Kearney Hub: Rural Futures Institute Executive Director Speaks on Hope for Rural Communities

KEARNEY — The Rural Futures Institute has no small goals, Executive Director Chuck Schroeder told Noon Rotary Club members Monday.

Its goals are big: being an internationally recognized leader in building the capacity and confidence of rural communities, he said.

“We’re talking about being the best in the world in Nebraska and addressing one of the most wicked problems facing the world today,” Schroeder said.

He explained that bringing about the success of rural communities is vital and how the institute plans to do it to counteract the wicked problem of rural stagnation.

“Rural matters,” said Schroeder. “Rural matters economically. It matters socially. It matters culturally. It matter environmentally to not only states like Nebraska but to the United States and the planet on which we live.”

Schroeder said six factors, researched by Lindsey Hastings of Nebraska Human Resources Institute, define a successful rural community. Hastings observed how rural communities moved leadership from one generation to another.

The six factors are:

  • Leadership that matters: Leaders in a community must actively say: “We’re not fine with where we are. Here’s where we’d like to go; let’s figure out the steps that will take us there.”
  • Hopeful vision backed by grit.
  • Deliberate efforts to invite others into leadership roles, including people who might not otherwise participate.
  • Not letting fear be a barrier.
  • Willingness to invest in community.
  • Strong social networks.

Success, Schroeder said, can only be built if there is a foundation of hope.

“When we talk about hope in this context, we’re not talking about ‘Keep a smile on your face and walk on the sunny side,” Schroeder said. “This isn’t a happy attitude deal. There is real science behind the hope that I am talking about.”

A keynote speaker at a recent RFI conference, Shane Lopez, Gallup senior scientist in residence and research director of the Clifton Strengths Institute, presented several principles of hope: people must believe that the future will be better than the present, that they have power to have an influence and that there are many paths to success but none are without obstacles.

In following those many paths to success, RFI works by three key principles.

First, RFI plans to help rural communities and regions by working with communities on issues they have already identified.

Second, the institute is addressing these issues by connecting partners, campuses and communities. It is working on 31 projects across 17 colleges and universities, 23 organizations, 12 government agencies, two companies and 113 communities.

These projects reach into areas such as economic development, leadership and civic engagement, community planning and marketing, health care, and the justice system.

The final principle is to strengthen intergenerational leadership and engagement in rural areas through programs such as Connecting Young Nebraskans and Rural Serviceship Program

“One thing we do know is it’s not the size of the population, not the proximity to the interstate or the economic mix in the community that matters,” Schroeder said. “What matters is leadership. It never fails. RFI is not in the business of trying to save every rural community in Nebraska, the country or the world. That cannot be done. We are in the business of finding those communities where there is a small cadre of leaders who have a sense of where they want to go and issues they want to address.

“When we can draw some resources around helping them, we know we can make a difference.”