The Rural Impact Hub announced the launch of a statewide initiative called Lead for Nebraska (LFNE) this week. This partnership, with the nationally recognized nonprofit Lead for America (LFA), will bring 18 fellows to host sites across the state to empower their communities, promote the growth of broadband internet access, digital literacy and help spur economic growth across the state.
Beginning in March 2021, the Rural Impact Hub, headquartered in Auburn, Nebraska, will be accepting applications for host communities and fellowship positions statewide. Young adults, recent college graduates, and communities interested in hosting a fellow can learn more here.
“Our vision at the Rural Impact Hub is rooted in using community engagement and entrepreneurial thinking for the betterment of all rural Nebraska communities,” said Rural Impact Hub founder Brent Comstock. “Our mission has been led by two principles – engage people for community growth and give young people in the state a path back to their communities where they can make an impact. These ideals have led us to form a strong partnership with Lead for America.”
Based in Dodge City, Kansas, the national organization, Lead for America seeks to direct homegrown talent where it’s needed most — in towns and counties where challenges outpace resources available. LFA has more than 90 fellows in 81 communities across the country. Combined, these fellows have leveraged more than $17 million for their communities and impacted the lives of more than 13.5 million people.
“Lead for America is thrilled to partner with BCom Solutions and the Rural Impact Hub to cultivate Nebraska’s next generation of community-rooted, transformational leaders,” said Lead for America CEO Joe Nail. “Carrying forward the mission of the Rural Impact Hub to strengthen the economic and relational fabric of communities across the state, we believe that Lead For Nebraska will challenge the narrative that you have to leave rural America to make an impact, building thriving and resilient communities for all Nebraskans.”
During a two-year term, fellows will partner with communities to tackle one of the greatest challenges for rural Nebraska – the digital divide. Fellows will help communities gather resources and create a strategy to bring broadband to rural communities, increasing digital literacy to leverage access for those who have it all while spurring economic development.
Rebecca Johnson who leads programming for the Rural Impact Hub, said of the mission, “Now more than ever, we see the need for equitable broadband access for all Nebraska communities. By increasing and leveraging rural broadband access, economic development and engagement, Lead For Nebraska, its host communities and fellows will help rural communities focus on growth in a digital era.”
After deep thought, many personal conversations and hundreds of hours navigating details and protocols for the health and safety of all involved, the Rural Futures Institute (RFI) at the University of Nebraska, with 33 Student and Community Innovation Fellows, has decided to proceed with a 2020 RFI Fellows experience beginning June 8, 2020. Together, the fellows will move future-focused strategies forward with 17 rural Nebraska communities.
“It’s easy to take programs like these for granted when things are going well,” said Kenneth Edwards, Vice President of Table Rock Development Corporation in Table Rock, Neb. “We were really excited to have students come here and help us work on our projects, but now we feel it’s an even greater necessity.”
From ongoing health and safety concerns to struggling small businesses and hard-hit tourism industries to exponential growth in digital communications, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected Nebraska’s smaller communities significantly. Through it all, the commitment of the student and community fellows to a shared summer experience that aims to overcome challenges and embrace opportunities has not waivered.
To help ensure the mitigation efforts continue, all participants will follow the health and safety guidelines of their local counties and have been provided specific recommendations by RFI, in line with the state and university recommendations, for gatherings and community activities. These include, but are not limited to: students quarantining for 14 days upon entering the community, wearing a mask and keeping six feet apart.
The immersion of students in communities and interactions among students and community members will look different — online instead of in-person, across the room instead of side-by-side, small groups instead of main street events — but the enthusiasm is the same if not even greater than the last seven years of the program.
“Even with the current COVID-19 mitigation efforts, I believe I can make a positive impact in Auburn, Neb., in a safe way,” said Emma Hoffschneider, sophomore public relations major at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. “I am not afraid of adapting and overcoming difficult circumstances that are in front of me, a trait that runs deep in every rural community across the state of Nebraska.”
Students have begun online training and the community innovators will join them for three days of interactive Zoom sessions led by inclusive leadership development expert Helen Fagan, director of the RFI Fellows program. They will join their communities in various capacities beginning June 8, 2020.
“What I’ve seen throughout my one-to-one conversations with multiple fellows is determination, empathy and openness,” Dr. Fagan said. “Determination to truly improve themselves at the individual level and their communities the way they intended and even more so now. An empathy for each other’s unique situations, emotions and needs. And an openness to compromise, ideate and pivot together.”
Community projects aim to improve workforce development, economic development, access and recruitment and retention of residents with specific focus on:
- Early childhood education
- Community marketing and communications
- Mental health services
During the last two years, RFI Fellows’ have averaged $28,000 of impact per community. In 2019, the total economic impact for the four participating communities was $111,844.
“You’ve really got to respect the students’ desire to want to help,” Edwards said. “We must do everything we can to make their experiences safe and rewarding.”
Q&As with 2020 fellows, all participating communities and project descriptions are available at ruralfutures.nebraska.edu/2020fellows.