Rural MN looks to generational wealth transfer to stimulate vibrancy

In the Midwest, 41-45 percent of people move throughout their lifetime – but it’s not just people that migrate. So does money. In fact, we know that in the next twenty years, $47.9 billion will transfer from one generation to the next in Minnesota.

This could mean big things for small, rural communities. But if heirs leave their hometowns, their money often leaves with them.

The challenge, then, is how can rural communities keep that  money local to bolster vibrancy and seed a legacy?

Community foundations are stepping up to take on that challenge.

A handful of years ago, the West Central Initiative in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, was intrigued by work being done by the Nebraska Community Foundation (NCF). In Nebraska, they had taken a study originally done by researchers out of Boston College and applied it to rural Nebraska. They came up with some pretty amazing findings.

“More than $600 million will transfer in the next 50 years,” said NCF President & CEO Jeff Yost. “In rural Nebraska, in particular, this is an incredibly important moment because we know that $230 million will transfer between generations in many of our rural places.”

WCI President Nancy Straw wondered what this study might turn up in Minnesota. They brought on University of Minnesota researcher Andrea Lubov to create a formula specific to Minnesota, broken down by county.

“The whole point of the study was to learn what we can do in our hometowns that would help bring those resources to accomplish the projects we want to do,” said Kim Embretson, WCI Vice President of Development. “The first thing we did was talk to nonprofits, shared the study, so they could let donors know that there’s this big opportunity.”

The study helped change nonprofits’ thinking about how to effectively fund raise, said Embretson. “They were pretty good at capital campaigns and annual fundraising, but this helped them focus and sharpen intent to do something about legacy gifts.”

Now rural nonprofits are working together to talk to rural residents about leaving a legacy. “We’re not looking to convert people from one nonprofit to another, but to collaborate around this one effort that could transform our nonprofits, deliver many more services and serve a lot more people.”

WCI, along with many other Minnesota nonprofits, is looking to proposed legislation, called Endow Minnesota, that would offer a 25 percent tax credit for any donor who establishes a permanent endowment with a local community foundation, to raise visibility of the Transfer of Wealth study.

“This effort is bringing community foundations together,” said Embretson. “It is democratizing philanthropy and bringing resources back to communities.”

To follow the progress of Endow Minnesota, visit the Minnesota Council on Foundations.


Engage in conversations that matter. Attend Art of Hosting training!

Are your volunteer meetings loosing their zest? Have strategic planning sessions got you in a funk? Mix it up!

Art of Hosting is a training for all those who aspire to learn how to work with groups in more interactive, engaging and effective ways. Meadowlark Institute is offering a September training, at no cost, to community members living in Itasca County. If you’re interested, please see the following flyer: Art of Hosting Flyer September 22-24

Rural Minnesota’s ‘Brain Gain’: Our future rests not in whether we lose young people, but how we welcome them back

For a few years now, Blandin Foundation has been interested in the concept of brain gain and the promise it holds for the future of healthy rural communities. Recently, we were surprised when our broadband partners at Intelligent Community Forum published a book entitled Brain Gain that seemed to echo the brain gain research of Ben Winchester at University of Minnesota Extension. We contacted Iron Range-based author Aaron Brown to take a deeper look into the uses of the term and what implications they might have for rural Minnesota communities. Enjoy!

High school graduates might leave rural areas for college and jobs in the big city, but more are coming back with college degrees, careers, professional contacts, and young families. Still others with these credentials are moving to rural communities for the first time. These “newcomers” repopulating small towns increase diversity and ensure the sustainability of a future for rural America, says researcher Ben Winchester.

The loud pipes of a rusty pickup rattle down the quiet main street of a small town in Northern Minnesota. Paint chips off the brick walls of a shuttered business, a fading advertisement from another era. An elderly person ambles slowly down the sidewalk, throwing a suspicious look your way before easing across the avenue with fearful caution. The school up the street graduates fewer students than ever, and most of them leave the area thereafter. Empty houses are everywhere.

One might conclude that this town has been mortally wounded; it is dying, and only a miracle can save it. Yes, only a miracle could save any rural farming town or woodland mining burg from this idea called “Brain Drain,” the notion that our best and brightest are leaving their small towns behind. For years, rural planners and even the very leaders of these towns have essentially agreed with this narrative, buying and selling false, fruitless hopes like magic beans.

But what if everything we assume about rural Minnesota is wrong?

What if the goal is not to chase our future like it was a fast dog in the corn, but catch it as it comes back toward us like a boomerang? What if we don’t see the young professionals in our towns because we aren’t looking in the right places? What if the miracle is already happening? That is the essential argument of the concept of “Brain Gain,” a popular new term gathering support from new data and observable trends about modern rural America.

“The narrative that rural areas are dying and struggling just isn’t true,” said Ben Winchester, a sociologist with the University of Minnesota Extension Service. “The rural population has gone up since 1990. It’s gone down in some parts, but we can’t let this term [brain drain] drive our narrative.”

Yes, Minnesota’s rural areas have lost overall population and school enrollments since 1980. That’s something particularly true on the Iron Range. But Winchester says those figures are entirely attributable to declining birth-to-death rates. The population of 30- to 50-year-olds in their prime professional years has, in fact, increased. The reason? Reverse migration. People are either coming back to rural Minnesota, or seeking it out. Harnessing this population’s true potential is the true economic challenge of our times.

“We need to expand the view of economic development,” said Winchester. “Of these newcomers, few listed a job as the top reason they moved. It was all quality of life, cheaper housing and other factors. People move and find a job. That’s why we need to center our efforts around people-attraction strategies.”

In doing so, Winchester said efforts to build and attract industries and jobs will find more natural footing. We shouldn’t worry about young people leaving for a college education, or even their first jobs. We should be poised to welcome them back when they have the earning power and skills to choose their location.

Sociologist Jim Russell delivered a keynote talk entitled “Age of Rural Migration” at the Center for Small Towns symposium “Understanding Rural Migration: Myths, Trends and Opportunities Exposed” in Morris, Minnesota on June 5, 2014.

“Migration is aspirational,” said Russell. “People leave places for something, not from something. We want to attract people, yes, but attract them to do something. We want to develop people, not just amenities.”

It’s part of what Russell calls the Legacy Economy, in which the central challenge of rural regions is how they handle return migration and develop people. In this, the idea of “brain gain” inspires workable strategies for communities seeking a local renaissance.

“Brain Gain” is also the title of a new book by Robert Bell, John Jung and Louis Zacharilla, co-founders of the Intelligent Community Forum. These authors argue that we are entering an “age of disruption” in economic and population structures — increasingly automated and decentralized — and that cities that harness innovation are poised to succeed.

“We are seeing for the first time in the history of the world that ‘location, location, location’ is becoming less and less important,” said Bell from his office in New York. “It’s never unimportant, but the ability to transact almost anything instantaneously online has all kinds of disruptive impacts on the world, but offers rural areas a hope they’ve never seen before. It will take people awhile to realize how powerful this opportunity is. It’s not like a highway that someone builds to your town, but something you have to build yourself.”

For communities that have depended on natural resources, whether that’s farming, logging or mining, it can be difficult to realize that potential, Bell said.

“You are constructing a new economy on top of the old one,” said Bell. “You don’t want to get rid of the old one, but how do you produce another level? You have to start from square one. You have to have infrastructure. You have to have people who know how to use that infrastructure to create knowledge and value.”

Bell and his co-authors find that high-speed internet connectivity is a cornerstone in the attraction of returning professionals, something Winchester echoes after his research for U of M Extension Service.

“People almost expect to have [broadband internet],” said Winchester. “They’re surprised not to have it. It’s not something people search and hunt for; it’s something they expect to be there.”

Winchester said rural areas where high speed internet is available to the home see significant telecommuting opportunities from all over the country.

But internet alone won’t do the trick, either. Bell said that community collaboration and a responsive higher education system are also required elements for successful 21st Century community.

“What matters is that so many people take it personally and consider it urgent that they create the potential for broad collaboration,” writes Bell and the other authors in “Brain Gain: How Innovative Cities Create Job Growth in an Age of Disruption.” Throughout the book, stories of regrowth in industrial burgs like Stratford, Ontario, or Pittsburgh, join tales of success in smaller cities like Mitchell, South Dakota — home of the Corn Palace and also a modern tech infrastructure that’s generating jobs and growth.

Winchester believes that rural Minnesota needs a narrative that is both more accurate and indicative of the coming age. Winchester warns against the danger of “anecdata,” an informal sociological term referring to the substitution of personal anecdotes for data. We see struggling downtowns and lagging membership in community groups and assume the worst. Winchester said it’s just a matter of how professionals and young families are spending their time nowadays.

“[Younger] people want interest-based groups, not place-based groups,” said Winchester.

That’s why it might be easier to find volunteers for 5K races and bike clubs than for civic groups or chambers of commerce, or why many rural school boards seem to attract more young candidates than city councils.

“Minnesota’s population has gone up 7-10 percent,” said Winchester. “But nonprofit organizations went up 19 percent. Even in areas with less population, nonprofits went up. People are still active socially, they’re just doing very different things than they used to.”

So what does the future hold? Bell points out that there will be winners and losers, and most if has to do with local leadership.

“It comes down to, ‘how much do you love this place?’” said Bell. “If you really love it, what can you do today to ensure that your grandchildren could live here and enjoy a good quality of life? If that’s not enough to motivate people, I don’t know what is.”

On a bike trail on the edge of town, a family pedals up a steep hill and takes a rest. The mother’s phone buzzes — an e-mail telling her that her proposal was selected. She looks down at the town. Perhaps that building for sale would be a good place to warehouse her new product? The family gets back on their bikes, excited for what comes next.

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range-based author and instructor at Hibbing Community College. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio (

For more on brain gain: (links to Winchester’s talk on Rural Narratives and Russell’s talk on Reverse Migration)

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Nurturing the next generation from cradle-to-career

Today we welcome Bernadine Joselyn, Director of Public Policy and Engagement, as she reflects her on experience at a cross-cultural event discussing the future of education.

Yesterday I had the chance to attend Day One of the “Educating for the 21st Century” forum held at the Carlson School of Business as part of this year’s Finn Fest.  My colleagues Ross Savage, Jaci David, and Dane Smith and I showed up to hear presentations from Finnish educators, entrepreneurs, and national government experts in international education.  It was a very full day, made more charming and compelling by all the Finnish names, accents and ideas in the conversation.

Here are some of the things we heard that caught my attention and imagination:

  • The fundamental value of Finland’s educational system is Trust – of teachers and students: There are no national standards or tests; Teachers have autonomy in the classroom and are encouraged to put the relationship with the student at the heart of their work.  Teachers are trusted to judge what is best for students and to report their progress.
  • The Finnish education system values broad knowledge and gives equal emphasis to all aspects of individual growth and learning: personality, morality, creativity, physical health, knowledge and skills.  Our Finnish guests argued in favor of shorter school days and mandatory time out-of-doors each day for kids.
  • The key to quality education is quality teachers. In Finland the teaching field is highly professionalized, and a high value is placed on teachers.  There are 10 applicants for every hire.
  • Learning can be fun and should be fun.  There is great potential in using gaming formats to promote learning.  Mass Education programs now are possible: Angry Birds taught 30 kids to code in one week.  Teaching kids to code is a powerful engagement tool.
  • Learning happens everywhere; not just in the classroom.
  • At the heart of life-long learning is “flow” – the condition between boredom and anxiety – when engaging in an activity is itself its own reward.  Flow is highly contagious.  Cultivating intrinsic motivation –  the attributes of autonomy and competence – helps flow.  The teacher’s role is to enable student engagement.
  • Master teacher Miiska Lehtovaara from Tampere Finland elaborated that active learning requires that students feel the situation and information are meaningful to her or him.  Humor helps.  The right kind of humor comes from respect and a feeling of security.
  • From Peter Vesterbacka, CEO of the company that created Angry Birds, the assertion that “education is the best investment you can make.  Our quality education system is having a big impact on Finland’s business success and innovation.”
  • From Hector Garcia, head of the Chicano Latino Affairs Council, a critique that the American system is designed to produce elites – not equity.  This is short-sided and detrimental in a world that is increasingly interdependence.
  • According to Lauri Jarvilehto, the Finns say: “In Finland you don’t get an A, you get [a glass of] milk.”

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Why Treaties Matter exhibit travels to Itasca County

Local community member visits the Why Treaties Matter exhibit at the Grand Rapids Area Public Library

“Knowing the realities of others around us helps to form stronger communities. The Why Treaties Matter exhibit gives us a better sense of who we’re living among and the land we’re living on.” – David O’Fallon, president of the Minnesota Humanities Center.

Take a minute to travel back in time to your history lessons in school. Remember your discomfort in the stiff, wooden desks, perhaps the sound of the chalk scraping against the blackboard and the booming timbre of your teacher’s voice.

Think back to the lesson about manifest destiny. Remember that term? You might recall it had something to do with American settlers and their belief that it was their destiny to expand their way of life to all of North America. You may have learned about their trials and tribulations and it’s possible you may have learned about the conflicts and resolutions they had with native peoples here in Minnesota.

While you may have aced the class and thought you knew everything there was to know about that time in history, in reality you were taught only half the story.

Why Treaties Matter: Self-Government of the Dakota and Ojibwe Nations, a nationally recognized, award-winning, traveling exhibit, emerged to bring the people of Minnesota the rest of the story. It is a collection of rich, authentic Dakota and Ojibwe voices, gathered  from all corners of Minnesota, that share stories of survival and creative leadership that occurred during the drafting of treaties made with the United States in the 19th Century and still today. It was created by a partnership between the Minnesota Humanities Center, Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and countless voices from Minnesota’s 11 tribal nations.

Last Friday the exhibit opened in our home community of Grand Rapids, Minnesota and for the next two years, it will be traveling around the greater Itasca County area.

So what will you learn from the exhibit that you didn’t learn in history class?

For starters, you will discover a part of your history that you’ve never known before — not narrated by a disconnected historian, but by Minnesota’s tribal elders.

“We weren’t taught this in school, but it’s the history of everybody in Minnesota,” said O’Fallon. “It’s a living history, a part of who we are. Treaty rights have been retained for centuries and still matter in today’s policy discussions.”

At the exhibit opening, Larry Aitken, Director of American Indian Studies at Itasca Community College, said, “Learning why treaties matter will make us all better people. If you understand what Native people came through, what we signed to be your neighbor and what was promised to us and never returned, we can be better neighbors and live together and honestly say to each other you’re my friend and I’m yours.”

As you take-in the exhibit, you will learn about the Dakota and Ojibwe peoples’ relationship with their homelands, the treaty-making process in America, the infringement on American Indian rights throughout history, and how treaties still matter today.

“If you take the opportunity to engage with the exhibit, you will have a richer understanding of not just Minnesota, Dakota, and Ojibwe history and the cultural roots from which treaties originated, but of the current, significant impact treaties have on our daily interactions as people and evolving communities,” said Legal Aid Service of Northeastern Minnesota Native American Advocate Sarah McBroom in the Grand Rapids Herald Review. “Treaties do matter – to all people who call Minnesota home.”


Tatanka Bluffs: creating vibrant communities through collaboration

Image courtesy of

As the Minnesota River surges south to join the Mississippi River, it dances between the bluffs of Renville and Redwood counties. Standing atop a lush emerald hill, you can see how the swirling stream of water stitches the shores together –connecting the two counties.

Beyond the whooshing waters, for years the two counties remained detached, each having a different vision for the future of their region.

“It just didn’t make sense,” says Redwood resident and Blandin Community Leadership Program 1998 (BCLP) alumnus Loran Kaardal. “[In Redwood] we tried expanding the industrial park and doing more traditional types of economic development, but chasing smokestacks was a losing proposition for us. And we didn’t have the money to compete with our neighbors. We needed to collaborate.”

So in 2007, a group of seven BCLP alumni, along with other area leaders from Redwood and Renville, set out to identify collaboration opportunities. They started by mapping the assets of the area. They found that it wasn’t a particular community in either county that had “star quality,” but rather that the Minnesota River corridor that divided them offered potential for bringing them together.

“The recreational potential of the corridor is immense,” says Julie Rath, Economic Development Specialist at Redwood Area Development Corporation and 2001 BCLP alum. “What’s even more unusual about the corridor is that between two state parks are five Renville County parks. That’s 50 miles of trails with more than seven camping destinations. Of all the hiking and biking trails out there, I don’t think there’s one that has the same level of connectivity as this one.”

With the joint dream of a thriving, connected region, the Green Corridor Initiative was born. Featuring unique geology and miles of pristine wilderness, the intent of the initiative is to acquire, restore, preserve and develop the available resources so the Corridor transforms into a premier recreation destination for travelers throughout the Upper Midwest.

Legacy Funding from the State of Minnesota supercharged their efforts as they began to clean up, beautify and connect the different parts of the Corridor.  Now only six gaps stand in the way of a fully linked trail system.

Increased attention and growing popularity of the Corridor has spurred more community members – from both counties – to get involved.

“It’s almost like watching the spring thaw,” says Kaardahl. “The concept of a larger, spatial community is gaining recognition. We’re now in this together.”

“We now see ourselves as 26 neighborhoods in one community, only separated by corn fields,” says Rath.


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Lake County chronicles their journey to broadband adoption on YouTube

The North Shore is a destination for many Minnesotans who want to unplug from everyday life — figuratively, not literally of course! Even in times of relaxation, we still want to be able to stream our favorite television show, search the address of that delicious cafe, or YouTube a tutorial on how to set the hook when we catch that big Lake Superior fish.

But high-speed broadband is a key that can open many more doors that just the one that leads to happy tourists.

As a historically underserved area, Lake County applied for federal stimulus funds in 2012 to build a countywide broadband network. After a few years of hard work, they recently signed up their first customer. From the digital natives in the schools, to the digital immigrants in the workplace, community members from around the county have pulled together to identify and implement broadband initiatives that contribute to the health and vitality of their area.

As a project coming out of the Blandin Broadband Communities Program, Lake County recently launched their own YouTube channel, chronicling their journey to broadband adoption. Videos highlight the important role broadband plays in education, community leadership, health care, economic development, etc. Below is one video from their channel. Visit the Lake County Digital Institute channel to see the entire library.

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Minnesota Council of Nonprofits expands presence in Greater MN

Nonprofit leaders connectingLeaders are at their strongest when they’re connected. We’ve learned, by engaging with our network of over 6,000 leadership alumni, how great things happen when people take the time to share knowledge, expertise and plans.

This is especially true for rural nonprofit leaders. Every nonprofit brings a unique understanding of the challenges facing today’s rural communities. When they come together, they can improve services, share costs and gain a better sense of what’s needed for a whole, healthy community.

Minnesota Council of Nonprofits (MCN) gets this, and for the past 15 years they’ve been connecting nonprofits to training, to sector-specific information, and to each other. In recent years, they’ve focused on expanding their presence in Greater Minnesota.

“Minnesota has one of the most robust and varied nonprofit sectors in the country, and that is true from rural counties to large cities,” says MCN executive director Jon Pratt. “While the cities have historically had more resources and assistance available for people involved in nonprofits, organizations in other parts of the state have similar interests in developing their governance, funding, government partnerships and human resources.”

MCN currently has chapters in northeast, central and southwest Minnesota where they have 544 members. In 2013, members got connected to knowledge and resources by attending any of 45-plus MCN events.

The value that nonprofits place on these events is apparent in the rise in memberships (282 percent over 15 years in Greater Minnesota). However, a significant part of the state remains without a chapter. This is a barrier for rural nonprofits looking to access capacity-building resources that can advance their ability to achieve their missions.

In part, through $150,000 in Blandin Foundation support, this gap will close over the course of three years as MCN establishs two additional chapters in southeast and northwest Minnesota.

“As the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits has increased activities outside the Twin Cities, we learned that proximity counts for a lot,” says Pratt. “With support from the Blandin Foundation, MCN will now, for the first time, be able to have a permanent presence and point of contact in every part of Minnesota. We are thrilled to be establishing a regional office in Rochester this fall, and doing the same in Northwest Minnesota after the first of the year in 2015. MCN staff and board members will be holding a series of meetings with nonprofit leaders in each region to identify priorities and plan activities for the coming year, with more to come.”

Stay updated on MCN’s plan to develop chapters in southeast and northwest Minnesota by following them on Facebook.


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Raise your voice! Join in planning for the future of the Great River Road

Aerial view of creekMinnesota is blessed with an abundance of awe-inspiring bodies of water, and while we boast about our 10,000 lakes, there is nothing more magnificent than the mighty Mississippi River. Once the nucleus of trade and commerce, the Mississippi River now functions as a beautiful reminder of the health and vitality of our state.

To preserve and enhance the corridor surrounding the river, the Mississippi River Parkway Commission and the Minnesota Department of Transportation have teamed up to create a new Corridor Management Plan for the Great River Road, a national scenic byway since 1938.

Before they kick off the planning process, they want your help! If the Mississippi River is an integral part of your community’s history, like it is in our home community of Grand Rapids, or if you simply love driving on the Great River Road, you might consider attending one of the events being held to connect Minnesotans to the project.

You can go to learn about the Great River Road and what’s been accomplished along it, identify your favorite stops and destinations, share your travel experiences, write about why the river is important to you, and share ideas on amenities and facilities that should be developed in the future.

Check to see if they’re stopping by you.

7/21/14 – Boom Island Park Picnic Shelter, Minneapolis

7/32/14 – Riverside Park Picnic Shelter, St. Cloud

7/24 – Minnesota Marine Art Museum, Winona

7/28 – Diamond Point Park Pavilion, Bemidji

7/29 – KAXE Rotary Tent, Grand Rapids

7/30 – Lum Park Picnic Shelter, Brainerd

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Blandin Foundation awards $4.4 million in grants

Blandin Foundation trustees approved during their June quarterly meeting 52 grants totaling $4.4 million that strengthen rural Minnesota communities.   Trustees also chose to extend by another 10 years and $21 million the Foundation’s decade-long investment in local early childhood programming for at-risk children and their families through the Invest Early™ initiative.

Invest Early braids initiatives and supportive resource streams for children ages 0-5 and their families, providing transportation, family development, extended day services and mental health support in addition to high-quality early childhood education.   Invest Early is governed by the Itasca Area Schools Collaborative, advised by a local family services collaborative, and operated by a multi-discipline Invest Early leadership comprised of representatives of KOOTASCA Community Action, Head Start, Itasca County Public Health, local school districts, Blandin Foundation and Itasca Community College.

Blandin Foundation initiated the Invest Early initiative based on community input in the 1990s.  Since then, the Foundation has invested more than $40 million in Invest Early—its largest grant investment ever.

Trustees also have awarded a grant to the Tiwahe Foundation, which is building an American Indian leadership alumni network across rural communities in Minnesota.   Tiwahe’s mission is to be a resource for giving and to strengthen American Indian communities by building capacity through leadership, culture, values and vision.   Tiwahe has created a model of collaborative philanthropy, engaging multiple funding sources.  Blandin Foundation’s grant of $225,000 over three years leverages support for this alumni network by several other Minnesota foundations, such as St. Paul Foundation, Bigelow Foundation and Headwaters Foundation.   Blandin’s grant also builds on its relationships and learning developed over 13 years with more than 500 reservation community leaders who have participated in its Blandin Reservation Communities Leadership Program.

Similarly, a grant awarded to the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits will strengthen Minnesota’s network of rural nonprofits.   Through $150,000 in support over three years, MCN will establish two additional chapters in southeast and northwest Minnesota, increasing access to quality nonprofit management training and capacity building resources for nonprofits.  Existing chapters serve Greater Minnesota from Duluth, St. Cloud and Mankato.  With these additional resources, MCN will continue holding statewide and regional nonprofit summits in Greater Minnesota, create local networking opportunities for nonprofit leaders, and continue to complete and disseminate annual research on the impact of nonprofits on Minnesota’s economy.

“Across rural Minnesota, we see every day what local leaders can do,” said Dr. Kathleen Annette, CEO and president of Blandin Foundation.  “Wise leaders know that creating a shared vision for the future, a vision arising from and embraced by the community, is the engine that powers change.  Through these grants and in many other ways, we are thankful to be able to stand with hopeful, rural communities and leaders who are accomplishing amazing things.”

Click to view a complete list of grants awarded during the June 2014 meeting.