For many Nebraskans, life during the pandemic slowed down. But not in Schuyler. During the past year, Schuyler residents teamed up with Rural Prosperity Nebraska educators to breathe new life into their community.
Cheryl Brandenburgh, economic development director at Schuyler Community Development, connected with Kurt Mantonya, a Nebraska Extension educator. Mantonya runs the Leading Locally program, aimed at strengthening rural communities, and Brandenburgh felt like it was a natural fit for Schuyler.
“I responded to Kurt’s email, and three months later we had a class going,” she said.
Following social-distancing guidelines and offering Zoom options, Mantonya met with Brandenburgh and the 15-member committee one Saturday per month for eight months, beginning in September 2020. They focused on leadership development, the Gallup Strengths survey, self-discovery and what leadership looks like in Schuyler.
To cement its approach to individuality, Leading Locally follows four Ds: discover, dream, design and deliver. Discover: Talk about what makes your community successful. Dream: Imagine what you want your community to look like in 25 years. Design: Create an action plan for one project that takes your community closer to that vision. Deliver: Implement the plan.
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Throughout the process, Brandenburgh bookended each discussion with what it means to be a leader in Schuyler.
“We talked about utilities and housing and education, local government, diversity, the foundations of the community,” she said. “It was good training for many who were younger in their careers. I saw good partnership development. One of the participants now serves on the Chamber of Commerce board of directors.”
Mantonya said he doesn’t set out to train leaders, but leaders do come out of the process of creating and executing projects. In Schuyler, the committee decided to make a promotional video highlighting the city’s assets and culture — “the heart of the community,” Brandenburgh called it.
The choice came during the design stage of the process, in which the committee created an action plan to complete a project.
“The idea was ‘We need to get people to Schuyler. How are we going to do that?’” Mantonya said. “They ended up choosing the 'Why Schuyler My Schuyler' video.”
Although Mantonya visited Schuyler only once a month, he never left without knowing when the group would meet again and which action items they would complete before he returned. Between visits, he offered coaching via Zoom and phone calls.
The project, plan, questionnaire and filming schedule fell into place quickly as committee members took action; in January, they decided to make the video, and by March they had begun production.
“The end goal was to tell people why they like Schuyler,” Mantonya said, “and ultimately send out the invitation to come visit here, come play here, come work here, come live here.”
The video was posted to YouTube and Schuyler’s economic development homepage this summer.
“It’s gotten a lot of views and shares,” Brandenburgh said. “We’ve had a lot of positive feedback. At the end of the day, I’d put that in the win column.”
Mantonya and Brandenburgh have scheduled a second Leading Locally program in Schuyler later this year. With the amount of B-roll left over from the first shoot, a second video is on the table.
“We’ll see what comes out of their ‘dream’ session in October,” Mantonya said.
Whatever happens, Brandenburgh is looking forward to the community engagement and cohesiveness that come from such a collaborative experience.
“This is how you become a community leader,” she said. “We were very pleased that Kurt had the expertise to do the heavy lifting on personal development and leadership skills. It made it easy. We’re lucky to have been part of the program.”