This study set out to understand how rural community members are mobilized for the creation of a cradle-to-career network. In particular, it focused on the processes that contributed to mobilization and how individuals understood their own engagement with the Network. Additionally, the analysis examined how adaptation of the Strive Network occurred in a rural context. Overall, mobilization of Network participants occurred iteratively as the Network developed from its initial launch to early action phases. Throughout, participants cited the importance of relationships in bringing people together. The next section provides context for the development of the Network, before describing these iterative strategies and the resulting mobilization, network structure and theory of action, and providing several implications and conclusions.
5.1. Network Context
The Grand Isle Network is centered in Grand Isle County, a large non-metropolitan county of over 3000 square miles in the Midwest. The Network’s geographical bounds encompass a larger area that is widely understood as the “greater Grand Isle region”. This region includes Grand Isle County and the county seat, Big River, as well as portions of three nearby counties that depend on this hub for employment, retail, services, and leisure activities. The Network encompasses nearly 30 towns and villages, collected into seven school districts. These districts range in size from nearly 4000 students in Big River to those in outlying rural areas that serve less than 300 students. The Grand Isle Foundation, a private philanthropic organization, serves as the backbone organization. The Foundation’s home giving area overlaps with that of the Network.
Participants identified an increased recognition that, for communities to succeed individually, they would have to succeed together in the face of regional issues, such as education, employment, housing, transportation, and poverty. Despite this recognition, participants reported significant challenges to developing such regional understandings and bringing together individuals from across the seven school districts. For example, participants identified the sheer size of the Greater Grand Isle area as a challenge for mobilization. Even within individual school districts, participants reported, “the number one challenge is we’re so spread out.” They noted that many families lacked reliable and consistent transportation to allow them to participant in the life of the schools.
Others noted the social geography created challenges in bringing people together around regional issues. For example, a member of a community foundation identified the role of individual town identities on limiting mobilization. She said, “Early on, mining…and the forestry industry played a large role, but these communities were able to be kind of on their own and kind of function as their own community, and have their own little kind of town culture so to speak.” However, she also reported that people have started to see the need to work through these differences. She continued, “I think they are finding very rapidly that it no longer works, it’s not realistic, and the community really, in order for them to be vibrant and functioning, has to be more than just a town boundary…I think people are starting to realize in the last five or six years, I think they are starting to realize that if they don’t start working together as a larger community, it’s not going to be good.”
Although Grand Isle County remains nearly 95% white, participants identified several sources of diversity. The main source of ethnic diversity is Native peoples. While the Bureau of Indian Affairs school has not joined the Network, it does include a school district that serves several villages on the Reservation. Other sources of diversity identified were those that moved to the area for its natural beauty, recreational activities, and slower pace of life. Among the study participants at least, many of these new arrivals have brought with them post-secondary degrees, as well as different values. Participants also alluded to different values and identities held by communities that developed out of the logging industry in the 19th century and those that developed out of the mining industry. Finally, participants noted that there is a wide range of socio-economic levels, which possess different values and ambitions for youth, and contribute to the diversity of the area.
The Network leadership includes members from the school districts, early childhood programs, out-of-school time programs, county social service agencies, workforce development organizations, non-profit organizations, small businesses, faith-based organizations, a charter school, and the local community college. Members of the Grand Isle Network, like the Strive Partnership, had prior experience in collaborative partnerships in the birth to career continuum. This previous experience provided advanced readiness through a reserve of existing working relationships and a library of locally learned lessons. In these earlier collaborations, the Grand Isle Foundation served similar administrative and logistical roles, with staff providing leadership and facilitation for these prior collaborative partnerships. Participants reported that the Foundation has earned a strong reputation for doing “the right things” and “good quality worthwhile” work. Participants reported that when Foundation staff ask people to get involved they typically do.
5.2. Mobilization Strategies
Mobilization of the Grand Isle Network proceeded in an iterative fashion, reflecting the Network’s growth through several stages. In some cases, large community-wide gatherings brought people together for short term efforts, in other cases, individuals were recruited to commit to take part in the leadership of the Network. In some cases, specific stakeholders were targeted, in others, participants relied on existing personal, professional, and familial networks to mobilize members.
Network leaders in particular highlighted the importance of relationships to their efforts. They noted that in the absence of financial or other resources, relationships were an important factor for the development of a rural network. For example, one stated, “One of the assets we have are our connections to each other.” One convener reported that people see each other at church, youth sports, and the grocery store and the other stated: “You know almost everybody. You work with them, you live with some, you socialize with them, and these are things that create stronger networks.”
5.2.1. Initial Mobilization
In 2009, initial conversations between the seven K-12 superintendents and members of the Foundation identified educational outcomes as an area of mutual concern. Members of these organizations attended a presentation by Geoffery Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone that reportedly shifted the conversation away from failing schools towards aspects of a community that support educational achievement and student success more broadly. This initial group took on this community-focused vision for education as their common agenda.
From there, this small group sought input from community members in a series of gatherings, each attended by over 100 stakeholders from across the seven school districts in the Greater Grand Isle area. These individuals reportedly represented the eight dimensions of a healthy community: education from Pre-K through post-secondary, the arts and recreation, physical infrastructure and human services, law enforcement, local government and community leaders, business leaders, and religious organizations and healthcare. These initial meetings served to identify educational and economic needs across the various communities and to generate solutions. These framing activities set the stage for recruitment of the leadership team.
5.2.2. Developing the Core Team of Leaders
Prior to the final community meeting, Foundation staff engaged in one-on-one conversations with individuals they felt would be key actors or who had significant personal motivation to get involved. During the final meeting, the Foundation staff issued a call to arms, asking individuals to self-identify their level of commitment and passion in a series of concentric circles. Those willing to “(say), I have time, I have energy and I have a lot of passion around this and I’m going to dig in and work on this” placed their names in the center, becoming the Core Team.
This group of over forty individuals represented a wide range of sectors from across the seven districts, including K-12 education, early childhood, post-secondary, non-profits, out-of-school time, business, social service agencies, faith-based groups, and the local government. Between 2010 and 2014, Core Team members provided direction for the Network. Their efforts included a study trip to the Strive Partnership in Cincinnati; membership in the Strive Together national network and attendance of national convenings; the development of a local roadmap document outlining “aspirational goals”; the identification of indicators and measures aligned to those goals; the development of a student survey based on these goals and positive youth development factors; and creating and carrying out communication strategies.
During this launch phase, this group experienced turnover. Participants described efforts to recruit new members as proceeding through the identification of missing stakeholders and then engaging in an “education and an ask”. This proceeded largely through existing relationships. One participant reported “I would say most of the recruitment comes through word of mouth, somebody at a higher level decides that it’s important for somebody to be at table...Just connections.”
5.2.3. Restructuring Leadership for Action
In 2014, two key mobilization efforts took place in the push towards action. First, the Core Team determined that a smaller, more accountable leadership group was needed. During the latter half of 2014, members of a smaller Governance Council were identified and recruited, replacing the Core Team in January 2015. During the previous year, a sub-committee of the Core Team worked to identify key local actors they believed should be on this Governance Council based on their organizational affiliation. One participant reported that the group identified the “seat that should be occupied, a particular voice that’s missing.” From there, he continued, “Once that’s been identified, then there’s kind of (a conversation about) who has roads into that, or who knows somebody in that community, organization, that could reach out to and talk about work.” Another participant reported that this recruitment proceeded through the mapping of social networks: “We used our networks. Who is connected to the businessperson? We literally had papers around the room or working tables to say, who are you connected to? If you’re already connected to them, make that call, make that ask, tell them what you’re doing. So, it’s a lot about relationships.”
A member of the Core Team, and later the Governance Council, reiterated the importance of relationships in mobilizing these individuals: “This is a small community and we all know each other to a certain extent already before this started, at least we knew of each other. (The director) and I have known each other since, for a long, long time. So there are those relationships that go back. He knows my family. I know his family. I know his mother. We go way back.” She continued, “We have a new Governance Council member coming to the meeting tomorrow for the first time. And that’s funny because she used to be one of (the) at-risk youth that I worked with.”
In addition to relying on existing relationships, participants reported that those recruited to the efforts had been “vetted” for shared values of the importance of youth and community and “in order to get invited, you had to have proved that at some point”. Another participant reported identifying shared values through previous experiences: “You get to know someone through your work with this committee or that committee, or this organization, or your bowling league. And, you’re identifying those people with common values and beliefs.”
In engaging new members, participants described their work of brokering connections between individuals and the effort. One reported, “So I explain a little bit and then ask, what part of this speaks to you, or what part of this do you feel like you can identify with or are able to offer guidance and assistance? And then I talk about the Governance Council. We’re at this point where we need to create a governing body and would you want to be involved in this?”
Although mobilization of the Governance Council proceeded largely through existing relationships among individuals with shared values, turnover in key institutional roles required building new relationships. In particular, administrative turnover at the community college created the need to build new relationships. A community college staff member reported: “We have a new Provost that’s interim and we also two new deans, so those three people are all new within the last two years. So I have been trying to give them information and say that they should just try it out, get involved. So far I haven’t had any takers…I think I’m going to have to sit down and meet with them again and just talk and see if we can get the commitment from one of them to be there.” Ultimately, these conversations led to one of the deans joining the Governance Council.
5.2.4. Data Gathering
Concurrent with recruiting the Governance Council, a second large mobilization effort occurred that brought together over 200 adults and youths. At this public meeting, Network leaders presented regional level student survey data reports. Bringing people together for this event proceeded through Core Team members’ social networks. For example, participants reported “grassroots organizing with people that (the Core Team members) knew in their network, that they thought might be interested in this work.” Several participants reported that the Foundation staff asked them to invite at least three people in their networks. One participant reported inviting ten individuals and another reported asking her son and several of his friends to attend.
5.2.5. Mobilizing for Action: Pockets of Readiness
At the data gathering, Foundation staff solicited individuals who might be interested in using the survey in their community. This work contributed to the development of community groups known as “pockets of readiness”. Unlike the community action networks (CANs) in the Strive model, which bring together actors in the same sector to action plan at a community level [21
] these pockets of readiness engage individuals at the district level.
The need to develop such a decentralized approach to action planning grew out of a pilot effort in one of the mining communities and suspicions of top-down efforts to engage community members in action planning. According to one of the Foundation staff members, “We got some things done, they did some action planning activities but we recognized that we needed to go where there were already people or individuals that were passionate about kids, passionate about what they saw on the roadmap and wanted to do something. And our best addition there was linking people together and providing facilitation so they could do what they wanted to do...organized around the roadmap.” Another Foundation staff member reported that this approach allowed them to “follow the energy”, and tap into groups who already were interested in efforts aligned to the Network goals. In many cases, these pockets of readiness engaged youth directly in action planning.
Of the various pockets of readiness identified by participants, each evolved in a different way. At the charter school, a pocket of readiness group developed out of faith-based and familial relationships. In one school, a Core Team member worked with teachers to identify and invite high school students to examine their district’s student data and develop an action plan. This group included cheerleaders and students who were identified as “not the usual suspects” for getting involved in school leadership, including a student in the foster care system. In other cases, existing groups, such as a student community service group, were recruited as a pocket of readiness.
In addition to action planning in their own communities, the vision of Network leaders is, for these groups, to engage in Networked Improvement Communities (NICs). Conveners cited the research of Bryk and colleagues on the use of NICs as a means to accelerate continuous improvement cycles by allowing groups to learn from one another [61
]. In June 2015, the evaluator met with members of these groups to learn about how they developed and what they were doing. These findings were shared out in January, 2016, in the first “Link and Learn” session. In addition to such formal opportunities, participants emphasized the need to engage in this work informally through their social networks. Recognizing a sense of how the community does things, one participant memorably exclaimed, “If you’re having a conversation in your backyard over a hot dish, how can you get upset? You can’t! You can talk about things.”
5.2.6. Missing Stakeholders
As one participant stated, “if you look around the table you have a lot of folks who have, who are like us, who get paid to be there.” Individuals from a variety of sectors and across districts were mobilized. However, participants identified five stakeholder groups as absent: low-income parents, community elites, Native American community members, teachers, and members of the mining communities. Many noted the need to engage these stakeholders and the Foundation has recently added inclusion as the ninth dimension of a healthy community, identified as “ethnic diversity, poverty experience, (and) people with disabilities.” suggesting a greater emphasis on engaging typically marginalized populations. At the time of the study, three overlapping barriers combined to limit mobilization among these stakeholder groups: social isolation, differences in values, and distrust.
In terms of social isolation and exclusion, participants reported that low-income community members did not necessarily have strong relationships with schools and other institutions. Further, participants reported that low-income individuals do not share the same social networks as those mobilized. For example, one participant reported that those in the Network were “People we know through interactions in community and professional lives. There’s also the relationship that a lot of these parents who sit on this committee have an interest and tie to schools, so those have already been established to some degree.”
When asked about mobilizing parents who are not traditionally engaged with schools, one participant replied, “That is one of the areas that we’re looking to improve... And THERE, I think strategies DO need to be developed because it’s not going to happen by INVITATION or natural interactions.” These efforts are limited by the fact that meetings occur during the work day. As one participant described this, “it makes it incredibly difficult with meeting times for someone who, is you know working, unless you’re retired, you don’t even have the luxury to be able to go.” Further, meetings are held in the county seat, creating transportation challenges for those living in poverty. Others identified the need to meet parents out in the community, such as at Walmart and other places.
Additionally, a lack of natural interactions between those in poverty and community elites limited the engagement of both. One participant reported, “I think the people that have more means and are engaged in the arts and those kinds of things, don’t necessarily SEE the struggles of those that don’t have…It’s a struggle for many families, and those families are often invisible...I think that’s the biggest challenge, really engaging people that have some means because they don’t see the problem.” This statement suggests that the social isolation of those living in poverty limited their own mobilization and the mobilization of those with greater resources to engage in collective action. Further, other participants identified that two of the largest employers are owned by multi-national corporations with headquarters overseas. This reversal of the typical trend of outsourcing jobs from rural places, reportedly lead to a lack of engagement of business elites who do not necessarily make decisions with the best interest of the community in mind.
Others reported that differing values and goals for young people hindered the mobilization of low-income parents, as well as members of the mining communities. For example, one participant noted that in Big River many parents valued the arts and music lessons, things they experienced growing up. On the other hand, low-income parents were reported to value hunting, fishing, and other outdoor pursuits. Comments such as this implied a certain bias and judgement against those who held different values for youth. Additionally, participants reported that, in Big River, there was a greater push towards college, but that people in the outlying communities wanted their children to find jobs close to home. Some noted that in the mining community in particular, parents saw a “college for all agenda” as threatening by encouraging their young people to leave.
Finally, distrust limited the mobilization of several groups, including mining community members, teachers, and members of the Native American community. Of the mining community, one participant reported, “Trying to get people involved sometimes is difficult. And I think sometimes a little bit of that mentality of, ‘Oh, that’s the Grand Isle Foundation, that’s Big River, why would we want to do it?’” These tensions arose during an initial attempt to action plan with members of these communities. One participant stated, “And there was a lot of suspicion that came with that (action planning), like, what are you trying to do here? I think there’s been enough top down done here in the communities that there was a lot of suspicion and some resistance.”
This distrust was amplified by fears that cooperation and collaboration would lead to school consolidation and the resulting loss of control and loss of their community center. One participant reported, “(The mining communities) They have a strong history there of feeling kind of like they are being persecuted. They are right in the middle of between two big school districts.” She continued, “(They) have this history that, that comes out of how they see things and it’s just a thought, you know they are a small school district, they feel real strong identity around their sports teams and they’ve been forced to do some things because of finances that they’d probably won’t do otherwise.”
Further, distrust appeared to limit the direct engagement of teachers, which one participant described as “a huge voice that’s missing” because they work directly with students. Several participants reported that the lack of mobilization was due to being “stretched thin trying to get through the curriculum” and their “very full plates”. However, others cited a lack of trust. One participant reported that teachers are “tired of the mistrust from the public of what they do.” Another reported a perceived lack of trust on the part of teachers to be able to identify problems in the schools, such as large class sizes, stating: “People want to protect themselves. Of course, if a kindergarten teacher goes to the administration and says, I can’t do this, they’re not going to have a job. So nobody can stand up and say you have unrealistic expectations of what a person can do.”
However, a superintendent identified an alternative explanation for low teacher engagement: “As a superintendent, I have a lot more latitude about where I’m investing my time...And when you’re a teacher, you have very little flexibility. You’re scheduled from, you know, whatever, 7:30 to 3:30 to 8:00 to 3:30.”
Additionally, participants reported limited participation by members of the Native American community. Although the superintendent of the district that serves students who live on the reservation described the situation as “a peaceful coexistence” but not “complete integration”, there appeared to be limited participation of members of the Native American community. As one participant put it, “Unfortunately, they (the Native American community) have not seen themselves in the work.” In part, this appears to be due to misunderstandings and distrust. A Network member who lives on the reservation noted that among many white residents there were a lot of negative stereotypes: “And they don’t realize that not all Natives are on welfare, not all Natives are alcoholics. And some of the reason that they are those things is because of the historical trauma. So I think that really plays a huge part in how things go on here and how perceptions (are) on both sides.” Several Foundation staff are involved in other efforts to rebuild trust with these residents.
The pattern of mobilization can be described as leading from the middle. Many Network members appear to be middle class professionals, many of whom enjoy extensive personal and professional relationships. This mobilization pattern is, in part, dependent on the rural context, including a lack of CEO level leaders in both business and government. While participants identified community organizing as a strategy for mobilization, it appeared limited by several sources of social isolation and exclusion, and the resulting distrust. In addition to limiting mobilization, these and other factors related to the rural context impacted the ways in which Network leaders adapted the Strive model. These adaptations are described in the following section.
5.3. Adapting the Model
As members mobilized and began to organize around the goals of student success, educational opportunity, and economic growth, they recognized the need to make the Strive model their own. Several members of the Foundation organization described their work as “Strive-ish” or “Strive-esque.” They identified several key features they felt set them apart from Strive, including, the use of community organizing strategies the development of the pockets of readiness (described in part above), and the use of Networked Improvement Communities (NICs) to link them.
5.3.1. Community Organizing Strategies
One participant reported that “One of the key learnings (from the Strive Partnership) was that context matters. And that was a huge learning.” From there she reported, “We could not ADOPT, we needed to ADAPT.” Part of this strategy of adaptation included the use of community organizing strategies. One Foundation staff member reported that community organizing strategies were part of the backbone’s operating procedures. She stated, “Framing (issues) and building social capital and mobilizing people equals change. That’s one tenet that’s a strong undercurrent of how we engage.” Another Foundation staff member described these community organizing strategies: “We need to be really intentional about building (relationships), about having coffee with, very conversationally, very Saul Alinsky-esque community organizing…finding that person, going to them, (discovering) what they care about and helping them uncover how they connect with the work.”
This emphasis on community organizing for mobilization included the development of the Core Team and Governance Council, as well as their interactions with community members. A Foundation staff member reported that this emphasis on community outreach is “One of the things that I think makes us different from a lot of the Strive (networks) is that the governance council’s job, is really about connecting the work on the ground in communities to the broader context.” Another participant reported the need to spread the message of the roadmap within her organization: “Right now (our job) is to engage others and tell others about our story and talk to our populations that we work with.” Another reported, “My peers don’t know… they know something is going on in the community, but they don’t have the words to put to it.” She continued, “I have taken it upon myself, in my own spheres of influence, to bring the data to people.”
5.3.2. Linking Community Level Pockets of Readiness
The pockets of readiness described above also reflect an adaptive approach to the Strive model. Rather than beginning with community level planning undertaken by similar organizations, these school district level groups develop action plans around their own data. This approach appears to be a concession to the need for each community to own their action planning.
However, Foundation staff in particular saw the need to bring these groups together to build towards a more regional approach to solving larger issues. For example, one explained:
“We also know that many of these communities can’t just plan in isolation, because there’s going to be some common issues that are regional. So we will connect the communities once or twice a year, take the leader of each of these pockets that we’re working with and pull them together in what we’re calling Link and Learn sessions. Where they can get together and talk about what they’ve learned, talk about what they’re working on and then identify, is there a regional issue that we need somebody to really dig in and help us figure out. And if there’s a regional issue that comes up, then we’ll convene a regional group that works kind of across kind of both regionally, locally and through the governance council, in a robust continuous improvement process to try to figure out what that is.”
As one member put it, opportunities for individuals from across the various communities to come together provided a greater sense of regional connectedness: “A lot of those perceptions were cleared up at something like that, where everyone comes together in the same room… we do all have to work together and get rid of those perceptions.” Alluding to the high school sports team rivals, he summarized, “It’s not the Hawks vs. the Chiefs—we’re the Grand Isle area.”
5.3.3. Theory of Action
Individuals mobilized for such collaborative efforts bring with them their own ways of knowing and understanding the world around them. They bring with them their espoused theories of action, the beliefs, attitudes, and values that guide individual actions [40
]. In developing a common agenda to drive regional change, these individual understandings must be shaped into a single theory of action. Theories of action describe the intent of an organization to reach their stated goals [2
]. Such theories of action may manifest in formal plans. These plans often take the form of a logic model, identifying key steps to reach proximal and distal outcomes. In the case of the Grand Isle Network, much of the theory of action remained at an emergent level as the distribution of the draft theory of action document appeared to be limited. In collecting individuals’ theories of action in regards to the Network, an overall emergent theory of action appeared.
This emergent theory of action had several distinct differences from the theory of action provided by Strive Together. These special features reveal the unique composition of this rural network. First, the emergent theory of action emphasized efforts within individual communities, via the pockets of readiness structure, described above. Although participants did not explicitly describe this structure as such, the pockets of readiness appear to be a strategy to deal with the different values and identifies among the various communities by allowing them to action plan in their own districts.
Secondly, and significantly for a cradle-to-career network, the emergent theory of action lacks a focus on educational achievement. Similarly, schools were not identified as a primary target for change. These areas appeared to be a source of tension. Several participants noted that making an effort not to blame the schools increased the trust needed for district and building administrators, at least, to engage. Participants also recognized that teachers and schools were under a significant onus from the state accountability system and did not wish to add to that pressure.
However, many participants, as parents, reported negative experiences with the districts. One school administrator also noted that schools, like other organizations, were unlikely to change unless clients demanded it. Together, this suggested that among those mobilized, school change was an area of significant tension but choosing to focus on other areas allowed members to move forward together.
Thirdly, participants focused on relationships among adults as a key mechanism for change. For example, a Foundation staff member stated, “Change follows relationships.” This relational change effort focused strongly on communications. One participant described this as “communication not just about the work, but communication is the work.” People perceived communication in both formal and informal capacities as an important driver of the Network’s efforts, serving to bring new individuals into the network, to develop shared understandings, and ultimately to contribute to the development of action aligned to the roadmap.
Finally, the inclusion of youth in the pockets of readiness and the data gathering reflects Network members’ commitment to including youth voices in the work. In addition to providing youth opportunities to engage in action planning at the district level, it was identified that participants wanted to have a youth representative in the Governance Council and to develop a network of high school student councils. Others emphasized the need to recruit those students who are not typically ‘joiners’, in order to both engage these students in civic projects and to help design new programs that would appeal to youth that have not been drawn to more traditional outlets, such as sports.