Q&A - June 16, 2017

I believe the most powerful force within any community or organization is the people within that community or organization—they can either be a positive or a negative force. By collectively establishing and maintaining a set of cultural norms and belief systems, they can be extremely entrenched and formidable. But I am equally convinced that one person can positively influence an entire community. Let me explain why.

Q: How can one person make a difference in his or her community?

In my ninth year as president of Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Nebraska, I directed my administration to search the nation for examples of small rural communities that had actually turned around their local economies from the brink of failure to success. I was not interested in communities that had a promising plan of action; I wanted to identify communities that could actually demonstrate effective economic development and rural revitalization efforts with results that could be observed, studied, and measured. After an extensive search, we focused on three small rural communities that were within a one-day commute. We visited all three of these communities and interviewed local leaders to learn how they went about changing the complexion of their community. It was our hope that we would find common elements at all three communities and begin to see patterns of rural revitalization success that could be replicated.

To our dismay, we initially found nothing in common between these communities or in the methods that they used to turn around their economies. It wasn’t until a debriefing session when we noticed the single common element—in every case, the change of attitude within the community started with one person. One person within the community stepped up and assumed a leadership role that began a “snowball effect.” Attitudes within the communities went from despair and apathy to a mindset of “together, we can do this.” In every case, this initial leadership came from someone who was unexpected. These unlikely leaders had no prominence within the community nor did they hold any public office. These were just average citizens who decided that someone needed to step up and “it might as well be me.”

One of the unlikely leaders I met was a housewife who called a town hall meeting of all city and county officials to discuss the needs of senior citizens in her town and to set up an assisted living center. This brought many jobs and new families to town. Another was a high school teacher who motivated his students to action and started a call center that established new jobs in his community. This fueled many new business startups in town. And one was a farmer who raised money among his friends to build a multifunctional community center that brought numerous events and visitors to his town every year.

I know a single person can make a big difference because I’ve met people who have become the unlikely leaders in their communities. If you think you have a way to make a difference in Okmulgee, I would love to hear from you. Feel free to contact me at osuit-president@okstate.edu.