Developing inclusive leaders — Introducing the new RFI Fellows


The Rural Futures Institute (RFI) at the University of Nebraska has documented that the central point of rural innovation for the future is where high-capacity, motivated students interact with dynamic researchers and passionate community leaders to develop products and services that empower thriving rural communities forward.


These communities can be geographic localities, but also communities of practice that stretch the reach and resources of critical efforts in workforce growth, economic development, access and recruitment and retention of residents.

Through RFI Student Serviceship, started by University of Nebraska–Lincoln faculty through RFI funding in 2013, RFI has not only supported rural leaders from 32 communities with the capacity and perspectives of 64 students and vice versa, but witnessed the exponential benefits of building these relationships.


RFI also piloted a fellows program in 2017, bringing together researchers and community leaders to catalyze scholarship and action. The Nebraska Thriving Index is a direct outcome of the fellows program pilot.



Now what?

Like the rural communities it serves, RFI is evolving. Shrinking resources across the rural landscape, increasing complexities and ever-growing challenges force focus and innovation, while technology, increasing global connections and awareness create opportunities.

RFI is stretching its own intellectual and resource capacity to harness the energy of the University of Nebraska, the communities of Nebraska and its global partners.


Welcome to the evolved Rural Futures Institute

Combining its former serviceship and fellows programs together, the Rural Futures Institute will propel communities and the University forward together. Now entitled “RFI Fellows,” students, community innovators and faculty fellows will be the inspirational and action-oriented mechanism by which the Rural Futures Institute carries forward its mission and creates meaningful, tangible impact in the areas of:

But it is also more than this.

RFI Fellows is now a transformational experience for students, community leaders and researchers.

“To be successful in the future, we must understand that the characteristics and skills of leaders must evolve, and we must prepare our rural communities, students and research objectives to reflect these changes,” said Connie Reimers-Hild, RFI interim executive director and chief futurist. “So, while our Institute creates tangible outputs through its work in rural communities, it is critically important that it is also building the leadership capacity of those involved.

“This cannot be just transactional, it also has to be transformational. To ultimately be about dollars, it must ultimately be about developing people.”

RFI has identified several key areas of transformational development for leaders of the future. These include building competencies and experiences in the areas of:


Where do we start?

According to the University of Nebraska at Omaha Center for Public Affairs Research, one of the major trends in Nebraska population is: The state’s major population growth is coming from growth in ethnically and racially diverse populations. It is predicted that by 2030, Nebraska will be 40% non-White. And many of the counties experiencing this most significantly are rural counties throughout the state: Douglas, Hall, Dakota, Dawson, Dodge, Platte, Madison, Saline, Colfax and Scottsbluff. These counties were also among the Nebraska counties with the highest net out-migration of non-Hispanic White residents, numbering a net loss of at least 1,100 in each case and often exceeding 10 percent as a rate over the decade.

And this isn’t isolated to Nebraska — there is a rural demographic shift happening across the country. By 2030, one in five Americans is projected to be 65 and over; by 2044, more than half of all Americans are projected to belong to a minority group (any group other than non-Hispanic White alone); and by 2060, nearly one in five of the nation’s total population is projected to be foreign born (U.S. Census Bureau).

When it comes to dollars and cents, private companies are realizing the effects of purposeful inclusion initiatives. The latest Diversity Matters report from McKinsey and Company examined proprietary data sets for 366 public companies across a range of industries in Canada, Latin America, the United Kingdom and the United States. In this research, metrics such as financial results and the composition of top management and boards were examined, and the findings were clear: Companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.

As it moves forward, RFI Student Serviceship, Fellows, RFI Community Innovation Fellows and RFI Faculty Fellows will work with inclusive leadership development expert Helen Fagan, Ph.D., RFI director of leadership engagement and assistant professor of practice in leadership engagement in the department of agricultural leadership, education and communication at University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Dr. Fagan will work with all participants to develop the skills necessary to form successful cross-group relationships in both rural and urban environments through a rural immersion experience.

All fellows will have the opportunity to go through Inclusive Community Leader Development under Dr. Fagan for University of Nebraska, credit towards their degree or a graduate certificate. The process will include pre-and post-assessments that will guide individual and group development of each team, plus two and a half days of training and development during the academy as well as individual one-hour coaching sessions during the course of the program. Theories of Psychological Capital, Intercultural Mindset Development and Emotional Intelligence are the basis for the training and coaching. Inclusion as a theory for community development is still in its infancy. Thus, the knowledge gained from the work with students and mentors will also help advance this area of research.

The curriculum for RFI Community Innovation Fellows is a new addition to the previous RFI Student Serviceship experience, creating transformational leadership development that stays within the community. Over time, Dr. Fagan will be able to measure the impact of this leadership development on the community’s vitality through financial and human capacity.

RFI Inclusive Leadership White Paper


2019 RFI Fellows Experience

RFI has worked with been working with rural community leaders, partners, students and faculty to relaunch the serviceship program for 2019. The 2019 RFI Student Serviceship Fellows will work toward addressing early childhood development, behavioral health and economic development in:

Partner communities were primarily identified in collaboration with the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska. Each participating community will host two NU students, both of become RFI Student Serviceship Fellows. Lead mentors from each community will be identified as RFI Community Innovation Fellows. Dr. Helen Fagan will lead a research team focused on exploring the impacts of strengthening inclusive leadership capacity in rural communities during the pilot. 

The 2019 pilot project will focus on critical issues ranging from small business development and entrepreneurship (specifically Latino), mental health service gaps for Pre-K12 school systems, rural daycare shortages as well as the support and inclusion of indigenous populations. The RFI team is grateful to all partners who have helped develop the pilot, which will officially launch in May 2019.

Looking Toward 2020!

We are interested in starting conversations for 2020 experiences! If you are a community leader, partner, foundation or student interested in using our innovative RFI Fellows process, please contact us via our work with RFI webform!

Work With RFI