Civic engagement is vital to Kansas’ rural communities. That was the driving theme behind the 2016 Big Rural Brainstorm, sponsored through the Kansas Sampler Foundation, that was held last Monday at Newton’s Meridian Event Center. People from all walks of life with a passion for breathing new life into small towns from every corner of the state converged to share ideas and knowledge about what has worked and what hasn’t for economic development, preservation, and community building in their areas. But for many, the idea of civic engagement was both foreboding and foreign. This year, the BRB focused on defining ways to engage, and to dispel the fear in doing so.
To do this, facilitators introduced several exercises that required groups to form and work together to find solutions to topics like what is civic engagement, what concerns you most about rural Kansas, and how to put civic engagement into action.
Concerns ranged from how to entice younger people to stay in rural communities, keeping jobs in rural communities, keeping local schools and preserving history and tourism. Other topics included access to broadband and other new technologies, preserving infrastructure like roads, buildings, services and housing. There was even debate over the need for rural lobbyists dedicated to representing the wishes of the state’s rural constituency at Topeka.
Many who attended are dedicated volunteers, and part of the focus of the BRB is empowering younger volunteers step into leadership roles to assist and relieve those who have been active for several years.
This younger generation, aged 21 to 39, is part of the Power-up movement started through the Kansas Sampler Foundation. To model civic engagement in relation to these concerns, representatives from each brainstorming group were chosen from among the Power-ups in attendance to act as presenters at a mock city council meeting for the mock City of Meridian, KS. Each presented problems and solutions which were then voted on by the council of all members.
Many remarked they had never attended a city council meeting before, and the process was eye-opening. Feedback from the event was positive, according to Power-up and Kansas Sampler Foundation volunteer Sarah Green.
“Comments we found most telling were from a number of people who admitted they had thought civic engagement was a really big thing, but after taking part in the day realized it was not,” she said. “It can be as simple as showing up at a meeting, listening, and showing support -- and it is something they realized they could do.”
But they weren’t the only attendees that experienced insights from the exercise.
“One person noted that seeing so many (Power-ups) standing and taking part together made them see these young people differently,” she said. Others noted that they are seeing more post-college aged volunteers becoming involved in different ways in their communities, not always in the most visible ways, but in ways that make a difference and show they care.
While the BRB lasted one day, it wouldn’t be long before the lessons were put into practice. Legislative issues brought to light days later prompted calls for brainstormers to take action by attending meetings and writing letters. Penner put out a call to others to join her in Topeka to witness a legislative committee hearing about changes to funding to libraries in the state.
Elsewhere, attendees brought home what they learned at the BRB. A contingent of attendees from Stafford County planned to conduct their own brainstorm the following week.