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UNK professors study dynamics of rural Nebraska
DeAnn Reed
Antelope Staff

Perhaps it’s the nod of the head as you walk down the street or waving at your neighbor as you mow your grass. It could even be shopping in your local grocery store where everyone knows your name, your favorite pop, your kids’ age and your mother’s grandmother that makes small towns so special. Two UNK professors are trying to find out what makes those small communities work.

Professors and researchers John Anderson and Peter Longo of the political science department are researching towns like Eustis and Farnam, Southern Valley and other small towns in Nebraska. Their goal is to understand the intricate details of the role of social capital in the governance of rural communities.

Why is it that some communities feel like they can trust their neighbors and others don’t? Why is it that some communities are able to come together and build community centers when their resources are so limited?

These are just a few of the questions these researchers are trying to discover. “It is actually action research, so the goal is to increase civic activity more than follow a proposed plan of research.  We hope to see community and school improvement projects completed. And through those activities, we will undoubtedly produce a paper on the links between community engagement activities and the kinds of trust/friendliness needed to accomplish and sustain community life,” Anderson said

“As Dr. Longo is fond of saying, we don’t want these to be drive-by experiences, so we plan to stretch out the work as long as we can. We may even seek additional funding opportunities, but we haven’t hatched a plan for that yet. We have just completed the first round with our five schools, and we now have six to eight new communities to interview about starting the work there.”

Anderson said the outcomes of our second wave of work will be determined by the communities that decide to engage in the work.  “Still, we are positive the work will generate more community improvement projects, and they will be done when the communities complete them.”

Communities really are a small microcosm of what democracies are all about, Anderson said. They can see it in the way a small town comes together to rebuild and renew. Some small towns just seem to know how to work together and trust each other.

Take the town of Callaway for example. Anderson said that after a devastating fire took their community center they decided that the best way to rebuild it was to pull their resources together and rebuild it with their own money. They raised $800,000 and rebuilt the town center.

But Anderson said the most amazing thing wasn’t that the center was rebuilt from a town of just 600 people. The most amazing part of this was the way people felt about each other. When surveyed, the people in the town said they trusted each other, Anderson said. He said that’s so unusual in some small towns surveyed where not everyone could say they trusted their neighbor.

Anderson thinks the research may suggest that those towns able to build something together are the ones that believe and trust in their community.

“Our primary understanding is that all communities differ from other ones, which means we should be very careful about generalizing based upon size, geography, economics or culture,” Anderson said.

Anderson believes the biggest reason to do the research is to help students understand the role of democracy in America. “We believe that completed projects are a benefit to the communities and the schools that rest within those communities. We also think the engagement increases student learning about democracies, which is reason enough to do the work.”


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