To support rural work, connect the dots

Posted in Community Leadership

As alumni of the Blandin Community Leadership Programs well know, social capital is a cornerstone of community work.

But what does rural Minnesota’s social capital look like on a larger scale? A team of rural Minnesota experts decided to find out.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality along with Jane Leonard of Minnesota Rural Partners shared a snapshot of Minnesota’s rural networks at the Center for Small Towns Symposium. Their findings? Rural Minnesota has the right connections to get policy, economic and community development work done.

A survey of organizations identified by Friends in the Field, a group of economic and community development organizations, surfaced more than 2,800 connections among 1,743 unique organizations working for rural Minnesota – with about one-quarter connected to multiple organizations.

The research team then identified two types of networks: policy networks that work on rural-related legislation and regulation, and practice networks that initiate and complete work in communities and regions.

Map of health and human services policy network
Health and human services policy network

The pictures that emerged are striking. The cast of policy and practice organizations supporting rural Minnesota work numbers in the thousands. Network patterns are generally consistent – a small number of core organizations were identified multiple times as important connections. And, while the networks are large, many organizations are not as strongly connected as they could be. But each network has a unique portrait.  Some have nodes, with a single organization bridging from core organizations to a handful of others. Some are linear connections from core orgs to fringe groups with narrowly defined scopes.

This snapshot of how we get our work done is instructive. It’s reaffirming to see – not just rely on intuition – that we’re talking to each other, about the topics we care about most. No single organization has a complete view of residents’ rural experiences, nor provides a “one-stop shop” for communities or regions seeking rural resources.

And this is just as it should be. Minnesota’s non-metro landscape embraces millions of residents pursuing livelihoods in a spectrum of careers. Corporate farming, organic farming. Resort owners, restaurant owners. Day care providers. Millwrights. Dentists and scientists, loggers, boathands. Software programmers, orthopedic surgeons, grocery store clerks. Newspaper reporters, educators, construction workers. We are hunters, dancers, classic car buffs, birdwatchers, fiber artisans, videographers. This rich diversity requires that many voices be heard.

Together, we form the mosaic that is rural Minnesota today. But the question – as the presentation audience kicked around – is: how can we enhance the image? How can these organizations strengthen their existing connections and tap into new ones for the betterment of the work and region?

Though the discussion was a wrap before the group drew any conclusions, here are a couple of ideas to consider:

map of ag policy network
Ag policy network

Enhance the picture: Economic and community development is only one source of support for rural regions. What if chambers of commerce, visitors bureaus, health and human services organizations, professional, service and trade groups also conducted the same study. Would it resemble something like this?

Connect the dots: This research is interesting, but academic. Make it active! Next time you embark on work in rural, check the map. What organizations are you already connected to? Can you connect to? Can you cross sectors?

Only by using the information will it be transformed from a pretty picture to a powerful tool for those with the vision to change rural Minnesota’s narrative to one that’s vibrant, resilient and positive.

For more information about this study, contact the Center for Community Vitality.

Jennifer Bevis is the communications assistant at Blandin Foundation.