AMES, Iowa – When Iowa State University’s Small Town Project asked small-town Iowa residents about why they weren’t more involved in their communities, two answers were revealing.
No. 1: No one asked me.
No. 2: I just don’t feel like I have the time.
“We find people want to be involved,” said Deborah Tootle, an associate professor with Iowa State’s Department of Sociology and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Community Economic Development. “But they don’t know how to be involved.”
A new program aims to change that thinking. Leading Communities: A Place-Based Leadership Program has been developed by ISU Extension and Outreach and the University of Wisconsin-Extension. Based on cutting-edge community leadership research, it is designed to simultaneously provide participants with community-based skills while meeting the specific needs of the places where they live and work.
By building community engagement, small towns can retain or regain their vibrancy.
“If you don’t have community engagement, you don’t have people interacting,” Tootle said. “And if you don’t have people interacting, you don’t have people reacting and you don’t have the ability to move forward. A town can remain the same or it can go into decline, but to do better, we’re going to have to work at it.”
Leading Communities is built around understanding the importance of community leadership and learning the four key competencies associated with that leadership: understanding community leadership and the community, correctly identifying community issues and framing ideas, building social relationships and capital, and mobilizing resources for community action. Participants learn how to use tools relating to those core competencies to address community issues and opportunities.
The program is taught in six sessions, each lasting two to three hours, and gives participants skills to bring people together to change for the good of their community.
“We’re part of the university and want to make sure the extension programs we provide are based on research,” Tootle said. “It’s learning and understanding how we communicate and identify local issues, learning about social networks and building social capital – bringing it all together and talking about how to make things happen.”
Program pilots in Kossuth and Lee counties helped evaluate and assess its overall impact and improve it. This year, the program hopes to expand to as many as four counties, including Henry County.
The goal is to spread the program even wider, and get people involved and excited about their communities across Iowa.
“We need to be aware of communities and more engaged,” Tootle said. “We want people to learn how to plan. And not just plan – but develop and implement the strategies they’ve planned.”