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Colleges and Communities: Increasing Local Capacity

by Fred D Baldwin

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A bit of wisdom from an ancient Chinese classic suggests that the highest form of leadership resembles air and water-flowing everywhere, nourishing, but rarely noticed. With that kind of leadership, the old text continues, "The people say, 'We did it ourselves.' "

That concept describes how the Rural Community College Initiative (RCCI) operates. Created by the Ford Foundation, the RCCI seeks to expand educational opportunities for the rural poor and to stimulate economic development in some of the most economically distressed areas of the nation. As its name implies, the RCCI looks to community colleges for leadership.

"Community colleges were really established as people's colleges," says W. Bruce Ayers, president of Kentucky's Southeast Community College (SECC). "If they're doing their job, it should be hard to tell where 'college' ends and 'community' begins."

SECC, whose main campus is in Cumberland, serves three counties—Bell, Harlan, and Letcher. It's one of five Appalachian community colleges now participating in the RCCI, and was one of two Appalachian community colleges chosen to participate when the initiative began as a pilot program in 1994.

The RCCI's pilot effort included 9 community colleges, and the program has since expanded to include a total of 24 community colleges nationally. In addition to SECC, the current Appalachian participants are Hazard Community College (which also participated in the pilot program), Somerset Community College, and Prestonsburg Community College, all in Kentucky, and Mountain Empire Community College, in Big Stone Gap, Virginia.

Creating a Vision

At the heart of the RCCI is a strategic planning process known as "moving from vision to action." The formal process involves nine steps. The first step is to bring together a relatively small but diverse group of people who represent many elements of a community: business, government, education, and, for want of a better term, "grassroots" leaders—both actual and potential. This group is encouraged to collect data that accurately describes their community as it currently exists, then to create a vision of what they'd like their community to be like five to ten years in the future (and beyond). They then define a series of specific action steps needed to get from where they are to where they'd like to be.

The steering committee SECC brought together followed this pattern. The committee began with about a dozen members, initially all from Harlan County. It's since been expanded to include representation from Bell and Letcher Counties. Even within Harlan County, add Roy Silver, a professor of sociology on the SECC faculty who has served as the community's RCCI team leader since 1994, "There are a lot of geographical divisions and political divisions that keep people apart. The RCCI has allowed people to get to know each other across the county."

"Although it is a planning process," says Carol Lincoln, national director of the RCCI program, "it's also an engagement process. It's a tool to get folks who don't ordinarily talk about these issues together to collect and analyze data, and to make some collective decisions on a plan of action that they all can support."

Lincoln is a senior associate on the staff of MDC, Inc., a North Carolina–based firm that serves as the managing partner for the RCCI on behalf of the Ford Foundation, which provides program funding. MDC maintains a pool of technical experts to help RCCI sites with their strategies. It also supports community-planning processes by providing "field coaches," who generally work with the same community over a long period of time on issues such as team building, problem solving, and self-assessment. (The American Association of Community Colleges is responsible for an independent program assessment.)

"We try very hard to make this a data-driven process," Lincoln continues. "We encourage people to get the best information they possibly can and to base their understanding on their interpretation of the data, so that it's not just what people think is going on in the community, but what can be shown is going on."

The last formal step is creation of an evaluation plan with specific benchmarks. Strictly speaking, however, there is no "last" step; the plans are regularly reviewed and revised as the community planners develop new insights.

G. Edward Hughes, president of Hazard Community College, says the RCCI vision-to-action process is now a permanent element of his college's institutional effectiveness program, followed by every department. In addition, Hazard Community College has been especially aggressive in spreading RCCI's capacity-building message. From the outset, Hughes says, he and his colleagues were committed to a "cluster concept"—an attempt to create synergy among institutions with common problems and common commitments to change.

In the fall of 2000, representatives of the five Appalachian community colleges now in RCCI met in Kingsport, Tennessee. They were joined by five other Appalachian community colleges not in the RCCI program—two from West Virginia and one each from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. The conference was supported by the Appalachian Regional Commission. This informal consortium plans at least annual meetings and regular communication.

"We have colleges that serve the most distressed parts of Appalachia now working together," Hughes says, "and we think that has something of real value to the Region. The idea is to share information and, hopefully, the resources that we can pull together from these ten institutions across this core area of Appalachia."

From Planning to Programs

SECC's participation in the RCCI's vision-to-action process has so far led to the development of four programs in Harlan County, each of which is, in varying ways, an example of what Paul Pratt, the college's RCCI coordinator and its dean of community and business development, calls "little webs spreading out in all directions."

Probably the most visible of these programs is the Pine Mountain Community Development Corporation (CDC) a microloan program created in late 1996. The planners saw lack of access to capital as a serious barrier to local business development and envisioned a community where genuinely promising entrepreneurs would not face that barrier.

"For the large firms there are all sorts of possibilities," says Ken Thomas, market president at Area Bank, Harlan, and a member of the RCCI steering committee. "For the small guy just trying to start up—working out of his garage, so to speak—there's really not a lot available."

That's beginning to change. The team, led by SECC, secured investments from five area banks, creating an initial lending pool of $130,000. Since its inception, the Pine Mountain CDC, through lending and re-lending, has made approximately $195,000 in loans. Pratt estimates that these loans have helped to create or preserve as many as 70 jobs.

The Harlan County planners realized early that there was no way that purely local resources could provide the level of capital their vision demanded. So they invited to meetings other organizations focusing on Appalachian financial issues. The result in late 2000 was the creation of a coalition body called the Appalachian Development Alliance. The alliance will not make loans directly but will enable member institutions like the Pine Mountain CDC to expand their access to capital.

Lincoln, speaking from the perspective of the national RCCI program, adds that the Pine Mountain venture attracts attention wherever she speaks. "When I talked about that [at a conference] in Canada," she says, "they were amazed that a community college would play that role."

Another of SECC's programs was developed to address the issue of expanding access to educational opportunities—a major RCCI goal. The SECC planners envisioned a community where serious, hard-working young people—even those seen as "at risk"—would be able to both complete high school and go on to post-secondary work. The result was a mentoring program known as Southeast Scholars. It currently reaches about 40 students, high-school age and younger, all deemed to be at some risk of leaving school prematurely. The students participate in workshops on study skills, see and put on plays, and join in field trips and other enrichment activities. Those who graduate from high school with clean behavioral records are guaranteed two-year, full-tuition scholarships at SECC.

The first group of student participants, now high school seniors, is expected to graduate this spring.

The most recent addition to the SECC/RCCI program is an aquaculture project. If there's one thing that Harlan County has in abundance, it's closed-off coal mines. And a lot of those mines have become, in effect, wells—tapping veins of clean, cold water.

"We saw a new way to create opportunities for sustainable industry," Pratt says. "One of the problems here is that people have always worked for the coal mines, and they don't think entrepreneurially. We saw a lot of locations where cold-water species of fish could be raised. We thought we'd introduce the technology and show people that they could make a living at it."

The water from the mines, neither acidic nor alkaline, comes out at temperatures between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit, ideal for rainbow trout. The SECC is now sponsoring a pilot aquaculture project, housed in a building owned by Harlan County. Its fish tanks, which resemble small backyard swimming pools, have the capacity to grow 40,000 trout per year from fingerling size to table size. The goal is to demonstrate trout farming as one viable alternative for small farmers. The project later plans to add facilities for cleaning and filleting fish and to expand research on marketing.

"I've catalogued about 25 sites in our three-county region that have the potential for doing this," says Jeremy Williams, SECC agriculture services manager. "And we've had six to eight people who're really interested in doing this."

Developing Leadership

The fourth and most basic of SECC's RCCI efforts is Leadership Harlan County United. Now in its fifth year of operation, the program includes "academies" held around the county that bring participants into direct contact with decision makers in government, the economy, education, and the environment. (A similar program is getting off the ground in neighboring Bell County.)

The program is more than a series of seminars. It replicates the kind of vision-to-action process that characterizes the RCCI program as a whole. Each group of participants develops an action plan for addressing a community problem the group decides is important. Projects have involved recycling, improving well-water safety, decreasing domestic violence, and revitalizing a largely inactive local Red Cross chapter. It's a new experience for most of those participating, because Harlan County is divided by mountains and a history of relatively little cooperation across its political districts.

For some already in leadership roles, the program expands their ability to be useful. For example, Dan Fitzpatrick, administrator and CEO of Harlan ARH Hospital and a member of the program's steering committee, was one of the individuals who helped get the program off the ground. But he also went through the first set of classes himself.

Roy Silver, the local RCCI team leader, says the program also taps many people who are in small-scale leadership roles (in their churches, for example) but who haven't thought of themselves as countywide leaders.

"They've made a big mistake!" says Vergie Jackson, a loan compliance officer at Area Bank, Cumberland, describing her reaction to an invitation last year to participate in Leadership Harlan County United. They hadn't. Jackson found herself taking a leading role in a county-wide survey of small parks and playgrounds. The group has developed a plan for dealing with potential safety issues and generally seeing that the parks are attractive and well maintained.

"It takes people working together to get anything done," Jackson says, summing up what she learned. "We need to work together to keep our youth here. If we don't, we're going to dry up and die. Most of our communities have the same problems, and they can solve them if they just work together."

When that happens, she might have added, they'll be entitled to say, "We did it ourselves."

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.