General Updates | April 16, 2024

Region 5 Shares How to Bridge Differences in Small-Town America for Council on Foundations Conference

A puzzle created by community members during R5DC's Welcoming Communities advocacy groups celebration, led by Staples, MN, artist Maria Ervasti. Photo courtesy of R5DC.

An upcoming panel highlights rural organizations bridging divides and the diversity of communities they serve.

“Economic justice is deeply tied to social cohesion, but that connection isn’t talked about enough,” says Cheryal Hills, executive director of Region Five Development Commission (R5DC), a Northwest Area Foundation grantee partner that’s leading community and economic development in a five-county region of central Minnesota.

“Employees are more likely to stay where they feel welcome, where they feel part of the community.”

Cheryal Hills
Executive Director, R5DC
“Helping people in rural communities bridge cultural differences fuels economic prosperity,” Hills continues. For example, attracting and retaining employees in rural areas can be a challenge, and a revolving door of new workers means absorbing ongoing training costs. “Employees are more likely to stay where they feel welcome, where they feel part of the community.”
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Attendees at R5DC’s 2022 Cultivating Communities Summit, which included two days of workshops focused on diversity, equity, and community. Photo courtesy of R5DC.

Rural areas are more diverse than most people know.

America’s rural communities and small towns aren’t only nuclear families of generational white farmers. They encompass a kaleidoscope of populations—including Native American and reservation communities, immigrants and refugees, Latinos, Asians, Africans, LGBTQ+ communities, and more.

Despite assumptions about intractable challenges, a number of organizations, often through unexpected partnerships, are bridging cultural differences in transformative ways—and strengthening their communities socially and economically.

America’s rural communities and small towns aren’t only nuclear families of generational white farmers. They’re a kaleidoscope of populations, including Native Americans and others in the Foundation’s priority communities.

An upcoming conference panel spotlights promising approaches toward inequities in their communities.

Hills and two other leaders are speaking on a panel about bridging divides in small-town America at Building Together: Leading Collaboratively Across Differences, a conference hosted by the Council on Foundations in May 2024.

As Hills puts it, “The complexity of rural cohesion is best told by those who are steeped in it daily. Sharing our perspectives at the conference is a way to build authentic relationships that will help us do our work: making a real difference in people’s lives.”

Also sharing insights on the panel will be:

Sarait Martinez-Ortega (Zapotec), executive director of Centro Binacional para el Desarrollo Indígena Oaxaqueño (CBDIO), which serves Indigenous Central and South Americans who have migrated to rural California.

Evelyn Lynn, special projects organizer with Highlander Center, which conducts grassroots organizing and builds movements in rural Appalachia and the South.

The panel will be introduced and moderated by Northwest Area Foundation’s communications director, Paul Bachleitner.

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Kevin Olson, a Pequot Lakes, MN, artist, stands near his mural, installed in 2023 as part of an advocacy group project at the Pequot Lakes Family Education Center. Photo courtesy of R5DC.

The panel shares insights that can be applied by other organizations serving diverse rural populations.

Many in our priority communities make their homes and livelihoods in rural areas—places often historically underserved by financial institutions and others. R5DC and other nonprofits are filling those gaps and bringing momentum to initiatives that embody justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) principles from inside their communities.

Our recently updated mission and justice-focused grantmaking approach support the efforts of R5DC and others to reimagine and restructure systems by drawing on the experience, wisdom, and resilience of their communities.​

Read more about our support for rural communities in Program Director Karla Miller’s recent blog:
Learn more and register to attend the conference: