Category Archives: Blog

Meet our Newest Cohort of Communities

Meet our newest cohort of communities!

On October 3rd, Communities of Excellence 2026 kicked off its yearlong National Learning Collaborative with the addition of five new communities. 

You may recall that we had five communities working with us over the past five months to help us test and improve our Learning Collaborative Curriculum before our full launch.  These five communities:  Brookfield/Marceline, Missouri (now the Three Sixty-Five Community Alliance), Kanawha County, West Virginia, Maryville, Missouri, San Diego South Region, California and West Kendall, Florida all submitted their first level application for community recognition called the Commitment to Community Excellence.  Right now our teams of expert reviewers are reading their submissions and providing detailed feedback reports to help the communities accelerate their communities of excellence efforts.

Our five new communities are: 

  1. Albany/Bethany, Missouri
  2. The cities of Excelsior Springs, Gladstone and Smithville in Clay County, Missouri
  3. The Greater Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania and New Jersey
  4. Kings County, California
  5. Toledo, Ohio

Over the next year all ten of these communities will work together on their Communities of Excellence journeys.  In two weeks representatives from all ten communities will be meeting in Tempe, Arizona during the Baldrige Fall Conference on October 26th and 27th.  If you will be attending that conference please look us up and introduce yourselves!  It’s going to be an exciting year.

San Diego County’s South Region Community: Moving from Great to Excellent

Located within the County of San Diego in the State of California, bound by the United States-Mexico border and the Pacific Ocean, you will find the San Diego South Region community that is vibrant, family-oriented, diverse and binational.  The Live Well San Diego South Region Leadership Team (LWSD SRLT) serves approximately half a million residents that are ethnically and socioeconomically diverse.   While the County of San Diego, Health & Human Services Agency (HHSA) functions as the backbone organization for the LWSD SRLT, shared leadership is a strong core competency that exists within the team.  Our leadership team is a collaborative group of organizational leaders who represent a variety of sectors within the San Diego South Region community including school districts, City and County government, non-profit community based organizations, law enforcement, hospitals, clinics, and businesses that work together to build a community that is healthy, safe and thriving.

In alignment with the Live Well San Diego vision, the LWSD SRLT’s vision is Healthy, Safe and Thriving Communities and its values include collaboration and commitment to the team and the residents of the San Diego South Region. The LWSD SRLT has evolved and expanded its focus from health to include aspects of safety and the overall wellbeing of residents.  The team ties together the collective efforts of community partners.  It is the central point for planning and organizing collaborative efforts, aligning to the mission and developing goals around the Five Areas of Influence (Health, Knowledge, Standard of Living, Community and Social) in order to improve the health, safety and ability of the residents to thrive.

The   LWSD SRLT also empowers residents to serve as leaders in their community.  In fact, three of the LWSD SRLT partners have hosted Resident Leadership Academies (RLA) in which residents learn to lead efforts to improve their communities. The RLA is a curriculum-based program, aimed at engaging residents with a focus on the development of a community improvement project. This is only one example of the work the LWSD SRLT has accomplished. Outcomes for the various strategies and programs the LWSD SRLT contribute to help achieve the vision for a healthy, safe and thriving San Diego South Region.

As a result of the LWSD SRLT’s demonstrated collaboration, South Region was selected as the first pilot community for Communities of Excellence (COE) 2026.  This was an opportunity for the LWSD SRLT to move the dial in its efforts to go from great to excellent in the work they were doing in the community.  Kathie Lembo, President/CEO of South Bay Community Services and co-chair of the LWSD SRLT, states,  “Our journey to this point has been transformational, as the Leadership Team members have contributed their skills, expertise and input throughout the process in ways we haven’t seen before. This shift in the way we do things has brought about new and exciting discoveries this past year.”  

This past year has truly been a year of discovery. The COE framework has allowed the LWSD SRLT to form a clear picture of the San Diego South Region community through the development of the community profile.  The team has been able to identify areas of strength in the community and within the team. The framework has also provided the LWSD SRLT with an opportunity to take a more structured approach in strategic planning, goal development and achieving the voice of the resident.  Through the strategic planning process and development of the Community Profile, it was decided to form a smaller Ad Hoc Group that consists of volunteer representatives from the LWSD SRLT.  The Ad Hoc Group has been instrumental in the development of the Community Profile. 

Barbara Jiménez, Director of Regional Operations for the County of San Diego’s HHSA Central and South Regions and co-chair of the LWSD SRLT states, “It has been inspiring to see the LWSD SLRT in action; to see them embrace the COE framework with a drive and eagerness to grow and develop their collaborative efforts.  At the same time the LWSD SRLT has been able to celebrate their successes and really define and highlight what makes them a successful team.  The LWSD SRLT is engaged and excited to see where this journey towards excellence will continue to take them!”

Sectors AND Generations in Community Leadership

By Communities of Excellence 2026 Chair and Co-Founder Lowell C. Kruse

In virtually all our Communities of Excellence 2026 documents and conversations, we describe the need for collaboration across SECTORS AND GENERATIONS. Sometimes the GENERATIONS piece gets lost in the conversation. The attached video message from Jordan Hasty, a Junior at Brookfield High School, to the group of people (he's one of them) leading the Brookfield/Marceline Pilot in Northwest Missouri is a good reminder about why we always need to include young people in our discussions. Jordan sent his message to the group when he realized he couldn't attend a meeting and wanted to make sure they understood how important it was to him that they adopt and learn how to use the Communities Framework...and all it implies...as they think about the future of their community.

It's important for us to remember that the long term growth and prosperity of communities relies on leadership dedicated to performance excellence, to constantly improving and to always thinking about the long term continuity and sustainability of its efforts. Successful communities understand the long term nature of their work particularly as it relates to preparing the next generation of leaders. Let's remember that it takes about 20 years to prepare an entry level young adult and another 15 to 20 years to prepare entry level young leaders for our community. Successful communities will be mindful and purposeful in preparing their children and youth for adulthood and their young adults for leadership in order to assure the highest levels of success over the long term. Students like Jordan Hasty clearly make the case for including our young people in every aspect of growing and strengthening our communities.

 

 

Meet Our Communities: Kanawha County

By Judith Crabtree, Executive Director, Kanawha Coalition for Community Health Improvement

Our journey to community health improvement began in 1994 with the formation of the Kanawha Coalition for Community Health Improvement (KCCHI). Ahead of their time, community leaders representing health care, behavioral health, social services, economic development, and local foundations, recognized the value of a collaborative approach to better meet the health needs of residents. KCCHI’s mission is to identify health risks and coordinate resources to measurably improve the health of the people of Kanawha County.

Part of KCCHI’s success and sustainability can be contributed to the level of leadership on its Steering Committee. Membership consists of Chief Executive Officers and top level leaders of member organizations which allows for speedy decisions and quick responses to urgent and emerging needs.

From its inception the Kanawha Coalition has been committed to engaging residents in the process of identifying the top health issues facing our community. KCCHI conducted its first community health assessment (CHA) in 1995, long before IRS regulations for hospitals concerning community needs assessments, public health accreditation requirements for local health departments, and an increased emphasis by charities to fund locally identified issues. KCCHI completed its seventh triennial CHA in March 2017. Through the process of continuous improvement KCCHI’s assessment methodology has been enhanced over the years to be even more inclusive.

KCCHI has traditionally formed volunteer workgroups to address the top 3-4 health issues identified through its CHA. Over the years our efforts have resulted in spin-off collaborative groups that are now addressing some of these identified issues such as childhood obesity and substance abuse. At KCCHI’s Steering Committee retreat in 2015, members revisited our Coalition’s process and purpose. This year, for the first time, KCCHI will not carry out its work through individual issue-based workgroups but will instead convene a stakeholder group who will be charged to develop and implement a comprehensive Kanawha County Health Improvement Plan.

Our Communities of Excellence journey is helping us to more deeply explore our community, its unique challenges, its strengths, how far to reach and who to involve. As we develop our map forward, we are excited to see where our journey takes both our community and our Coalition.

 

An Update on San Diego County’s South Region

By COE Director Stephanie Norling

As you may know, San Diego County's South Region was one of the first communities to adopt the Communities of Excellence Framework.  Starting in 2015, I've had the pleasure of working closely with their team to both support their implementation efforts and to learn from their experience in order to make improvements to both the Framework and the approach to adopting it.  Their "community" is a region of over 500,000 residents.  This may sound daunting, and there are certainly many challlenges, but one of the reasons that they've been able to make such incredible strides lies in the cohesion and "shared identity" of both the South Region Leadership Team and the Region itself.  

This was most evident in the experience I had yesterday with their team.  The Health and Human Services Agency for the County (the backbone organization) has spent the last year working closely with the South Region Leadership Team to develop their Baldrige-based Community Profile.  Given the size of the Leadership Team (sometimes almost 50 people in attendance), they decided to form a small Ad Hoc Committee to assist them with the Profile.  The Committee would brainstorm responses to the Profile questions and the HHSA staff would compile that information, summarize it and then share it with the Committee at the next meeting for agreement, all the while updating the Leadership Team on their progress. 

A couple months ago, knowing that they would need confirmation from residents (Voice of the Resident), the team put together a questionaire that asked residents whether they agreed with profile of the community as well as asked about their priorties for their community.  Last week they tested that survey at a Health Fair in the region (true to their Performance Improvement System, they are using the PDSA improvement process for these surveys). The responses from the 47 residents that took the survey confirmed the statements in the Profile quite well.  They used Promotoras and South Bay Community Services Resident Leadership Academy graduates to survey residents. 

One story from that experience stood out to me:  One of the Resident Leaders who was helping out told the San Diego South Region team that she had been having some challenges at home and wasn’t sure if she would be able to go to the health fair.  She decided to share the survey with her husband and explain why she felt it was so important.  She told us that he was really excited to see what she was doing and not only was she able to participate but her husband was able to better understand the importance of the work she was doing in the community and wanted to get involved himself. Not only was she able to go the health fair that day, but that she felt like it helped their relationship.

I know all too well the importance of identifying early successes in our communities adopting this framework.  Improving outcomes such as graduation rates or diabetes rates can take many years.  Small impacts such as this story though are starting to happen right away.  I don't often get to see the day to day impact that the Communties of Excellence Framework can have on residents.  I am so grateful to the South Region team for all their hard work, dedication, and ability to take the time to step back and acknowledge such important aspects of their journey.

The Value of Cross-Sector Collaboration

By Kruse Scholar Alum Rob Platou

In 2014 I accepted a job offer that took me from sunny Southern California to rural Southeast Georgia to work at a community hospital that was part of the Mayo Clinic Health System.  After starting my new job, I volunteered to join the local Waycross Rotary Club to help represent the hospital in the community.  From this experience I was able to learn of a cross-sector collaboration between the local school district, the technical college and the local business community.  This collaboration’s aim was to help high school students prepare for higher education and meaningful employment. This naturally occurring collaboration demonstrated the tremendous value that cross-sector initiatives can provide.  It also illustrates how the Communities of Excellence Framework could provide communities across the country with a systematic framework to collaborate on and achieve multiple-shared community goals. 

Waycross is small city in Southeast Georgia about an hour and a half drive from Jacksonville, Florida. The population has steadily declined from 20,944 at its peak in 1960 to 14,053 in 2015.  The medium household income for a family in Waycross is $28,712 which is significantly below US median household income of $51,939.  Six railway lines converge in Waycross and CSX Transportation operates a large railway hub called Rice Yard.  Timber farming is a major industry which supplies several large Biomass plants producing wood pellets used in European Power Plants.  The major educational institutions include Ware County School District, Costal Pines Technical College and South Georgia State College.

Given the community’s unique socio-economic circumstances, the following stakeholders came together and identified their primary needs:

1) Business Community: Need for an educated and trained local workforce

2) Secondary Education: Promote education programs to provide high school students seeking a college degree affordable opportunities to earn transferable college credit while still in high school

3) Community Technical College: Promote educational programs to provide students who do not have the opportunity to go to college, technical training programs that enable graduates join the local workforce quickly with meaningful employment. 

In close collaboration these different community sectors sought to maximize and promote the State of Georgia’s Move On When Ready program (MOWR).  This program allows qualifying high school students to take eligible college courses at the community college for free that also meet high school graduation requirements.  After identifying the workforce training needs of the local business community, Costal Pines Technical College promoted multiple technical training programs accessible to high school students through the MOWR program.  Some of these certificate programs included Timber Farming, Hospitality Services, Welding, and CNA certification. 

The college also provided several options for high school students to attend classes on the college campus or by assigning certified technical college instructors to teach at the high school.  With these programs in place it was feasible for a high school student to be able to complete these training programs while still in high school at no cost to them. Upon high school graduation these student’s could enter the workforce with technical certification and make $38,000 - $41,000 a year which is significant in this community.

This naturally occurring cross-sector collaboration provides significate opportunities for young people in the Waycross community while also meeting the needs of local businesses and educational institutions. This example from Waycross is just one of many examples of cross-sector collaborations that result in the improved vitality of communities.  The Communities of Excellence Framework could provide communities like Waycross the tools to encourage, promote and enable coordinated cross-sector collaborations to solve multiple community problems in a systematic framework.   

Meet our Communities: West Kendall, Florida

By Javier Hernandez-Lichtl, CEO, West Kendall Baptist Hospital

From before West Kendall Baptist Hospital opened, our staff has operated under guiding themes that describe who we are and what we value. As we prepared to open, it was “Building Our Team,” then “Opening Our Doors,” followed by the “Year of the People” and so on. In 2013, in response to our Community Health Needs Assessment, we launched Healthy West Kendall, a community coalition with the vision of creating the healthiest community in Florida. We’ve had many successes, from the 13,000-plus free screenings we’ve provided to the school gardens and walking school bus projects helping kids develop healthy lifestyle habits, to hosting community events that draw more than 10,000 participants each year. Yet, as we entered our sixth year of operation, I knew it was time to “redefine” (our current theme) and look for the next curve, something that would catapult our community to the next level. Then late one night as I reviewed emails, I clicked on a link about Communities of Excellence 2026 and knew immediately I had found what our West Kendall community needed.

To understand our journey here, we have to go back 15 years, when the rapidly growing area now known as West Kendall was a patchwork of neighborhoods without many of the anchoring institutions – businesses, restaurants, government, etc. – that root a community and lend it an identity. Residents here were used to driving many miles east and north to buy groceries, shop for clothes and gifts, or even get a meal in a restaurant that didn’t use plastic utensils. Still, the people who lived here knew they needed a hospital in their community and asked Baptist Health South Florida to be their provider. Fast forward to 2011, when the hospital finally opened. On our first day, we saw 71 people in our emergency department, admitted our first inpatient and delivered our first baby. It was a true testament to the need that existed, and we were proud to be the health system helping to fill that gap. Today West Kendall Baptist serves as physical and metaphorical town center for this sprawling community of nearly 400,000 people that represents 15% of the county population. Our emergency department serves 70,000 and we care for more than 8,700 inpatients; nearly 1,000 babies are born each year inside our walls. But it’s what we do outside our facility that makes me most proud.

Our innovation drivers – teams focused on Arts & Culture, Green & Sustainable, Technology & Health & Wellness – have hosted community events like a technology showcase and roadside clean ups, conducted field trips to see recycling plants and food distribution centers and connected with residents through the arts and wellness activities. Through Healthy West Kendall, we are addressing the social, cultural and environmental factors that shape the health of our residents. These include creating streets and public spaces that support health, building a stronger economic base in our community, making sure all children have a chance to succeed in school and helping new immigrants gain a foothold on the American Dream. Nearly 80% of West Kendall residents are Hispanic/Latino, and more than half speak a language other than English at home. They come from a host of Caribbean, Central and South American countries – Cuba, Colombia, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Puerto Rico – and the unique perceptions and beliefs they bring to the community offers tremendous opportunity and, in some cases, a few challenges.

Driven in part by an influx of immigrants, West Kendall grew by 23% in the decade between 2000 and 2010, adding about 73,000 residents seeking cheaper housing, safer neighborhoods and open space. Nestled between the Everglades on the west and the Florida turnpike on the east, West Kendall has transformed into a heavily populated collection of enclosed housing developments and commercial strip shopping centers, anchored by two institutions of higher education – Florida International University and Miami Dade College, an executive airport and West Kendall Baptist Hospital. West Kendall remains part of unincorporated Miami-Dade County, and the absence of a municipality contributes to a lack of cohesion and sense of place that some residents have sought without success to change.

The Communities of Excellence journey that we have embarked upon will provide a foundation on which to unite our community behind the shared value of belonging – to a place and a community – and identity. Our experience with the Sterling Award has taught us that what gets measured gets done. The raw materials for a world-class community are here, and Communities of Excellence 2026 is our way forward.

Read more about West Kendall here

Brookfield & Marceline: A Team of Rivals

By Becky Cleveland

The rural communities of Marceline and Brookfield, both located in North Central Missouri’s  Linn County, have teamed up to pilot Communities of Excellence 2026.  We are hopeful that successful implementation of this approach  will serve to align the leadership of our communities and county in such a way as to foster cooperation and serve to provide strategic decision-making across sectors, generations and local jurisdictions.   Our goal is to restore economic vitality to our small towns and county by turning around the decades’ long population decline, out-migration of youth, and loss of businesses; all while preserving the rural quality of life that we treasure.

In our quest to work together toward a better future, let’s look at the histories of these communities, and a single tradition that would embolden them to create a team of rivals.  During the great American expansion westward, two separate railroads laid track through the beautiful countryside of North Central Missouri’s Linn County.   To service the needs of the railroads, new towns were established at fixed intervals so the locomotives could refuel and switch out crews.  Thus were the births of Brookfield in 1859, as the Division Headquarters of the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad, and Marceline in 1887, the Division Headquarters for the Sante Fe Railroad.  As the crow flies, only 8 miles of cropland and pastures separated the two towns.  Although close by today’s measure of distance, the two towns began very separate, with each town having its own self-sustaining economy.  In those days it was a day trip by horse and buggy to visit a relative in the neighboring town, that is, if you planned to make it back home before dark.  So for most purposes, folks stayed put.  With few exceptions, everything you wanted or needed could be obtained from your own town.  Folks in rural places were self-sufficient and that belief spilled over into the social fabric and culture of rural community life.

Over the next several years both Marceline and Brookfield grew in size and prosperity, each becoming Saturday night shopping stops for the smaller towns and local farm families that dotted the countryside.  The industrial age introduced factories and more off-farm jobs to both communities.  It also ushered in the automobile and rural residents wasted no time trading in their buggies for the new horseless carriage.  Travel from town to town was now faster and easier making the distance traveled less significant, and opening up opportunities to be found in other places. The world was getting smaller and more accessible.  Even so, that strong rural culture and love for home continued to influence how each town kept its own distinct traditions and self-sufficient way of life.

A shared tradition between the two towns originated in 1909 when the high schools of Marceline and Brookfield played their first football game.  From the beginning this game was a highlight of the season. The rivalry between the two acquired regional attention in 1936 when an old brass bell donated from a retired fire truck became the traveling trophy.   The Bell Game, as it became known, soon escalated to a contest not only between two schools but also between two proud communities with the game’s winning team, and town, securing bragging rights until next year’s encounter on the grid iron.The week of the Bell Game grew to near holiday status, where hundreds of alumni from each town made their way back home to watch the game and relive their own contribution to games of the past.  It was not uncommon for the number of spectators to exceed the entire population of the hosting town with 3, 4 or maybe even 5 thousand attendees.   

From 1909 to 2004 the Bell Game tradition continued, rotating back and forth between these two towns, year after year, providing each community the opportunity for a victory,  in an economic climate where wins of any type were becoming increasingly rare.  The once growing communities had been losing population now since the Great Depression, with families—and especially their grown children—leaving for larger cities to find work.  Small farms had transitioned into larger, technologically advanced operations, requiring fewer hands to operate.  Competition overseas closed local factories forcing many families to relocate.  Even the original economic engine, the railroads, had reduced or even eliminated stops in the two towns.  It was a slow but steady drain of people, jobs, talent and, ultimately, a hopeful future for the two towns.   

As you might guess, declining populations is followed by a decrease in school enrollments and in 2004 the two school districts found themselves in different size classification.  Now what had begun in 1909 simply as two neighboring schools agreeing to play a football game had transitioned into a complicated state bureaucracy.  The outcome: the schools of Brookfield and Marceline where notified by the state association governing high school activities that the two teams could not play each other the following season, thus the legendary Bell Game would cease to exist.  

Even though, most would agree that a high school football game is not a community’s primary purpose for existence, this news just happened to serve as the final blow for two communities and schools who had experienced so much loss over the past 60 years.  This decision could not stand. What could be done?

These two proud communities, once self-reliant and independent, needed a champion and, ironically, the only ally they each had to stand up in challenging this decision was their neighbor, competitor and 100 year rival.   Brookfield needed Marceline and Marceline needed Brookfield.

I don’t want to keep you guessing…this part of the story has a happy ending, and the Bell Game was played the following fall season continuing the long standing tradition.   I hope you have guessed that the real story has less to do with the game and more to do with what can be accomplished when leaders align and work together to achieve a common goal.   The two schools and towns did something they had rarely done in the past; they came together across generations and city limits, and in spite of grudges and old worn-out local customs.  Together, they developed a plan utilizing the collective resources of both communities, including thousands of alumni, enabling them to mount a successful communications and letter writing campaign that literally reached coast to coast.

In looking back, the collaborative victory of saving the Bell Game not only kept a community tradition alive, it opened the eyes of both communities to the fruits that can come to bare from working together.   And because of that we are not ashamed to say that a high school football game did serve to lead the way to more and even greater shared projects including construction and operation of a new regional airport, public safety mutual-aid agreements between jurisdictions and shared curriculum between school districts in the form of summer school programs and career and technical training.    

Today in Marceline and Brookfield we strongly believe that by demonstrating mutual respect, trust, and aligning our communities through system-based leadership and resource-sharing, we can affect positive change in our local economy and that of the entire Northwest Missouri region.   We have chosen a proven set of leadership and management principles to help lead the way…Communities of Excellence 2026.  We hope you stay tuned!

Read more about the Brookfield-Marceline Community here

 

Trolls, Elves, and Strong Communities

By Kruse Scholar Spencer Cahoon

A week ago my wife and I returned from traveling through the lands of trolls, elves, and Vikings: Scandinavia.  From seeing spectacular waterfalls, tasting fermented shark meat, to exploring 800-year old wooden stave churches, this is one of the most unique adventures we have ever experienced.  And yet, apart from the exciting sites we saw, there was something very interesting about the countries of Iceland, Denmark, and Norway.  Each of these places consistently makes the list of top 10 happiest countries in the world.  Why?

It was in Iceland where we saw the famous Eyjafjallajökull volcano (try to pronounce that!), the volcano that erupted in 2010, canceling thousands of flights across Europe due to drifting ash.  We heard from a family who’s farm and crops, situated at the base of the volcano, were practically destroyed due to the thick layer of deposited volcanic ash.  At a time of despair, this family’s Icelandic community rallied behind them to rescue the farm and help rebuild the family’s livelihood.  The wife said this sense of community is what kept her family going.  Touched by this shared support, she noted that, if given the chance, she wouldn’t go back and change a thing.

A second experience stands out from our travels in Denmark, where my wife and I spent time with Danish relatives.  Over a delicious helping of beef, potatoes, and gravy, I inquired what makes Denmark special to them.  Without hesitation, they unanimously said it was the sense of belonging and security that comes from their community.  “If we lose our jobs, home, or health, there will always be the social support to help us get back on our feet,” they said gratefully.

So, I return to my question of why these countries rank as some of the happiest on earth?  From what I was hearing, I believe it is directly related to the building of strong communities of excellence.  One of the features of a community of excellence, as well as a solid Baldrige abiding organization, is a switch from having satisfied residents (employees), to having engaged residents (employees).  When this happens, the mindset changes from “what can I get” to “what can I give?”  This is the mindset that I encountered in Scandinavia.  Do we also see this taking place in the United States?

Minnesota Lieutenant Governor Tina Smith shared some inspiring words of wisdom at the 2017 annual PENworks conference.  Her words can be applied to how we increase engagement and build strong communities.  First, build a strong team.  Lt Governor Smith shared an analogy of a “beautifully balanced soup,” where all the ingredients matter.  Second is the Three Musketeers mantra, “One for all and all for one!”  Third, nothing is more important than listening.  And fourth, we need to “unplug” and rejuvenate in heart and spirit.

The Communities of Excellence 2026 experiment is flourishing in several areas of the country, with more communities joining the movement each year.  It is my hope that with the success of COE, more and more U.S. citizens will be able to say, “It is the strength of my community that makes America special to me.”

Read more about Spencer Cahoon here

Rural America: think regionally; act locally

Communities of Excellence 2026 is pleased to share a six part blog series by our National Learning Collaborative pilot cohort communities.  Today we begin with a post from Max Summers and Steve Wenger, representing the Northwest Missouri Regional Vitaltiy Initiative.  This initiative is part of the broader, regional focus to two of our communities:  Brookfield/Marceline and Maryville, Missouri who are part of this vision to think regionally; and act locally.

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Like many rural areas, Northwest Missouri (NWMO) is a special place where the people are connected with their neighbors in a way that translates into “respect for” and “concern about” each other.  Children grow up with the freedom to be children, to explore and learn about the world around them. Many who left NWMO after high school look back on their childhood memories with great fondness and asked, “Can I give my children a similar experience”.

Research shows that about 40% of those who leave rural communities actually explore the possibility of returning for the sake of their children. When they look at NWMO they see quality schools, a workforce that is both talented and hardworking, a great quality of life for those that value the outdoors lifestyle, but they have difficulty to finding the needed support and networks to translate their skill and talent into economic viability. Brookfield, Missouri even set up a formal program tracking those who moved away so they could communicate and encourage them to come back home, which has been relatively successful.

Unfortunately, the economic opportunities do not always allow them to make the desired decisions. Rural NWMO is a way of life worth saving and protecting, but to do that the economics of the area must be rethought and transformed to the 21st century economy. Some argue natural economics should be allowed to take its course, however, that is not a thoughtful response as rural communities can compete, but in order to do that the region must reorganize around leadership that uses system thinking to help communities connect and plan together. This effort is bigger than NWMO or preserving rural America’s way of life, as is really about preserving the middle class.

As indicated above, our local-regional leadership has been handicapped by the lack of an appropriate structure to support regional decision-making processes cross sectorially. As a result, NWMO has unintentionally pushed away our local risk takers and innovators because of limited resources available to start, grow and develop their good customer-citizen problem solving ideas, services and businesses. Today’s innovation-based economic ecosystem is made up of quality workforce, recruitment, innovation networks and support for growing business through entrepreneurship and clustering, (clustering defined as: “similar and related firms in a defined geographic area that share common markets, technologies, work skill needs, and are often linked by buyer-seller relationship”).

Middle class has always been the backbone of rural American, but it is shrinking.  Rural communities need to move toward leadership that uses system thinking in order for communities within the region to identify their commonalities, key drivers and strategies. This will enable the region to focus and work together to amass the needed resources, talent, and networks to create shared value. Aligning decisions, engaging the right people and empowering them to work for the benefit of the region has the potential to transform the region economically, while preserving both the middle class and the quality of life.

We believe there is a way, so the Northwest Missouri Regional Vitality Initiative has stepped up to support area leaders in ensuring the region’s economic competitiveness. The initiative will use a performance excellence approach called “Communities of Excellence 2026”, which is based on leadership and management principles developed by the National Quality Award Program, aka Baldrige Performance Excellence Framework. These principles guide the initiative in aligning sectors, like businesses, schools, and government, so communities can begin to effect change.

The result will be a focus on the right things, so overtime NWMO can work toward success. It is clear there is not a silver bullet or project that will fully address rural issues, but the “Communities of Excellence 2026” process will bring focus on those issues most important to drive the enhanced competitiveness of the region and ultimately preserve the middle class quality of life so treasured by its people.

By Max Summers and Steve Wenger