November 6, 2013

RFI director: Transfer of leadership will challenge rural America

How the Rural Futures Institute began

One of the greatest challenges and opportunities facing rural America is the coming transfer of leadership from older generations to younger, and the communities that navigate those potentially thorny transitions will be best positioned to succeed going forward, said the incoming executive director of the University of Nebraska’s Rural Futures Institute.

“We cannot continue to count on the four oldest, fattest, whitest-haired guys in town,” Chuck Schroeder told participants at the institute’s second annual Rural Futures Conference, which ended Nov.5.

A panel of young rural leaders from Oklahoma, Nebraska, Minnesota and Montana drove that point home as they discussed trying to encourage change in their communities.

“We’re really afraid of failure. That is one of the biggest obstacles to progress. In failure are learning opportunities,” said Katie Meiklejohn, program director of the Agrarian Freedom Project in Montana.

Meiklejohn said she’s learned to tread carefully with new ideas.

“It’s sensitive, delicate. I may not be able to deliver the messages. I’m not a rancher, I’m not from the west. I’m a woman and I’m young,” Meiklejohn said. So, she often seeks alliances with other more trusted and known people in the region to get them to help sell ideas for change.

Those generational sensitivities bubbled to the surface when an older rural leader, asking a question, expressed frustration that young people seem to be too busy to get involved in their communities.

“If I heard something like that, as a young person, I’d turn off because you have me pegged already,” said Scott Moore y Medina, an architect from Oklahoma.

“Have you ever asked them?”, asked Meghan Brown, a community health leader from Minnesota. “I’m one of those people who will put myself out there, but some people need to be asked.”

Brown said she’s often been told by older community residents some variation of “this is the way we’ve always done things.” She encouraged older leaders to seek out younger people’s opinions, be interested in them and encourage them to be creative.

Schroeder said this transfer of leadership is at least as significant as the more-discussed generational transfer of wealth. It is among the issues the Rural Futures Institute and its business and community partners will need to address.

In another presentation, Dell Gines, a community development adviser for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, said there’s another facet of the intergenerational relationships in rural communities. Many towns, he said, fail to take advantage of their growing population of senior citizens, many of whom have great experience or financial resources from which to draw for entrepreneurship.

During that discussion on rural entrepreneurship, experts outlined efforts underway in several states. Greg Wise, a community development specialist with the University of Wisconsin Extension, said most communities have moved beyond the old “smokestack chasing” of trying to attract outside industry, often with pricey tax incentives, to encouraging local entrepreneurs, whose ventures often are more reliable and sustainable, if less splashy.

Dave Ivan, of Michigan State University Extension, said efforts there have built on connecting entrepreneurs from different regions to learn from each other.

Shawn Kaskie, director of the Center for Rural Research and Development at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, said the last thing rural Americans want to hear is “I’m from the university and I have all this great knowledge I’m going to impart on you.” Outsiders must build relationships in the communities and recognize the best ideas often come from there.

Schroeder, who takes over leadership of the institute Dec. 1, acknowledged plenty of organizations seeking to help rural America have come and gone. He said this one is the “boldest in history.”

“What is unique is that we are declaring that we believe that vibrant rural people and places are essential to the fabric of American life,” Schroeder said.

Schroeder said the University of Nebraska, already a leader in food production and water research, is a natural global leader on rural issues. He said the institute’s work, already under way with $750,000 in grants for projects across the state, will be done in conjunction with community leaders. NU’s four campuses will take their lead from the priorities identified by those communities.

A new round of grants will be awarded in 2014.

Rural Futures: Grants
Chuck Schroeder