Investing in grassroots leadership to spark a regional creative placemaking movement

 

BY RHETT BENTLEY AND KATHLEEN NOLTE

 
Rural places are the proving ground for our democracy. Though rural folks walk a hard line between disparity and abundance, proximity to one’s neighbors and institutions is a matter of course. It is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to building a lasting and distinctive quality of life.
— Whitney K. Coe, Athens, Tennessee

Let’s disrupt the widespread perception of rural communities as sleepy, isolated, and stagnant compared to urban centers, often considered vibrant, innovative, and dynamic. A study conducted by the USDA shows that rural areas are actually an ideal testing ground for innovation, as effective as their urban counterparts. Further research shows that the cultivation of the arts in a rural community bolsters economic innovation even more.

People living in rural communities will find this as no surprise. They are used to living collaboratively, fulfilling multiple community roles, and investing time and energy to endeavors that improve quality of life for themselves and others. They are, in essence, social entrepreneurs. The challenge then lies in access to philanthropic contributions to incubate and advance this community work. Many philanthropic foundations are located in urban centers, making it difficult to reach communities in a rural footprint. Foundations also can be short-staffed, so an additional challenge is the ability to authentically engage with citizens in rural communities.

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A region on the rise

The tri-state greater Chattanooga region is home to over one million people in 16 counties and quickly growing. The entrepreneurial city of Chattanooga, TN, anchors the region, and has established itself as a dynamic, rapidly growing metropolitan area. Named "One of America's Most Startup-Friendly Cities" by Fortune, the city boasts the fastest internet in America, an impressive collection of public art, and other cultural amenities.

The surrounding counties hold beautiful natural landscapes in which many small communities are nestled in among green mountains and river valleys. These small towns and cities, hit hard by outsourcing of mining and manufacturing jobs, have big hearts that foster a culture of resilience and a proud desire to grow from within.

An inventive partnership

The Lyndhurst Foundation is an independent foundation that serves this large geographic region, giving in the areas of conservation, physical health, education, downtown development, innovative economy, and arts and culture. With three program staff based in metro Chattanooga, it is impossible to stay abreast of all the needs, organizations, leaders, and work taking place in communities across the tri-state region.

To optimize philanthropic outreach to rural communities in the giving area of arts and culture, Lyndhurst sought to partner with a “boots on the ground” organization with a deep familiarity with the people across the region.

Thrive Regional Partnership is an independent nonprofit that advances sustainable growth practices across the same tri-state footprint. Originally launched in 2012 as a grassroots strategic planning initiative, Thrive transitioned from a “visioning” to a “doing” organization to ensure that human development practices and growth meet the hopes and expectations of citizens across the region.

Together with Lyndhurst, the needs of both organizations could be met by designing a region-wide creative placemaking program to increase vibrancy and economic development opportunities through arts and culture initiatives in individual, local communities. The partners catalyzed action around the question: How might we leverage arts and culture to create economic vibrancy?

Thriving Communities

Thriving Communities is a ten-month program that engages local citizens and provides them with leadership coaching, tools, and inspiration to leverage cultural assets that enhance economic activity in cities and towns across the greater Chattanooga region.

This program was intentionally designed to eliminate competition across communities, build regional identity, and increase economic opportunity for all through the following methods:

  • Volunteer team members represent a variety of backgrounds and sectors, and meet in neutral territory in Chattanooga to break down historical barriers.

  • Teams work and learn together across the region and visit each other’s communities.

  • Participants must design strategies that utilize arts assets to enhance or create economic opportunity.

  • Teams are provided professional steerage from local, regional, and statewide agencies to aid with technical advice or provide a conduit to additional resources.

Read how the program creates the future of community in rural America.

Dream. Do. Revise. Repeat.

The team from Athens, TN, conducts an asset mapping exercise during the second round of Thriving Communities

The team from Athens, TN, conducts an asset mapping exercise during the second round of Thriving Communities

Teams work with community residents to identify their local cultural assets, share aspirations, and build on those to develop a long-term strategy that leverages their assets to increase economic activity.

Once the teams have sparked ideas for their vibrancy strategy, they must test their ideas or assumptions through a series of experiments. With a tight timeline and no budget, teams must build relationships with collaboration partners to bring their vision to life.. For example, the team representing Chatsworth, Georgia, identified their downtown park as a beautiful but underutilized asset. Their idea was to build a bandshell and program it with music and other arts activities. They experimented by hosting a pop-up concert with lawn chairs and a local band to see if anyone would attend. Sure enough, attendance was high, and they learned through surveys that their community had been waiting for an opportunity to gather at the park.

The experiment phase is essential for establishing early buy-in from the community, building momentum and leadership, and fostering continual feedback and engagement from citizens. As a result, the strategies are authentically shaped by the people who live, work, and play in these communities. At the end of the Thriving Communities program, each community has the opportunity to apply to Lyndhurst for a catalytic grant to kick-start their long-term strategy.

An iterative process

Just as the participating teams learn from community feedback and adapt along the way, the Thriving Communities program is also iterative in order to maximize effectiveness for current and future participants.

There have now been two rounds of the Thriving Communities program with twelve towns participating in total. Key practices learned include:

Non-traditional partnerships are essential to success.

  • Decentralize power to ensure that several entities have “skin in the game.”

  • Eliminate competition to allow all voices to be heard and considered.

  • Broaden perspective from within communities; recognize and seek out diversity.

Experiments are fun, cheap, and effective.

  • Test imperfect ideas to see what resonates within the community and what to change.

  • Establish proof of concept so that when the grant window opens, applicants can provide baseline experience and evaluation prior to seed investment.

Build a Movement.

  • Develop and encourage ways for community leaders to flex their engagement muscles and empower volunteers.

  • More boots on the ground behind a shared vision prevents burnout by any one organization or individual.

Celebrate Signposts of Success.

  • Amplify positive momentum by celebrating achievements, big and small. Over the course of ten months in 2018, outcomes of the four Thriving Communities included:

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Next steps for Thriving Communities

After evaluating round two, Lyndhurst and Thrive will determine:

  • How to continue to engage with existing Thriving Communities in the network.

  • How to incorporate new lessons learned to design and engage a third round of Thriving Communities.

The rural communities of this region are primed and ready to take advantage of this opportunity. They are game for this movement. They have been waiting for a platform from which to say, in the words of Susan Jarrett of Whitwell, Tennessee, “this is who we are, and this is where we want to go next.”

For more program information contact:

Kathleen Nolte
Program Officer
knolte@lyndhurstfoundation.org

Rhett Bentley
Communications Manager
rbentley@thriveregionalpartnership.org

 
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