Do We Have A Healthy Community?
Through its years of working with rural communities, the Blandin Foundation has identified the Nine Common Dimensions of a Healthy Community. A community is a complete and rewarding place to live if it is meeting the needs of its residents in these essential areas:
- Spirituality and wellness
- Recreational and artistic opportunity
- Economic opportunity
- Community leadership
- Infrastructure and services
- Safety and security
- Environmental stewardship
- Life-long learning
Over the next several weeks, we will take a closer look at the importance of each of these areas.
Based in Grand Forks, MN, the Blandin Foundation was created by Charles K. Blandin in 1941. Blandin came from a poor family but became one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Minnesota. He was a schoolteacher, newspaper publisher, and newsprint plant owner.
With a deep attachment to Grand Rapid and the surrounding area, Blandin wanted to ensure that his life’s work and accumulated wealth went “to perpetuate the betterment of rural communities, especially the Grand Rapids area.”
Since its founding, the Blandin Foundation’s assets have steadily increased, as has the scope of its mission. It now reaches out to communities throughout rural Minnesota, helping create leaders, spurring economic development, and aiding in expanding broadband services to rural areas.
“Blandin Foundation is all about Minnesotans imagining, leading, and growing healthy, inclusive – vibrant – communities,” it says. A “healthy community is a place to live where all people can meet their economic, social, physical, cultural and spiritual needs, work together for the common good, and participate in creating their future.”
Few communities in rural Minnesota haven’t had some of their residents take part in one of Blandin’s Community Leadership Programs. More than 7,000 Minnesotans have been graduated from the program since it was started in 1985. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused Blandin to temporarily pause its in-person community leadership training. However, it provides online training opportunities.
Through its founder’s connection to community newspapers, the Blandin Foundation has worked closely with the Minnesota Newspaper Association since 2005. It provides a grant to its Minnesota News Media Institute for the Blandin-sponsored Editors & Publishers Community Leadership Program.
It is based on the same principles as the Community Leadership Program but focused on educating community newspaper editors and publishers “to develop their community leadership and vision skills.” It recognizes the critical role a community newspaper plays in bringing attention to local challenges and what the community is doing to address those challenges.
“The program encourages newspapers to develop and strengthen social capital within their communities, to learn of the power they have to frame issues and mobilize action and ultimately helps them to advance the health and vibrancy of their communities,” the program’s description states.
Social capital is an asset in many communities that has been dwindling. It was the capital we earned by investing our time in shared recreational, social, and community events.
When residents of a community come together from all walks of life, religious backgrounds, and ethnicities to work toward a common purpose, we create bonds of mutual understanding. We learn we have a lot more in common than the issues that may separate us into opposing camps. We learn tolerance and acceptance of those who aren’t quite like us.
However, as we have become more isolated in our core groups, doing less with others, we become less tolerant, more adversarial, causing our communities to suffer. “It is precisely those forms of civic engagement most vulnerable to coordination problems and free riding – those activities that brought citizens together, those activities that most clearly embody social capital – that have declined the most rapidly,” Robert Putnam writes in his book “Bowling Alone.”
Those bowling leagues, softball leagues, Kiwanis and Lions clubs, community events boards have been fading. There are fewer and fewer common causes that bring us to the same place, working side by side, for the good of our communities. When Putnam refers to “free riders,” he talks about how the majority of our local populations sit on the sidelines expecting a community to work smoothly without them lending a helping hand.
The increasing number of free riders and the loss of events and activities that once brought us together means it is getting more difficult for our small communities to ensure that we meet each of the nine essential areas that make up a healthy community.
Blandin’s work with local newspapers has become increasingly important with the passing years as our communities are fragmented by the internet, and we lose those common efforts that once built bridging capital in our lives. In many of those smaller communities in America, where the local newspaper is indispensable to creating a common identity, the newspaper is gone. More than 2,200 newspapers have disappeared since early 2004.
Approximately every three years, the Blandin Foundation surveys what rural Minnesotans think are the challenges and issues facing their communities. It assesses whether or not those challenges are being addressed. It compares the rankings of current challenges to past difficulties identified in earlier surveys. It also looks at how people in the different regions of Minnesota rank the challenges they face.
The last study was done in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey is “designed to provide existing and future community leaders with a clear view of the important issues facing rural Minnesota.”
It finds signs of the emerging trends in rural Minnesota, looks at existing challenges, and weighs their importance. “With input from leaders and residents of rural communities, the survey signals the emerging trends that will shape conversations and efforts for years to come,” Blandin says.
It’s not difficult to identify problems plaguing our small rural communities: lack of workforce housing, day care availability, and finding workers for businesses and manufacturers. There are more.
Ensuring we are strong in Blandin’s Nine Dimensions of a Healthy Community will go a long way toward building the base upon which the challenges we face are solved.