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Horizons program mobilizes communities to address rural poverty

A leadership-development program designed for small, rural towns demonstrates how communities that become aware, engaged, and energized about poverty issues can make change happen.

April 1, 2010


Horizons program mobilizes communities to address rural poverty

In 2006, the Community Affairs Offices of the Federal Reserve System partnered with the Brookings Institution to examine the issue of concentrated poverty. The resulting report, The Enduring Challenge of Concentrated Poverty in America, considers how place matters. It observes that places of poverty often (1) lack linkages and networks, (2) have a historical tendency toward poverty, (3) are isolated, (4) have experienced profound demographic changes, and (5) face entrenched conditions that economic growth alone does not address. In addition, the report describes a dearth of local expertise to address issues in poor communities, combined with poor local governance and a lack of trust among community members.1/

Poverty in America is often associated with densely populated, inner-city neighborhoods. But in reality, people who live in rural places are more likely to be poor than people who live in urban settings.2/ The Federal Reserve report acknowledges that reality by including case studies from rural communities as well as urban ones. Although rural communities have many amenities to offer, they also have low population densities and long distances between people and services—features that seem likely to exacerbate the five challenges the report identifies.

However, rural communities can prosper, despite isolation from the opportunities and resources available in urban centers. What accounts for this? Studies of rural prosperity indicate that social capital—the trust, bonds, bridges, and links that exist within a community—makes a difference. One study found that prosperous rural counties have 4.4 social capital establishments (e.g., bowling centers, eating and drinking places, clubs, religious and civic organizations) per 1,000 residents, compared to 3.2 in rural counties that are not prosperous.3/ The social capital built within local networks can be "invested" for the betterment of the community.

Resolving to work together as a community makes a difference, too. Prosperous rural communities often have a strong sense of purpose. They have residents who choose to work together to build on the community's strengths. Examples of such work include developing a vital retail sector, creating local food cooperatives, or promoting local arts and culture.

For seven years, university Extension programs in Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Washington have, with funding and direction from the Northwest Area Foundation (NWAF), delivered a place-based program to help rural communities build social capital, define their purpose, and pursue prosperity. The program, called Horizons, marries NWAF's mission to reduce poverty and build prosperity with the land-grant Extension tradition of "rousing the people on the land."4/ (For more on NWAF's mission, visit

The design of Horizons has been tested and shaped through three program iterations and work in more than 200 communities. In October 2008, 103 communities started a new round of the 18-month program and will complete it in April 2010. Each iteration creates new learning and a renewed sense of commitment from the partner organizations. Horizons has demonstrated that although challenges remain, rural communities that become aware, engaged, and energized about poverty issues can make change happen. This article discusses the underpinnings and components of the program and describes how Horizons communities have become effective agents for change.

Horizons fundamentals

By creating change through local engagement, Horizons adds credence to the Federal Reserve researchers' assertion that place matters. But Horizons communities are also acting on the next logical assertion: If local conditions are both a cause and effect of local poverty, they can also be part of the solution. Horizons is predicated on several fundamental ideas:

  • Poverty erodes resilience and hope in communities;
  • Poverty reduction is a core responsibility of everyone in a community;
  • Communities already possess talents, skills, and insights needed to address poverty, but they must build leadership in order to use them effectively; and
  • To build leadership to address poverty, communities require resources from an experienced partner, leadership skill development and coaching, a community vision, concrete plans for poverty reduction, and help in putting those plans into action.

NWAF determined early on that the program would target communities with populations under 5,000 and poverty rates higher than 10 percent. The Extension organization in each participating state designs its Horizons application process and recruits communities to apply. In initial meetings with community members, the Extension staff who implement Horizons help the community understand that while the program offers opportunities, it also demands high levels of community engagement. Extension organizations then choose communities based on criteria established for the application process.

As the delivery organization for Horizons, Extension plays a pivotal role, providing communities with coaching, training, and connections to university resources and local, regional, and statewide partnerships. Extension collects evaluation data and is responsible for helping communities meet required performance thresholds.

The core of the Horizons program is an 18-month sequence of activities organized into four components: Study Circles, leadership training, community visioning, and community action.

Component 1: Study Circles prompt local conversations

Horizons begins with a series of frank community dialogues called Study Circles. These facilitated conversations about poverty are structured on a curriculum developed by Everyday Democracy, a project of the Connecticut-based Paul J. Aicher Foundation. (For more on Everyday Democracy and the Study Circles concept, visit Horizons communities are required to train local facilitators and recruit participants from all segments of the community. The groups meet for 12 hours of discussion over five Study Circles sessions, followed by an action forum. As a result, 30 to 100 members of each Horizons community gain a better understanding of poverty.

NWAF sets high thresholds for attendance at Study Circles, which can pose a challenge to delivery organizations. "I remember when we were mocking up fliers to recruit people to the program," says one program administrator. "I couldn't figure out what would motivate people to give up their Wednesday nights to go to a community room and talk out loud about something that causes most people to whisper."

But it wasn't as hard as originally thought. "People showed up," says Donna Rae Scheffert, a retired leadership-education specialist at University of Minnesota Extension who helped design the program. "I think the interest came from communities' genuine concern about the future. The curriculum talks about poverty, but it also gets people thinking about a vision for prosperity. The conversations gave people the chance to act on the desire to create a better place for the next generation." Community members also were attracted to the experience as a way to understand and solve problems as a community. "It brings back the community connections they had long ago, when grandparents and their parents used to all come together and talk and organize things," says one participant.

The Study Circles curriculum teaches that poverty is complicated. Local discussion often builds on that and focuses on the practical concerns of poverty, such as living-wage jobs and affordable housing, as well as other, more nuanced concerns. For example, in one community, the Study Circles discussions made more residents aware of the lack of handicapped accessibility in local apartment buildings.

In most Horizons communities, a deepened understanding of poverty leads to attitude shifts among community members and leaders. One participant describes the change: "A year and a half ago, if you had asked me or others in town about poverty, we would have said, 'There isn't much, it's not a big issue.' Some people would have said, 'It's just those people who are too lazy to get a job.' When you start looking at it, though … you realize that bad things do happen to people, that you can't always get a job that will support your family." One elected official describes shifting from the belief that "all you have to do is increase the amount of money you have and then you're out of poverty" to recognizing that there are many other aspects to the problem. Equipped with this understanding, he can see a wider range of policies that can address and begin to reduce poverty.

Independent evaluations confirm these shifts. Using a variety of evaluation methods, consultants hired by NWAF are tracking the progress of Horizons communities. Findings for the Study Circles component of the program indicate that the process of democratic dialogue was an eye-opening experience. Participants had statistically significant gains in knowledge about the causes of poverty, kinds of poverty, effects of poverty on communities, and strategies and actions that can reduce poverty.5/

Component 2: Rousing the people through leadership training

For the next component of the Horizons program, communities are required to recruit at least three local trainers and involve a minimum of 25 people in 30 to 40 hours of leadership training. The training uses LeadershipPlenty®, a leadership and facilitation training curriculum developed by the Pew Partnership for Civic Change. Early placement of LeadershipPlenty in the sequence of program components reflects NWAF's thesis that leadership "is as important as good roads, great schools and clean water."6/ Initially, leadership training was the first component of Horizons, but following the program's pilot phase, program designers moved it after the Study Circles. The move helped keep the focus on poverty reduction and also helped the community answer the question, Leadership for what?

LeadershipPlenty emphasizes the variety of leadership available to, and needed by, communities. It trains participants in essential skills such as resolving community conflicts, running meetings, working effectively with others, and designing inclusive decision-making processes.

An evaluation of 3,000 LeadershipPlenty participants from Horizons communities reveals that the curriculum is successful in strengthening the confidence and competence of new leaders. Coming into the program, most LeadershipPlenty participants did not view themselves as community leaders. Post-program, participants showed statistically significant gains in knowledge and leadership skills on all survey items, including group development, community action, group problem solving, and community development.

The evaluation findings describe results in growing local leadership: "As communities learned more about leadership, some came to understand the deficits in current leadership and many Horizons participants have run for elective office. One or more [participants] have run for elective office in 35% of … communities in all seven states. … Over and over again, participants told us of increased attendance at school board, city council and town board meetings."7/ In one American Indian nation, four out of six open seats on the tribal council were filled by Horizons participants. In another community, the race for mayor was fought out between two Horizons participants. Still other communities held elections in which long-entrenched leaders were replaced by new faces. Well over half of those interviewed by evaluators assert there is now more openness, more communication, and more opportunity for input in community decisions.8/ Participants, program managers, and NWAF all point to the emergence of new, diverse, and effective leaders and volunteers as the most exciting element of Horizons' success. Said one program participant, "We have new leaders in the community because of what we are doing here. People are volunteering for things that they had never even been invited to before."

Component 3: Creating a community vision

The third component of the Horizons program involves a visioning process that aims to profoundly alter the direction of the community. The visioning process requires communities to generate input from at least 15 percent of residents. A total of 23 percent of the population of participating communities actually became involved in providing input, completing surveys, attending meetings, or otherwise contributing to the community vision.9/

Visioning events use a variety of processes, but the goal of each is to take stock of disparate themes, assets, activities, hopes, and concerns, and ask "So what?" until an answer emerges. As a result, participants create a picture of how they want their community to look in five to ten years. Below is one example of the vision statements created through this process.

Welcome to Our City, where people live, work, and play. Our beautiful city offers many recreational choices, community events, and an active arts community. Youth are healthy, active, and drug-free, and are a part of a positive multigenerational culture. Energy is renewable and sustainable. We welcome change that makes our community better, and we welcome you to visit or stay and live here with us.

A shared vision is powerful. "Branding" is a concept some may consider overworked in organizational life today, but community visioning has some of its positive effects. Elements of vision statements are often seen in community literature or beautification themes. The uniting dynamic of a vision statement gives all community residents a sense of place, enabling them to focus on "us" rather than "me."

At the end of the visioning process, the community identifies two to five priority action areas that will help residents realize their vision, and volunteers sign up to lead action on those priorities. Once a list of volunteers is in place, the community decides what to do with a grant of up to $10,000 from NWAF. (The grant is contingent on communities meeting thresholds for participation, among other requirements.) Though the grant is an important resource for Horizons communities, some Horizons leaders believe the value of the grant pales in comparison to the value of a new direction for the community. The new direction, they find, enables the community to garner resources from a broader range of sources.

Component 4: Moving to action

In the final months of the project, with full buy-in from a large percentage of residents, the community moves forward with explicit action steps that address the priority action areas. Frequent training and technical assistance from Extension programs and a host of other resources guide the community. Master Gardener programs help residents grow community gardens. Local economic studies help communities better understand their business strengths. New links to outside resources establish new bonds of trust that can be leveraged in the future. Ongoing coaching from Extension helps communities maintain their focus.

A February 2009 program impact report from one state, South Dakota, paints a picture of the concrete actions taken for economic value and poverty remediation in Horizons communities. Examples include the launch of new businesses, day care centers, and youth programs; the establishment of needed services, such as transportation assistance; and the receipt of more than $1 million in grants for community projects. (A full list of the actions described in the South Dakota report appears in the sidebar below.) Each action is a product of the energy, creativity, and commitment of Horizons community members.

Challenges and changes

Despite its success at moving communities from conversations to actions, Horizons is not without its challenges and missed opportunities. Poverty remains a serious issue in Horizons communities. While a majority of communities are implementing activities to address poverty, the activities are largely aimed at ameliorating its effects rather than creating long-term solutions. Other challenges include finding the right fit of the program with Native communities, tackling the difficult issue of race, and finding ways to blend an energized group of new leaders with established, elected leaders in communities.10/

Still, Extension program managers believe they have witnessed a real shift toward improving many of the factors delineated by the Federal Reserve's poverty study, and evaluators confirm a host of changes in community structures. For example, Horizons participants who took part in a post-program panel study indicate that their communities have developed new leaders and have established connections to information and resources.

Horizons communities grow linkages and networks. A report from just one North Dakota town described newly formed linkages with the Eastern Dakota Housing Alliance, local banks, the North Dakota State Historical Society, and state workforce training programs. These partnerships, often facilitated by Horizons program managers, both reduce isolation and stem the perception of isolation.11/

While demographic changes are often a condition of poverty, Horizons communities discover that diversity can be an asset upon which to build new futures.

Finally, Horizons at its best replaces a historical tendency toward poverty with an articulated vision for the future. Whatever the future of Horizons towns, the program demonstrates to most towns that it is possible to develop new local capacity, that needed expertise is just a phone call away, and that the best way to improve local decision making is to govern from the passions and abilities available in the community.

In creating their future, Horizons communities also embrace what was best about the past. One Horizons participant summarized the experience this way. "This is going back to how our community used to be … and should be."

Joyce Hoelting is the assistant director of the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality, which administers Horizons in Minnesota. She can be reached at 612-625-8233 or

NWAF continues to support poverty-reduction and prosperity-building efforts in communities that have completed the Horizons program, along with other efforts that build assets and wealth, affect public policy, and strengthen leadership capacity. New Horizons communities are not being recruited at this time, however. For more about Horizons and NWAF, contact Jerry Uribe at 651-224-9635 or

A catalog of community actions

The community action component of the Horizons program has spurred communities to pursue a variety of activities aimed at revitalizing local economies, addressing poverty issues, and procuring new resources. The February 2009 program impact report for South Dakota illustrates the breadth of activities Horizons communities have undertaken. Specific actions mentioned in the report are listed below.

Philanthropy and external linkages

  • Three community collaborations were initiated with South Dakota State University colleges to address community issues/projects.
  • Horizons communities obtained approximately $1,321,000 in grants for various projects.
  • In an effort to retain local wealth, four communities started the process of creating a community foundation through the South Dakota Community Foundation.

Action for economic development

  • Four new businesses were started.
  • Three day care centers were opened; loan funding was obtained ($143,000) to open an additional center.
  • Horizons steering committee members in one community started working with community leaders and state partners to explore the option of establishing a local wind farm.

Action to ameliorate the effects of poverty

  • Four new housing renovation initiatives were created.
  • Six thrift stores were opened.
  • In one town, 30 residents graduated from a financial planning and debt reduction course. They report increasing their personal savings by a total of $16,000 while reducing their debt by a total of $24,000.
  • Two communities initiated transportation services for citizens in need (e.g., to attend medical appointments).
  • One community began addressing local issues of racism by holding community dialogues.

Community opportunities and youth

  • Three youth centers were opened.
  • One after-school program and one Boys & Girls Clubs program were established.

Health and wellness

  • Four community gardens were established.
  • Two community farmers markets were established.
  • One community conducted a health screening for all children in the school district.
  • Two health and fitness community sites were opened.
Source: Karla Trautman, Horizons Community Development Project Program Impacts, South Dakota Cooperative Extension Service, February 2009.

Defining "rural"

In common usage, the word "rural" refers to land areas and small towns that are "out in the country." Several U.S. government agencies have created technical definitions of "rural" that are widely used for programmatic and research purposes. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a rural county as any county not economically dependent on a metropolitan area. For a helpful discussion of the various federal definitions, visit the "Measuring Rurality: What Is Rural?" page of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service's online briefing room at


1/ To read the report, visit

2/ Bruce Weber, Leif Jensen, Kathleen Miller, Jane Mosley, and Monica Fisher, A Critical Review of Rural Poverty Literature: Is There Truly a Rural Effect? Discussion Paper 1309-05, Institute for Research on Poverty. Available at

3/ Andrew M. Isserman, Edward Feser, and Drake Warren, Why Some Rural Communities Prosper While Others Do Not, a report to USDA Rural Development, May 2007. Available at

4/ Scott J. Peters, "Rousing the People on the Land: The Roots of the Educational Organizing Tradition in Extension Work," Journal of Extension, Volume 40, Number 3, U.S. Cooperative Extension Service, June 2002.

5/ Diane L. Morehouse and Stacey H. Stockdill, Horizons Phase II Program Final External Evaluation Report, NWAF, September 2008.

6/ From

7/ Morehouse and Stockdill.

8/ Brad Rourke, Prevailing in the Long Run, Northwest Area Foundation, September 2006. Available at

9/ Morehouse and Stockdill.

10/ Ibid.

11/ Rourke.