Monday, March 26, 2012

A Way Home: Creating Pathways with Community Internships

By Darryl Birkenfeld, Director, Ogallala Commons

We are all on a journey that leads to destinations that we cannot foresee. Navigating the twists and turns of the roads that a person travels to arrive at a home requires mentoring and experience. Community Internships can be an effective tool to meet such requirements, enabling towns and neighborhoods to be proactive in connecting their assets and challenges with new generations of seekers.

In 2002, after 30 years away, I moved back to the Texas village where I grew up. While I was fulfilling my dream of living “back where I came from,” I returned to my hometown without a job in hand.

Thanks to contacts and mentors that I met in my former career, I found my way into nonprofit work, as Director of Ogallala Commons. I am amazed at how my current occupation fits my skills and passions, even though I could not see it on the horizon in earlier years.

At Ogallala Commons, our broad mission is to reinvigorate communities overlying the High Plains-Ogallala Aquifer as well as the vast Great Plains region. That work has led us to creating our Community Internship program. Our hope is that the connections the young interns create now may help them find a meaningful place in their home communities or region in the future.

The High Plains-Ogallala Aquifer reaches across parts of eight
Great Plains states and comprises the work area of Ogallala Commons.
Even the idea for our Community Internships started with the creativity and energy of a young person from our region. In 2007, a high school graduate from western Kansas community asked to do an internship with Ogallala Commons. We didn’t have an internship program at the time, but the experience of creating one opened a new door for our organization.

As we worked with those first interns, we recognized that most students seek an internship in their college years. An epiphany occurred. Instead of sending youth away to do internships, why not build a program where students and adults could intern in their hometowns or neighborhoods, applying their passion and skills to projects that could benefit communities?

As of 2012, Ogallala Commons has created more than 100 Community Internships in 38 communities and six states (Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma). We have partnered with towns, institutions, and businesses. Currently, we are working on launching 40 new Community Internships.

After six years, we can see that our internships have played a large role in helping people find pathways to their new home. Let’s refer back to the young intern from western Kansas. She went on to complete two more Community Internships, plus an internship with her Congressman during her senior year in college. In 2011, she took a job as Economic Development Director for Wichita County, Kansas. While not exactly back in her hometown, she is just two counties away, already making a huge contribution to western Kansas.

Ogallala Commons counts 13 other Community Interns who are either back in their hometowns, or a community that they choose to live in. An internship wasn’t the only reason for their choices, but it did create a vital pathway that might not have otherwise existed.

With the age and education levels of interns ranging from sophomores in high school to college and all the way to graduate students or adults looking to build skills, a flexible program is essential. Community Internships range from 200 to 240 hours, and can be structured over a period lasting four to 10 weeks. Some of our internships are also carried out over a semester, or during a six-month period.

Though all our interns follow a common structure, each internship is uniquely tailored to what the partners, interns, and their communities need. As a result, candidates with diverse socio-economic and educational backgrounds have gained experiences in:
  • community development and leadership,
  • entrepreneurship,
  • historical preservation,
  • nonprofit outreach,
  • agricultural careers,
  • health care,
  • renewable energy,
  • social networking, and
  • rebuilding local food systems.

Not every Community Internship has been a success. Some falter or are not fully completed due to limitations that arise with regard to three essential components of a Community Internship: a capable supervisor, an adequate set of projects, and a qualified intern.

Ogallala Commons Community Interns at their 2011 Orientation

Ultimately, the success of our program depends on how our partners answer these questions:
  • What does my community or neighborhood need that an intern could readily address with their skills and desire to learn?
  • Would I or an organization I represent be willing to invest financially and/or provide supervision for an internship?
  • Is there a young person or adult that I can identify and that I would personally invite to consider applying for a community internship?

About the program

Visit our Community Interns page to learn more about our Community Internship Program, or to read blogs and see photos of what interns have accomplished in past years. Building such a large program takes significant financial resources. Ogallala Commons has been fortunate to receive annual funding from CHS Foundation, the major giving entity of CHS, an energy, grains and foods company with a stewardship focus of building vibrant communities. In addition to program support, CHS Foundation also provides match funding to leverage investments made by partners.

About the author

Darryl Birkenfeld completed a Ph.D. in social ethics from The Graduate Theological Union and the University of California in Berkeley. As Director of Ogallala Commons, he has worked extensively in youth engagement and entrepreneurship, rebuilding local and regional food systems, public education conferences, water education, and creating a Community Internship program. Darryl resides in Nazareth, TX, and has been married to Joann Starr since 2003. Together they built a home, Casa La Entereza, using many green construction techniques, such as solar electricity generation, energy efficient construction materials, rainwater collection, and xeric landscaping. You can contact him at:

Photos and images provided by the author.
Visit the Rural Futures Lab homepage here.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Youth Renewing the Countryside

By Jan Joannides, Executive Director, Renewing the Countryside

Young people are vital to maintaining vibrant, rural areas.
We need them for their ideas, their energy, and their ability to see things differently. We need them to steward our land and our history. We need them to grow food, harvest energy, and manage our forests. We need them to help create a new, more sustainable, more just economy.

These young leaders are contributing to their home places
by participating in New York's Sustainable Energy Development (SED).
(photo by Kevin Schulte)

Combine the lack of ready-made jobs in rural areas with young people’s zest to explore the world, and it is not surprising that many of our youth head off to urban centers for education, employment, adventure, and excitement. It is not their departure that is of concern, but the fact that most do not return.

While rural communities lament the loss of their young, I believe that they often are partly responsible. They frequently foster a climate that deters young people from joining their community. Sometimes it’s a patronizing attitude towards those who return; other times it’s a closed mind to new ideas or new leaders. On the farm, it can be the many barriers to land ownership for young farmers.

Supporting New & Young Farmers in the Countryside

Many farmland owners in the United States are well into retirement age, and there is going to be a big shift in what the next generation of farmers looks like. In Iowa, for example, nearly 30% of farmland is owned by people over the age of 70. To those of us at Renewing the Countryside, this looks like an opportunity for a new generation of young farmers to step up into the tractor seat and start farming. And we better get moving!

A few things must happen along the way to make this shift:
  1. Aspiring farmers need a foundation in, well... farming. Not just production techniques, nor horticulture or even animal sciences per se, but also education in conservation ethics, sustainability, and humanity.
  2. Existing farmers and farmland owners need to recognize that their entering into farming was aided by others, often through inheritance. They have worked hard and deserve to realize a profit from their investment, but they should also bear in mind that they could aid a beginning farmer in much the same way their parents did for them years ago--even if that new farmer isn’t one of their own family.
  3. Consumers must demand food that is higher quality. The U.S. is wealthy by almost any standard, but our diet is dismal. We deserve better food.
Over the past decade, there has been a new surge in interest in farming and much of it isn’t coming from farm country. This growth is largely in the small and diversified farming sector. The majority of these new small farms contributing to the local & regional food movement are in or near urban centers. At the same time, growth is also taking place in industrial scale monoculture and confinement protein operations. Today it only requires one farmer per 740 acres compared, to a century ago when the ratio was closer to one farmer per 30 acres. 
“Renewing the Countryside” in Action
Renewing the Countryside has been working with the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) to help bring out aspiring young farmers through our joint effort: Young Organic Stewards (YOS). YOS not only provides education on the practice and business of farming but also provides a path for young farmers to band together and support each other through social media and in-person events.
Renewing the Countryside is also partnering with the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota in an effort to encourage existing farmers to plan for their eventual farm transition to the next generation. We are at the beginning of a three-tiered project to prepare farmers to transition off their land, identify good emerging farmers to co-farm with a goal of farm ownership, and developing a new model for bringing new farmers online with access to land and micro financing.
Beyond the Farm
But it won’t just be these new farmers alone who move back and give new life to rural communities - it will be artists, teachers, shop keepers, and engaged community members from every corner of our culture. The good news is that not all smart, hardworking young people land in Seattle, Atlanta, or other urban hubs. A growing number are embracing life in rural communities and small towns. 

Many young people take advantage of rural "amenities"
like backcountry trails and adventures.
(photo by Leslie Ross)

We set out to find them and we were inspired—not only by how many we found, but by their ambition and dedication. Renewing the Countryside has been telling the stories of the countryside for over a decade. In that tradition, we recently published a book with Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) titled “Youth: Renewing the Countryside”.
Many of the inspiring stories are about young farmers, like small grain farmers in Montana and value-added dairy products sold from an on-farm shop. Many more of the stories are about the young people in rural places building on their history and culture. Others are creating uniquely, 21st century opportunities like renewable energy businesses or Internet-based companies. Some are fighting for environmental or social justice. Many have found a foothold in building a stronger, healthier food system.
Yet a small town with a gas station, church, and a couple of bars are not enough to attract youth back to the countryside. Young people want to feel welcome and supported by their communities. And once they get there, they want communities with things to do and a family atmosphere.
To address these issues, Renewing the Countryside has been working in Southeastern Minnesota on just this issue. Efforts include helping small towns recognize and foster their interdependence and not their provincialism. Communities need to work toward a vibrant, warm and inviting place as a way to encourage growth in both business investment and population.
What are your communities doing to attract and support younger people? Who are the young entrepreneurs in your communities? How are they doing? Why are they there? What do they add?

Photos provided by Renewing the Countryside.
About the Author:
Jan Joannides is the Executive Director and co-founder of Renewing the Countryside. For the past ten years, she has been an advocate and organizer for rural communities and citizens who are working to stimulate economic growth and enhance their communities through sustainable uses of their landscapes and resources. Prior to her work with Renewing the Countryside, Jan coordinated the Community Assistantship Program at the University of Minnesota and helped found and directed the Center for Integrated Natural Resources and Agricultural Management.
Visit the Rural Futures Lab website here.