Young Kansans work to revive rural communities

The PowerUp movement began in 2009 and has been working to create a network for young people living in rural areas.  Courtesy: Marci Penner

The PowerUp movement began in 2009. Team members have been working to create a network for young people living in rural areas.
Courtesy: Marci Penner

Rural populations are declining across Kansas, but one group of young people is making the decision to stay rural and empowering others to do the same.

In 2009 Kansas Sampler Foundation Executive Director Marci Penner decided to bring together a group of young people, ages 21-39, to brainstorm how to bring new life to rural communities. This group became the PowerUp movement.

“It’s not just about young people,” Penner said. “In the end, we knew if we could find a way to empower young people and help them be happier in rural areas and help them reach their dreams then that would be good for every age group. It would be good for the whole community.

“My goal is to help start a movement that excites young people about how they can create a new rural.”


Modernizing small towns
With a new mindset among the millennial generation, rural communities are needing younger people to step up and modernize towns. Fresh ideas help attract younger people who can continue to develop a new, more modern community setting.

“We cannot keep doing things the way the elders of the community have always done them,” Penner said. “Young people are just dynamic and wonderful and have great thoughts and we don’t want them all to move to New York. We want to make it so they feel valued and happy and constructive and fulfilled in our towns.”

“It’s important to come back home. Your home won’t survive without some people there.”

-J. Basil Dannebohm, Ellinwood Chamber of Commerce

Rural is “just different”
In the 2010 US Census, data indicated that 73% of Kansas counties experienced a decline in population from 2000-2010. While those involved in the PowerUp movement realize that rural life is not for everyone, team member Julie Roller thinks these areas have something important to offer.

“If you are passionate about small towns and rural communities, you see the value in the littlest things,” Roller said. “We aren’t trying to be a big city and that’s what makes us unique. We have a lot of really great things: our people, unique businesses, quality schools. We’re just different.”

Finding value in rural life
Sometimes young people need some time away from their hometowns before they are able to see their value and decide it is time to come back. J. Basil Dannebohm, 32, spent 18 years away from Ellinwood before coming back to serve in his current role as Chamber of Commerce Administrator.

Since taking office in August 2013, Dannebohm has worked with other young professionals in the town to create a more lively community. He said community members tell him the town feels like it did in the 1970s, during its prime.

“It’s important to come back home,” Dannebohm said. “Your home won’t survive without some people there. Young people expect it to be there when they graduate and come back to visit. But when the elderly pass on, there is nobody left to run it.

“Young people can bring about a rural renaissance with new ideas, new energy, new resources, and new technologies.”

New energy for rural communities
Dannebohm has found that young people are vital in modernizing towns. He said their mindsets are just different.

“They’re bringing new life,” Dannebohm said. “They’re getting to work and they’re active. When older ones say something can’t be done, younger people don’t take no for an answer. They just do it.”

However, the reality is that young people are moving to bigger cities after graduation because of the perception that that is where the opportunities are. Roller said she thinks the younger generation is more likely to join small communities if they are welcoming.

“I think you have to listen to what young people say,” Roller said. “If you want me to be involved in something, value what I say and also value my time.”

Rural communities are not growing overnight, but young people across the state are making a case for rural living. They have realized the hidden beauty of small towns and are sharing that message with others.

5 thoughts on “Young Kansans work to revive rural communities

  1. As a member of a small Kansas town, I moved to a city, and moved right back home within a year. I love the small town feel of being HOME! I wish more people saw how great it can be if you make it great!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. While I find the sentiment of ‘revitalizing rural communities’ to be attractive, I think that this must be balanced with the reality that not all rural communities will survive. While it’s accurate to say that cities are where opportunities happen to be emerging, it isn’t just about jobs. It’s also about economics: cities are more efficient. Since rural communities will never disappear entirely, it seems prudent to not only be able to identify those communities with promise, but also pursue policies that encourage consolidation in order to capitilize on economies of scale. That may seem antithetical, but I would argue that that ‘small town feeling’ is realized in equivalence classes characterised by population. For instance, can a struggling town of 500 preserve its identity as it grows to 5000?

    So, I guess my point is that revitalization is admirable, and perhaps achievable in the short-term, but to make a lasting impact policies that encourage some amount of consolidation must be considered.

    Full disclosure: I am from a shrinking town in SE Kansas that had a population of about 3000 when I left in 2001, and is probably closer to 2000-2500 now. I am now living in a mid-size city (100K) in California.


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