Arkansas Communities Forge Revitalization Process
Last Updated: March 16, 2009
“Rural schools are losing enrollment because of a lack of jobs and economic opportunity in rural communities,” says Lavina Grandon, speaking about the vexing rural challenge of declining enrollment. Grandon is Policy and Education Director of Arkansas Advocates for Rural and Community Education (ACRE).
“In many communities there’s a demoralized sense that decline happens to rural places and there’s nothing local people can do about it.”
That’s where ACRE, a state-wide group of rural residents committed to helping rural schools and communities survive and thrive, took exception.
“We are losing about four districts a year to Act 60,” explains Grandon. Act 60 is the 2004 Arkansas law that arbitrarily closes districts in which enrollment is below 350 students for two consecutive years, regardless of how well students are doing, the district’s fiscal condition, or other mitigating conditions. Grandon continues, “So we decided to attack the root of the problem.”
ACRE began to develop its process and secured financial support from the Winthrop Rockefeller and Marguerite Casey Foundations to help cover staff expenses.
This fall ACRE launched a Community Revitalization initiative in partnership with the communities of Eudora, Delight, and Leslie.
Revitalizing Rural Communities
“Rural communities don’t have the resources or the experiences for community planning and strategic assessment that larger towns do,” says Renee Carr, ACRE’s Executive Director. “So ACRE began formulating a plan and figuring out its capacity to do that kind of work in partnership with rural communities.”
“The process pulls everybody together to take a purposeful look at where we’ve been and where we want to go — with the idea they’re going to do something about it,” Grandon explains. “We want to help communities think about how to re-diversify the local economy and make jobs,” she says, “And how we make our communities more pleasant places to live.”
Dorothy Singleton, ACRE’s lead organizer puts it this way: “This approach builds the connection between the health and well-being of the community and the quality of education. People are concerned about their place and about their children’s education. This helps people think about how to link the two in deliberate and thoughtful ways.”
Talitha Hardin is project leader for the Leslie community revitalization effort. “It’s important that ACRE has a plan,” Hardin says. “It’s an outside group that has nothing directly to gain so it can be trusted by everyone. ACRE guides us, but it will be our community that accomplishes the work.”
Leslie, population 482, is located in Arkansas’s Ozark mountains. In recent years an influx of new residents has both brought opportunities and produced tensions, but the biggest challenges are with the school. “We lost our high school two years ago after our district was consolidated under Act 60,” says Hardin, “and everybody was just down, down, down. This revitalization process is helping lift our spirits back up.”
Eudora’s project leader Erma Toney also emphasizes the importance of extra-community support support. “ACRE is an outside group that trains, encourages, and motivates you, but they don’t do it for you. It’s a learning process for everybody and everybody has opportunities to take advantage of it. Together Everyone Achieves More-TEAM!”
Eudora is the newest community to the ACRE revitalization process and the largest pilot community with 2,800 people. Eudora has also lost its high school and all other grades except K-3.
The community of Delight, population 311, is located in the timberlands of southwest Arkansas. Despite efforts to raise its enrollment — the community has recruited some 30 foreign exchange students — enrollment has fallen just below the critical 350 mark for two years. “We know we have to do something,” says Carol Hale, project leader. “We don’t want the community to die. If we don’t do something, it will be too late. ACRE is a partner with us and we are part of ACRE.”
The ACRE Process
The year-long ACRE process brings together critical components of successful community revitalization: a process, opportunities for everyone in the community to shape and implement the plan, external resources, and ongoing formats for community residents to share ideas, build skills together, celebrate accomplishments, and continue moving forward.
Getting Started. The process begins with the local ACRE chapter, which completes an application to participate. “There’s a strong ACRE chapter in each place,” says Carr. “So there’s a good relationship from the beginning.” The chapter picks a project leader, forms a steering committee, and with ACRE staff secures the support of local elected officials.
The Survey. “The steering committee puts together a survey appropriate for their community by choosing questions from a large data base and one open-ended ‘big idea’ question, Carr explains. They distribute the surveys to as many people as possible. Then they tally the results and begin planning for the first community forum where the survey results are reported and discussed.”
Outside Resources. “We knew we were going to need coalition partners,” says Grandon. So ACRE staff began visiting resource agencies to talk about partnering with communities. The agencies include the Arkansas Arts Council, Arkansas Department of Rural Services, Arkansas Economic Development Commission, Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center, Audubon Arkansas, the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and others. “The agencies were very responsive,” says Grandon. “They can come into a community after the community has committed to doing something. They don’t have to initiate the process.” Representatives agree to give a one-minute presentation on their agency and its services at the community forum. The community’s state legislative delegation is also invited.
Community Forums. The steering committee publicizes the first community forum. At that meeting participants learn about the process and their survey results. They begin to discuss their hopes for the future and then break up into focus groups where the real community work begins. “Our first meeting was a very diverse group,” says Toney of Eudora’s community forum. “Farmers, business people, homemakers, students, our state representative and senator, and local officials. It was the largest turnout in memory for a community meeting.” Delight and Leslie also enjoyed strong and diverse participation with nearly 100 people attending each community forum.
Focus Groups. “The surveys showed that all the communities had similar interests,” says Grandon. Those interests are reflected in the focus groups, which are organized around the themes of education, economic development, community services, environment, town beautification, and arts and heritage. Each focus group has its first meeting as part of the community forum. Participants begin brainstorming concerns and ideas and working through a checklist of questions.
“People were excited and sparked by the possibilities” that arose in the initial discussion at Leslie’s community forum, says Hardin. “When we split off into focus groups, some of the remaining skeptics began changing their opinions. They saw how many people were staying. Everybody ended up listening to each others’ ideas. They heard that a lot of people had similar ideas and were intrigued by the same things.”
The focus groups meet every two weeks for the next two months and come up with at least five ideas and strategies for community revitalization initiatives. They present these as the second community forum, where community residents vote among all the ideas of all the focus groups.
“People are so excited about the process,” says Hale about Delight’s revitalization progress. “The declining situation seemed inevitable to a lot of people. Now there’s a ray of sunshine. We feel like we’re all in this together. It just warms your heart. We sit at the table in focus groups and it’s ‘what can we do?’ And then we get up and do it.”
Hardin echoes similar observations about Leslie. “Our community has always been one where a lot of people said, ‘someone should do something.’ Now there’s been a shift from ‘someone should’ to ‘we will.’”
“This process helps us define and focus on the directions we want to go,” says Toney. “If you let people know you need their help, it matters. A lot of people have ideas and concerns for the community.” In Eudora, the process has also made room for people who no longer live in the community. “We’re getting a lot of support from Eudorans who no longer live here but want to help. This gives people a place to start.”
Second Community Forum and Follow Up Meetings. About two months after the initial community forum and after the focus groups have met and developed their recommendations, a second community-wide forum is held. At this meeting, each focus group presents their five top ideas and strategies for revitalization related to their topic. Community residents vote on the ideas that they want to pursue. The steering committee then puts together a strategic plan and community residents begin working together to implement the plan.
“The final year-end meeting will be a chance to evaluate, celebrate, and re-calibrate,” says Carr. “By that point the communities will have been through the entire process. They’ll know how to do it and can start their next round of planning and focus groups. And ACRE will be ready to start the process again with three new communities.”
Each of the three communities has already kicked off promising initiatives.
Delight held a huge Christmas parade and has sponsored several community work days to give the town ‘a face lift’ by painting store fronts and generally cleaning up. It is developing a town website, working on plans for a local park, and exploring ways to develop tourism. Delight is the boyhood home of singer Glen Campbell and the town is located on the way to the only diamond mine in the U.S., a tourist destination where regular people can try their hand at finding a gemstone.
Hardin says Leslie is also seeing change. They too have started a community beautification effort. They have plans for a farmers’ market this summer and hope to obtain national historic site status for more of the downtown area. “Our arts and heritage festival planned for May 9th got a big boost. Now everyone is inspired.”
Eudora’s second community forum is schedule for late March and focus groups are meeting. “This process is vision-driven,” says Toney, “one community unselfishly working together. It’s important to get people to believe past the negative.” As in other communities, Eudora is seeing many people involved in and supporting the process. That’s translating to more involvement in and support for programs the town government is working on. In addition, an application to start a charter school in the community is already submitted. “Everybody is interested in getting the school back,” says Toney.
ACRE staff and community project leaders have begun to identify aspects of the process that are contributing to its success. Some of these include:
- A credible outside partner organization that is diverse and inclusive of rural people is important. ACRE’s membership structure, representative of rural Arkansas, and its track record of good work make it a credible partner that local rural people respect, trust, and join.
- A good process helps people get past old mindsets and work past old barriers toward common goals. It creates a productive and transparent “back and forth” between political leadership, resource people, and citizens. Everyone is in the room and can hear everyone else.
- A good process enables communities to pass on their accumulated knowledge and to acquire new knowledge together.
- It’s okay to make mistakes; the community can change its approach if it is not meeting its goals or getting its desired outcomes.
- When children and young people see adults “walk unpaved territory” to make the community a better place, they appreciate it and recognize that such efforts will make it easier for them to stay in the community if they choose. When they participate directly in the process, young people gain skills and confidence and a sense of ownership and responsibility for the community and for making it a stronger and healthier place.
- Deliberative civic processes help rural community residents become more confident to articulate the policy changes their communities need and more willing to engage their own legislators on important rural issues.
You can learn more about ACRE, view the community revitalization timeline, and read about all three communities at the ACRE website (www.aracre.org/).
Be sure to read Lavina Grandon’s response to an
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial on Act 60, the state’s consolidation law. Her piece not only helps clarify educational realities for rural communities, it serves as an informative and useful comment on state efforts to force the consolidation of rural districts.
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