CEN Student-Driven Community Development

Author: Greg Wortham, CEN Chief Partnership Officer

Building Communities from within
Collegiate Edu Nation (CEN) schools have opportunities to build their communities from within, and we encourage schools to lead from within by leveraging the creativity, innovation, and strength of their students, faculty and administrative staff. Every community has a unique position as to internal and external resources, but we encourage schools to evaluate their community development opportunities. Here are some examples of small communities building effectively from within:

Through Our Eyes
Students as young as first grade have helped activate community opportunities through a proven student-driven initiative known as “Through Our Eyes”.   In this strategy, students in a group of classes each photograph 10 things they “like” about their town and 10 things they “dislike” about their town.  The student images are then joined together in a class collaboration to determine whether there are any common themes and how the students can work with their community leaders to activate solutions and minimize liabilities.

“Through Our Eyes” can be developed in a way that best fits your unique community.  This could be through AVID classes, gifted and talented classes, or through various innovative 4-H clubs or actions.

Community “leaders” can include peer students, faculty, staff, parents, churches, elected officials, and other official and unofficial institutions.  Some communities may have community development institutions such as chambers of commerce, municipal development corporations, colleges, etc., while some very small communities don’t have these official entities, so that the school can work to create effective action groups to work with students for community action.

The full collection of students’ and classes’ photos and discussions can then be presented in a public community meeting for wider discussion and broader community response to elicit further ideas and community action planning.  Students, schools, and communities can then collaborate toward solutions meeting challenges and opportunities.

One important collateral benefit of this project is that since younger students may need to be driven to sites to find their “likes” and “dislikes” to collect their project photos, these initiatives can spur crucial discussions within families about things that are going well in town and aspects of challenge in the community. As groups of students aggregate into collections of families, themes of community issues evolve, and community reaction and action take place.

Rural Resource Team projects
Rural Resource Teams are a more involved undertaking that should probably be led as an AVID project and can use the community action institutions that may have evolved or have been activated by “Through Our Eyes” projects.  Rural Resource Teams involve linking internal resources with external resources in an intensive week-long dialogue and collaboration phase followed by extended action phase to activate solutions and opportunities.

Students and their schools should plan resource teams months ahead of time to maximize student and community results.

External resources are drawn from the many institutions who have a governmental obligation to work for your community or a commercial or industrial need to strengthen your community. Students will need to evaluate your community to identify relevant external resources.  These can include Agri-Life Extension – which is in every county in the U.S., rural electric cooperatives in every region in the U.S., community colleges that may be involved in your collegiate education opportunities, public or private universities, and trade associations for the major industries that drive the region’s economy.  State and Federal agencies such as the Texas Department of Agriculture and regional workforce solutions teams are also important sources of expertise and guidance.

Internal resources can be invited in delegations of focused groups for their discussions and synergistic scaffolding collaborations with your external resources.  The internal resource delegations can include elected officials, ministers, business leaders and innovators, senior citizens, students, and other local professionals such as nurses, doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc.

The resource team process is then scheduled into a series of dialogue sessions between the external resources and the internal resources to introduce and explore concepts and opportunities.  The external resources then spend intensive time sharing ideas and exploring other communities’ approaches to similar opportunities and challenges.  The students then convene a community meeting for the external team to announce a first draft of findings from the internal discussions and external elaborations.  The AVID classes then work with a lead entity from the external delegations to create a written summary of the findings and potential community action plan.    The AVID classes can follow and facilitate action over a period of years.

Leadership Training– Future Sweetwater
Students can facilitate or create a leadership training program.  Many communities small and large have a recurring community leadership training program that can be adapted specifically for students to maximize ongoing leadership by students.  These can be found online via Google etc. to find detailed schedules and topics and then created in your specific CEN community such as leadershiptyler.org.

Examples are Leadership Lubbock, Leadership Sweetwater, Leadership Tyler, and so on.  AVID students could evaluate multiple examples and create an initiative to create future leaders in your community and region.  The aim is to build competent leadership and address challenges and opportunities as presented in your Through Our Eyes potential projects.  In addition to Leadership Sweetwater to develop business leaders, community volunteers in Sweetwater created a Future Sweetwater program directly for high school sophomores that was inspired by the results and talents of the Through Our Eyes student participants.

The idea is to provide outstanding learning opportunities for young men and women in an inclusive atmosphere that stimulates participants to work together in innovative and proven ways to create effective community actions that both meet challenges and address challenges to improve their communities.

Turn the telescope around
While students may routinely say “we live in the middle of nowhere”, encourage them to “turn the telescope around” to often find out that they live in the “middle of everywhere”. Help them gain perspective to find those aspects of your community or region that are actively sought by others who wish that they had what your students take for granted.  If you’re not in Manhattan, learn from Mosquero:

Check out www.villageofmosquero.com.  The thriving central business district that you see in these western region photos don’t exist, but were created by students in Mosquero, New Mexico, to show businesses that they wish they had and then actually create and operate these Edu businesses in empty buildings and potentially collaborate with outsiders recruited by the students as active business partners.  Census estimates that 55 people lived in Mosquero in 2019, down 42% from the 2010 census population, but it is the county seat of Harding County and the center of more than 2,000 square miles.  The next time you or your students say you live in the middle of nowhere, act like Mosquero.

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