Allen County, Kansas is a rural county located in the southeast part of the state. It’s made up of ten cities, the most populous of which is Iola – the county seat – with 5,600 residents. Allen County has experienced a century of decline in population, as well as economic and health conditions. People were reluctant to fill the few jobs available, in part because they simply did not want to live in Allen County. As a result, in the early 2000’s, local residents found themselves “chasing smokestacks” in futile efforts to recruit a factory to town. But, recruitment was unsuccessful and the situation became untenable: the hospital was deteriorating, community institutions were starting to fall apart, and the basic conditions that make a community livable were starting to disappear. Ultimately, a group of locals — ranging from healthcare providers to a domestic violence shelter — recognized that existing efforts were unsuccessful; a new approach was needed.
There is an assumption that in rural counties everyone knows and talks to each other regularly. This isn’t actually the case in Allen County, which lacks population density – distance between communities creates physical barriers to gathering together, to community fellowship. Whereas previously, people might have met on Tuesday mornings at the local diner, or Wednesday evenings at the Lions Club, these opportunities no longer exist. The local diner closed; the Lion’s Club disbanded; even some churches dissolved. In addition, a lot of people come to rural America because they don’t want to be bothered by other people – there’s a sense of “rugged individualism” that can hinder collaboration and community.
Community members seeking change understood that they had to be disciplined about engaging residents in community improvement efforts, including meeting regularly, rain or shine. Efforts are intentionally inclusive, county-wide and resident-led. The group creates a safe space for conversation so folks are able to learn what is going on in neighboring towns, talk to each other and share ideas. Because physical distance and isolation make it difficult for people in some towns to be involved, the group makes an effort to meet in smaller towns (e.g. Savonburg, population: 103) and bring others from around the county.
They’ve also sought to shift the paradigm around community engagement to create opportunities for people to get involved on their own terms – people will volunteer to do things they want to do and work on things they care about. If someone volunteers to help build trail on Saturday morning, they aren’t asked to do volunteer dental screenings next month. This approach creates a sense of comfort and ownership in volunteering among community members.
THE BRIGHT SPOT
The group has developed techniques for engaging local government in efforts to improve community wellbeing. Specifically, they’ve focused on strategic framing of issues. For example, although most of the county is in a food desert, that isn’t the focus of policy discussions around planning for a new grocery store. Instead, they talk about how nice it would be to walk to the store, for 15-year-olds to get a job bagging groceries – the conversation isn’t necessarily about the “health effects” of community conditions. The key is finding messages that resonate.
To put it simply: the community mood has improved. There is a totally different vibe than there was in Allen County ten years ago. For example, the community built and is still building trails to increase community connectivity and opportunities for physical activity. Initially when the group started building trails, people claimed no one would use them, but the culture changed. People tend to do what they see others doing; if you see people walking or biking, you’re more likely to walk or bike. Slowly but surely, they’ve changed the culture in a way that’s respectful and culturally competent but that also brings about the kind of change that is necessary for rural communities to survive. People are more receptive to improving the health of the community than they ever have been; as more work is accomplished, more people reap the benefits and recognize its worth.
The hard work is just beginning. Although much has been accomplished, Allen County is still ranked 84 out of 105 counties in the state, according to County Health Rankings and Roadmaps. An upcoming health equity project is slated to address the most disadvantaged town in the county, which has daunting rates of poverty, cynicism and lacking physical infrastructure that we take for granted in 2018 (e.g., multiple boil orders per year due to contaminated water, sewage backing up into peoples’ homes). However, there are people and groups dedicated to solving problems that have always been perceived as impossible, and to create conditions for residents to meaningfully engage in locally-led work that will continue to make progress towards getting things “back on track” throughout Allen County.