Building Community is a Lifestyle, Not a Job

By Kruse Scholar Jesse NelsonNelsonPhoto-e1458003044479-768x1024

All around us, things seem distressed. There a palpable sense of unease in the air, not unlike the feeling one gets when a nasty winter cold is settling in, but has yet to become full blown. Do you feel it? I sure do. 2016 has been a stressful year. In everything from highly public shootings, to peaceful protests turned violent, to the presidential election, it can feel like our national identity is fraying.  Everywhere, it seems, community is pulling apart.

In his introduction to the Communities of Excellence Scholarship program, Lowell spoke passionately about the causes of our great social unravelling.  The numbers measuring educational achievement in the United States are abysmal. For the first time in history, life expectancies are decreasing instead of increasing. And the economy is struggling to include everyone, to the lopsided benefit of the extraordinarily wealthy. And as much as we’d like to believe otherwise, none of this going to change through Washington’s policies alone.  Change that is deep, meaningful, and lasting has to come from places like Milbank, SD, and Rochester, MN, and St. Joseph, MO.  Real change can only come from the communities in which everyday life is lived, and through the actions of everyday people who want to make a difference.

That is the true magic of Communities of Excellence 2026. COE 2026 seeks to adapt and deploy the empirically tested and exceedingly successful Baldrige Framework to empower citizens in communities across the country to affect change in their own hometowns.  Baldrige, in its most basic sense, helps to align the structure of an organization in a way that systematizes success. In a community, the question is how to get business leaders, healthcare providers, and the education system to work together to create a happy, healthy, well-educated, and economically prosperous community. 

Of course, that task is easier described than accomplished. Creating change is a grueling process. But an even more difficult problem is sustaining progress after change has occurred.  All too often, people come together to focus on an issue, and put all of their available resources and attention into solving it, and become tunnel visioned.  As soon as the goals are accomplished, they move on. Thus, all of the positive impact of their work is left to backslide. Sustainability is the key to successful community building. 

It is here that I wish to offer a simple idea: sustainability in community building is achieved not through the hiring of consultants or project managers, but through the everyday behavior of the changemakers. Community building is, in a very real sense, a process of continual action, carried out with intentionality and optimism. The framework, the money, the expertise are all necessary, to be sure. But no real and lasting community building is possible without the everyday actions of everyday people. 

Being a Kruse Scholar for the last two years has been an honor and a privilege.  I am deeply grateful to have been selected as a participant in such an exciting program. But what makes me most excited, is that the program recognizes that change in communities needs to come from a diverse set of voices, in the cities and towns where life takes place, all chanting the same refrain: We must work together, for only then can we improve.  

Read more about Jesse Nelson here

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