Giving People the Power to Create Meaningful Change
By DWAIN HEBDA
Empowering people who love their community and want to be involved but don’t know where to start is the goal of Uncommon Communities. Using a cohort model, Uncommon Communities lets community activists from different towns network and engage, sharing common issues and brainstorming creative solutions.
“There’s just so many things that I think small-town USA is dealing with right now,” said Ali Sugg, owner and general manager of Red River Radio as well as a city council member in Heber Springs. “One of the things I’ve learned this past year is we all have the same issues. It may just be on a different scale.”
“Once you hear other communities talk about what’s going on in their town, whether it’s a dying main street or trying to find their identity and how to promote your brand outside your community, we all have those same things that we want to get a grasp on to make things better.”
The program was founded in 2015 in partnership with the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute and Dr. Vaughn Grisham, professor emeritus of sociology and founder of the McLean Institute for Community Development at the University of Mississippi. Uncommon Communities utilizes the Rockefeller Ethic of collaborative dialogue to facilitate discussions between diverse community participants to connect their development aspirations with tools for lasting, sustainable change.
Each cohort meets 10 times over two years, with each session centered on a different theme such as economic development, placemaking and sustainable leadership.
“There is not a community in Arkansas that doesn’t want what Uncommon Communities and the staff at the Rockefeller Institute are offering us,” Beebe participant Jesse Boyce said. “Basically, it’s given us the educational building blocks to make our towns progressively forward-thinking; towns where the townspeople are strong and proud.”
The current cohort started in September 2018 and includes the communities of Sherwood, Cabot, Beebe and Heber Springs. Each community is expected to take on a specific community project and is held accountable for progress by the other members of the cohort. The results have been impressive and long-lasting. Sherwood participants are also partnering with the local schools to create a mural on what they call “the tallest skyscraper in Sherwood,” while the Beebe group has organized a successful 5K and are talking about expanding the race into a large festival.
Cabot members created the Cabot Foundation for Arts & Culture to increase creative endeavors in the downtown district. Heber Springs developed tools to spread the message that its community is a great place to visit all times of year, partnering with students from the local EAST program.
Andrea Cole, development officer/major gifts with the Institutional Advancement Office of Arkansas State University-Beebe and a member of the Beebe group, said she found the support and suggestions of the group illuminating.
“Cabot is, literally, our next-door neighbor,” Cole said. “It was very interesting the first meeting that we went to. Cabot said, ‘We wish we were Beebe on so many levels.’ And Beebe said, ‘Well we wish we had what Cabot has,’ because they have this growth and this economic boost. But by the same token, they don’t have a downtown and we have a downtown. So, all of us seemed to have the same struggles.”
Uncommon Communities is supported by First Electric Cooperative and is also supported by USDA grant funding.
“Once you hear other communities talk about what’s going on in their town ... we all have those same things that we want to get a grasp on to make things better.”
—Ali Sugg, Heber Springs city council member