By Scott Downes, The Colorado Trust
Before moving to Colorado almost nine years ago, I grew up in a small town in Indiana. Basketball and farming were arguably the biggest commodities. It was a big deal when a Walmart or a Wendy's opened up. My mom used to joke about the (somewhat exaggerated) disparity of having "three bars and 43 churches" in town. It was a sometimes thriving community and certainly not the smallest town, but it sure felt like that when I was a restless teenager. That's one of a few reasons why I left there some 20 years ago.
All of this came rushing back to me recently when I was at a community meeting in Ordway – the Crowley County seat, population 1,080 – where during introductions a gray-haired gentleman said, "We all left somewhere." He was making light of the fact that many people in the room had come to Ordway from other towns across southeast Colorado, or from even farther away.
It was the second day of an 800-mile, eight-county visit to southeast Colorado. I was tagging along with representatives from other foundations, as well as the Community Resource Center, for a listening tour aimed at helping inform the upcoming Southeast Rural Philanthropy Days in Trinidad this September.
It was fortunate timing, as The Colorado Trust is in the process of launching a new community-based participatory grantmaking strategy, starting in four regions across Colorado. My charge was to initiate this work in the southeast part of the state, an eight-county region that is rich in history and heritage, and stretches from the peaks of the Sangre de Cristos to the wide-open plains of eastern Colorado.
I set off to learn more about the culture, character, challenges and opportunities here, and I could not be more excited to have started the journey. Through the listening tour, individual meetings and other discussions, I learned a lot about the issues facing different communities. Job losses and economic transition. Persistent drought and ongoing population loss. Individuals and families living in poverty and facing barriers to good health.
I also learned a lot about the opportunities advanced by so many impressive people who have helped shape life in these places, and the great potential and promise that lives here. A new playground in Lamar. An arts district in Trinidad. Local alliances formed or forming. Community engagement efforts underway. Key partnerships between schools and service providers. New approaches to food access and basic human services. Innovative efforts around water, recreation and economic development. And perhaps most importantly, a recognition that doing things as they've always been done will yield the same results they've always gotten.
There is also a profound sense of perspective that so many who call this region home carry with them. There are real opportunities to support and sustain this sense of community – not for them, but with them, as one local leader stated.
It's an important distinction – this is not about foundations generating ideas to impose on communities, but rather finding ways to help local groups and individuals develop, support and sustain solutions to help advance and build health equity. Ideas to improve how the most vulnerable can better live, work and play. Solutions to long-enduring, seemingly intractable challenges. It's about creating real change – of, by and with communities.
I don't think it's fair nor particularly accurate to compare where I grew up in Indiana with communities in southeastern Colorado. But there are welcome similarities: a common understated culture, quiet small-town ways and the similar manner in which people might get knocked down, but they will always get back up.
I know now what I didn't know back when I left my home town, which is in large part why I feel incredibly grateful and appreciative for the chance to work with such determined individuals and communities.
We have all left somewhere. Sometimes you get to go back again.