Lessons about staying energized from a far away but surprisingly similar place.
Editor’s note: This commentary is being produced as a part of Elevate 2021, which aims to share the voices of new writers on important civic issues.
Won’t you be my neighbor?
Mr. Rogers’ invitation is at the heart of an all too personal leadership challenge for Kansans.
As a state with a stark urban and rural divide, what is progress when our realities are so different?
All it takes is a trip from Leawood to Dorrance, along Interstate 70 in central Kansas, to notice that life looks, and in fact is, a lot different. On a recent trip to western Kansas, I passed through Dorrance and had the chance to drop in and visit a friend. There was no scheduled meeting, just a phone call from the driveway. As we pulled in, she welcomed us inside.
I grew up in a wildly different setting: suburbia. Drop-in visits didn’t really happen. For one thing, it took a lot longer to hop off a highway and land in a neighborhood. We also understood community differently.
It strikes me that bridging this divide among neighbors – and really, neighborhoods (rural and urban) – may be the most critical leadership opportunity we face to organize and lead change in Kansas. What works in Dorrance won’t go as well in Leawood. Differences in how we want to be engaged and how we engage others reflect both regional and personal preferences.
These approaches to engagement are social contracts we build within our communities. We count on them for a shared understanding of how we engage our neighbors. These contracts provide insight into how we can organize and lead change in rural and urban settings. And they aren’t isolated to Kansas.
Across the Atlantic, Senegal sits on the western edge of the African continent. There, they too face a stark rural and urban divide that threatens social and economic prosperity. In Senegal, I gained perspective on Kansas – learning from two men who are leading change across that rural and urban divide.
Seydi and Salif are tall, multilingual and Senegalese, but that is about all they have in common. They are opposites in affect (Seydi is shy, and Salif knows no stranger), in appearance (Seydi sports T-shirts and jeans; Salif, a polo and pressed pants) and in profession (Seydi works in tech; Salif, in aid). Seydi is a city dweller who is at home in Dakar, the regional business capital. Salif calls the rural, southern region of Casamance home. The rural Casamance is a different world from metropolitan Dakar.
Seydi and Salif met in Kansas through the Kansas Leadership Center and work at Kansas State. They connected around their passion for engaging youth. Now they run distinct, and overlapping, youth leadership and civic engagement campaigns that bridge urban and rural divides by focusing on youth development around civic issues.
Energizing Others Online
As an election watcher, Seydi has organized young people to demand accountability and transparency in federal elections. He built a following of thousands on Twitter, his reach stretching to a pan-African audience. In his urban context, this virtual engagement was the key to energizing a youth movement.
This ignited interest in in-person training, where Seydi for the first time brought together online activists who had been working as a group virtually in Dakar for years.
He understands the importance of timing and approach in this effort, saying about the urban movement, “We should take our African context, culture and history as our reference point to find our way of making progress through some innovative and disruptive experimentation based on the challenges that we have in Africa. It is important to spread our narrative and raise awareness about our identity as Africans in this global context.”
His call is for not just urban narratives, but rural narratives too. And in a sprawling metro like Dakar, engaging these youth narratives starts through social media.
Building Trust Through Relationships
Working with global nongovernmental organizations, Salif saw a major gap in progress being made in rural communities, compared with urban areas. He tried to understand why expenditures and efforts weren’t able to achieve similar levels of success regardless of geography.
“So I started to put more focus on understanding why – why people in these organizations (NGOs, nonprofits, the government) were unable to make progress. This brought me to speak with women, children and young people. I realized there was a gap between those organizations and young people that they were here for. So, how do we go about solving that gap? This is the leadership challenge.”
To close this gap, he started to focus on rural youth leadership development. His approach? He went door to door and built one-to-one relationships with youth and their families. Salif’s belief is that by developing youth leadership capacity, rural regions will have people poised to solve problems that the government, aid organizations and others have failed to solve.
And in the Casamance, that happens through a drop-in visit to as many youths and their families as possible.
Bridging the Gap
Seydi and Salif epitomize the rural and urban divide. In different spaces geographically, in their civic lives, in their lived experiences, in their aesthetic and in the groups they serve.
They represent the expanse – and the bridge that can be built.
Their paths converge around a drive to energize and engage youth in their communities to lead change. Today they have a partnership to educate, equip and engage young people in rural and urban settings. Seydi has traveled to regions of Senegal he didn’t know existed, and Salif finds himself connected to online activists across the continent. Their partnership bridges their disparate paths and honors the way their respective communities connect. Their interventions energize others, and momentum builds from individual effort to a network of stakeholders.
A New Neighborhood
In Kansas, we share their struggle to bridge the urban and rural divide; their struggle to make sense of how to do well for communities with diverse needs; their struggle to engage youth meaningfully. We share their struggle to not just hear the ideas of youth, but to engage those ideas as key to strengthening our democracy, to advancing our communities, to bridging our divide.
How can we get energized to bridge this divide? Or is the expanse that divides us just too big?
I don’t think so; I think we can learn from them. Our divide will be bridged when we build a different kind of neighborhood. One that energizes and engages rural and urban youth to help us work across differences and build our own bridge.
Trisha Gott is an assistant professor and associate director at the Staley School of Leadership Studies at Kansas State University. She lives In Manhattan with her partner Ben, a middle school teacher, and three sons.
A version of this article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
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