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Megan Hanefeldt, with the Knox County Development Agency, talks with community members in Crofton. University Communication
COMMUNITY CONVERSATION: Megan Hanefeldt of the Knox County Development Agency talks with community members in Crofton, Neb.

Northeast Nebraska defying economic odds

Upward mobility is a challenge in many rural communities, but northeast Nebraska is an exception to the rule.

An essential feature of America's identity is the notion that if you work hard, a better economic future awaits. This often is an aspiration rather than a reality for recent generations. The widely held belief is increasingly evading the nation's young people, especially those in rural communities.

Researchers and journalists have documented the challenges confronting the nation's rural communities — dwindling populations, few employment opportunities, the opioid crisis and a lack of public investment.

However, there are many rural communities that are overcoming these obstacles and helping young people build a brighter future. Nebraska Extension and the National 4-H Council collaborated with The Bridgespan Group to more deeply understand the places in rural America where upward mobility is thriving and learn what makes those communities successful.

Several of those counties that defied the odds are in northeast Nebraska. Last spring, a team of researchers from The Bridgespan Group visited seven sites in Cedar and Knox counties to learn firsthand about what can make a difference, in the hope of replicating those models in other communities nationwide. The researchers visited with young people, community leaders, educational representatives and business partners.

They found several factors consistent across communities, including:

• A high expectation that youth will "opt in" and work hard to acquire the skills to build a better future, and a low tolerance for opting out.

• Strong, informal support systems, with neighbors helping neighbors.

• An early focus on career paths.

• A wealth of opportunities for youth to build life skills, regardless of the community's size.

• Many potential challenges to accessing opportunities, but creative solutions for overcoming them.

• A sense of shared fate and a deep commitment to sustaining the community.

While some of these beliefs may seem out of the norm for some communities, Jackie Steffen, an Extension 4-H educator in northeast Nebraska, said, "This is just the way we do business in rural Nebraska."

To build on what was learned and formulate the next steps, a series of conversations is underway in the region.

The next community conversation is set for 3 p.m. Feb. 15 at the Cedar County Extension office in Hartington, Neb. It will be held in conjunction with the University of Nebraska–Lincoln's N150 Charter Day celebration. All are welcome to attend the meeting and celebration. For information, call the Cedar County Extension office at 402-254-6821.

The complete report by the National 4-H Council and The Bridgespan Group can be found at h4-h.org/get-involved/supporters/bridgespan-mobility-report.

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