Investing in Engagement: Exploring Community Development in Rural Arkansas

RSC Arkansas Delta partners Rural Community Alliance support community-led education projects to advance career readiness and develop local assets.

February 9, 2024 |
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Rural Community Alliance, a leader of RSC’s Arkansas Delta Regional Hub, empowers community leaders to develop programs and potential for students across rural Arkansas. This feature explores how the Rural Community Alliance engages with youth to see a future for themselves in their local communities.

Central to RSC's mission, alongside so many of our partners, is a commitment to uplift rural communities through the support of the local public schools. This includes those working tirelessly to expand teacher preparation pathways, conduct critical research within districts, and grantmakers who bring much-needed philanthropy to the teachers and schools of small towns and remote places across the country. But what happens to communities who have lost their schools to closure and consolidation? In the absence of a strong school, who then supports local youth and community development?

The staff, community partners, and network of Rural Community Alliance (RCA) in Arkansas provide an inspiring answer to those questions. Rural Community Alliance, part of RSC’s Arkansas & Delta Regional Hub, works hard in community development and youth programming to improve community vitality throughout rural Arkansas. RCA provides training, financial support, planning, and network support to community leaders, empowering them to be agents of change and growth where their roots are entrenched.

Candace Williams, Executive Director of Rural Community Alliance.

A core programming area for RSC hub lead and RCA Executive Director Candace Williams, then, is youth development. Led by Youth Network Coordinator Candy Webb, the RCA team provides critical support and programming for students through activities led by community leaders that are part of the RCA network. The goal is that through this programming, youth will become more connected to their community, see a future for themselves there, and gain the excitement and skills for envisioning a career close to home. To do this properly, Candy has focused on small-scale, high quality programming with engaged community members who receive training and support from RCA.

“The idea for rural investment, for where you are right now, is that you want to make it better. And so let's start learning right now how to do that. Because those [kids] are the ones that are going to be our police officers and our water department workers and [staff] our volunteer fire departments.”

Candy Webb, Youth Network Coordinator at Rural Community Alliance.

To activate and empower community leaders, Candy and the RCA team host leadership workshops, visit small towns, and listen to what’s needed in each community. “We have to have strong local leadership in those places in order for our programs to be successful,” explains Candy. That means enabling leaders to identify and work towards addressing unique challenges in their communities, as opposed to a blanket curriculum or playbook applied across the state: “In rural areas every community is different. It doesn't matter what state you're in. Every single rural community you're in has its own set of challenges.”

Community leaders can be all ages, professions, and come from various backgrounds. Most are not professional educators or organizers, but rather dedicated citizens and neighbors who give their time to boost the outlooks of local youth. “Our leaders are RCA members. They are typically adults who've been engaged with RCA in the past or are familiar with our work.” RCA’s job, then, is to identify assets and opportunities that the leaders can tap into, and to give them the support they need to accomplish grassroots ideas.

“We've been working really hard to get our leaders better equipped so that they can be impactful influences in their community with their kids. “So for this past year, we've been really focused on making sure our leaders understand what they have to offer.”

Candy herself volunteered with Rural Community Alliance for over a decade, after getting involved with the program as a way to connect her daughter to local activities. She notes that many RCA community leaders also are parents, and the relationships fostered through parenting in a tight knit community make growing a program locally more feasible. This, notes Candy, is a core strength of RCA’s ethos and model: “from our perspective the people who are best equipped and the people who should be equipped to deal with those challenges are the people that live there.” Perhaps nowhere in Arkansas is this more true than in the small town of Delight, population 279, which fell victim to school consolidation in 2010.

Colleen Gatliff, of Delight, has been a community leader for RCA for over a decade, beginning with the simple act of looking at ways to keep her daughter and other kids busy after school. She started simply offering to have kids come over for board games, but has now grown the program to include entrepreneurial opportunities and headquarters at the once-closed home economics building of the former Delight school. She’s become a model leader, and has inspired Candy and the rest of the RCA team: “when RCA was given the opportunity to create this youth network, she was just all in, just all in on ‘how do we do this? What do you need me to do? Where do we need to be?’ And that program has absolutely blossomed, in pretty amazing ways.”

Delight Youth Network Board Members, Vice President Hailey Gatliff (right) and President Taiden Fannin (right).

On Mondays and Tuesdays, she opens up the building for any and all comers. Once unoccupied and vandalized, with RCA support the local youth group has revitalized their space to include a kitchen, space to watch videos, use computers, and safely gather.

An Uno Tournament for Friday night games.

Fridays, the most popular for attendance, are fun days, with movies and games, and home-cooked meals. Recently, Colleen helped shepard some dedicated attendees through a entrepreneurship project created by RCA, where participants had to create a business that gave back to the local community. Just as RCA turned to her knowledge and experience for designing the best programming in Delight’s local context, she turned the decision of what to focus on over to her students.

A passionate tech-loving student wanted to do something around computers, and Colleen’s group of four quickly solidified around a business that would repair computers and other devices locally. Then, shares Candy, “their give back to their community is training parents and grandparents on what they need to look for in internet and tech safety when it comes to their children and grandchildren.” The students presented their business through a poster and video presentation, and were awarded a $1,000 grant from RCA to put their ideas into action. The entire process was both a learning experience and an exercise in pride. Excited for a trip to the big city and seeing other RCA teenagers, Colleen notes that “they made shirts; we had them made and we showed up [in them] and they presented their business and they were really good at it.”

Delight youth present their business pitch to RCA Judges.

With momentum from the entrepreneurship project, the students are continuing to participate in real-life STEM projects while being supported by RCA and Colleen. In preparation for the upcoming total solar eclipse in April, the Delight group will be learning about astronomy and participating in a NASA-led data collection project. In Candy’s words, “we'll spend four months training on this telescope and computer programming and then they will be a part of collecting data during the eclipse, submitting that data, and then following that we will participate in the data collection program.” To complete the project, the group will visit a partner university in Indiana and learn about careers in STEM.

As that project progresses, the full scope of RCA’s reach and impact comes into focus. When Colleen first began, the goals and objectives of the youth group were focused directly on after-school engagement following the fallout of consolidation. Colleen’s impetus to take up this torch stemmed from the fact that she “hated the fact that there's nothing for them to do. We're 19 miles out in any direction we go to any store, and there's nothing for the kids to do.” Board games and providing a welcoming space turned into an afterschool club, which evolved into more focused projects for curious and passionate students. Now, Delight youth are able to grow in skills like STEM and business ownership, all with an eye towards keeping talent at home.

For the team at Rural Community Alliance, that’s what it’s all about. Communities can’t automatically heal themselves, but given resources, training, and support, local leaders can achieve significant results. As Candy and the RCA team continue to grow programming, investing in local leaders marks the way forward. “I can't tell someone in Delight what to do to be successful. So I want to equip these kids and these leaders to take the initiative and do the work without asking permission.”

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