 2014 study by a group of University of Virginia researchers. Participants were asked to just sit in a room and think. Easy enough, right? The researchers quickly found the task of sitting alone to think wasn’t as simple as they assumed. Participants in the study struggled to sit with their thoughts for a limited time of 15 minutes. Left in a room with nothing else but their thoughts, participants could sit quietly or choose to receive one stimulus, an electric shock. Astonishingly, 70% of the male participants and 25% of the female participants administered electric shocks to themselves, rather than taking a few minutes to think.

It appears from the research that we may be living in a world of non-thinkers. Ultimately, this deficiency leads to a population who cannot determine the difference between fact and opinion.

We all face day-to-day problems in our personal lives and in our communities. These problems require us to think through a solution, whether it’s who to vote for, what job offer to accept, or how to deal with a negative community member.  These opportunities to make decisions should lead us to examine the facts, ask questions, seek counsel and take wise action.

If you’re someone who would rather receive an electric shock than think for yourself, then I invite you to consider these questions to start the process:

What are the facts? If someone is trying to convince you of something, then seek evidence to prove the facts being shared. Demand to be convinced and do some of your own research using reliable sources.

What do I value? (and Why?) You might be surprised to learn how many of your cultural values have been shaped by family, community, religion, schools, organizations, or employers. Write down a list of things you value as a member of those groups. Then decide whether you truly believe those values or not.

How can I resist peer pressure? If you have a lot of friends saying the same thing, resist making your decision based on peer pressure. Sometimes it’s best to not respond, because the more you do, the more others might try to convince you of their point of view.

What are the opposing viewpoints? One good way to form your own opinion is to make sure you’re getting input from a lot of different viewpoints, not just one person’s opinion. Document the viewpoints, give yourself time to sort through it, and then make your own decision.

How do my values align with this decision? Learning to think for yourself isn’t going to have much of an impact if you don’t act on what you value and believe. Once you’ve had time to think about things decide about how you’ll act and stick to it.

How do I track my progress? Keep a journal. Begin by describing a situation that is significant to you. Next, write in detail how you responded to the situation. Then, write how you will respond in the future.

If you’ve had a hard time thinking for yourself in the past, you might find that you’re swayed by other people the first few times you try. That’s okay! Changing habits of thoughts are some of the hardest habits to change. Give yourself time to learn how to resist other people’s opinions, seek out evidence and think for yourself!

I have you thinking now… don’t I?

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.