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103 (no kidding!!!) Ideas to Make Your Town More Welcoming and Inclusive

Earlier this year, we hosted our annual bus tour which was designed to give business leaders in the Fargo, ND area a glance into what it's like out in our rural community AND offer them a chance to help make us better. [For those not from NoDak, Fargo is the biggest city in ND and is located 110 miles from our small town.]

As we made our way down the highway, we asked every person to share their personal opinion as to why they think people might not be keen to move to a small town or if they were, then why that might be.

We had ideas about what people would say.

We anticipated answers like lack of housing, minimal job opportunities, or the lack of convenience being located over 70 miles from the closest Target. It is hard to believe that I (Rebecca here) have lived back in Oakes for 14 years without a Target and have lived to tell the story. Woof.

What we didn't anticipate is that nearly 85% of the responses were all related to the belief that it would be hard to be yourself in a small town. People felt a general fear of not being able to live authentically due to the judgment of others and general closed-mindedness to people that are "different."

Most of the bus riders weren't simply projecting; many of them shared personal experiences of growing up in a small town and feeling ostracized by the people that lived there.

It came from a place of deep pain and fear; and while it hurt us to hear these things, we also know that nothing gets better if we aren't even willing to say it out loud.

This is a key learning we've picked up in the past year; pointing out the ways we could improve is not the same as saying our towns are terrible but refusing to admit our shortcomings just may be the same as welcoming a slow death.

We might be unpopular for saying so, but we truly believe this is true.

Once our bus arrived at our facility in Oakes, we decided to engage them in a conversation about creative ways we could tackle this challenge. Never underestimate the power of a group of people who are game to help and aren't too close to your problem to help you solve it.

We had the group sitting at tables of 4 or 5 people and we asked them to generate as many ideas as they could to address this question:

What are creative ways we could make our communities more inclusive and welcoming?

Several themes came through and because we believe in sharing the best of what we learn, we wanted to share this wildly expansive list with you, too!

These were the specific ideas generated by a group of smart, professional people who spent an entire day with us discussing how to make our rural futures brighter. Some of the ideas are pretty general and may be hard to implement without more context, but we didn't do a lot of editing.

Where appropriate, we've added our thoughts if we either:

a. Have experience with the idea or

b. Know more about the context in which the idea was presented.

Check out the kickass list below!

Ideas for Marketing

Think about it: essentially, you can say anything you want about who you want to be. (As we often say around our small town...who's gonna stop us?) But overall, marketing is something that very few small communities spend enough time doing or considering. It often seems like a "big city" or "big business" concept or maybe, like us, you've heard from your local officials that marketing is too intangible to invest in. 🙄

Marketing matters because marketing is simply storytelling. And if we aren't willing to tell our story, you better believe someone else will and we likely won't be happy with the narrative being spun.

  • Use local news media to highlight the most unique people/things/ideas/ and businesses (this could be as simple as deciding to focus on telling 1 story of a local small town/champion/hero each week on social media; it doesn't have to be media in the traditional sense)

  • Build a community app (apps aren't cheap, but it's not impossible and maybe a grant could be sourced to fund it)

  • Create a website that lifts up small towns

  • Celebrate local accomplishments

  • Storytelling #locallove (we'd be remiss if we didn't remind you of 2 GREAT episodes from our very own podcast, The Growing Small Towns Show with master storyteller, Phil Eich: Episode 105 and Episode 106)

Ideas to Connect People

We all struggle to come up with new and interesting ways to bring people together. COVID stole our ability to randomly and casually run into people and now, it's going to take some intention to get back into the habit of not only going out again but thinking creatively about what kinds of things to offer to bring others together. As we've often said, we're a bit out of practice being humans. It's time to recommit to the art.

  • Community awards

  • Bus tours (Ours has been SUCH a success and we do plan to eventually offer a full kit to help you do one, too but in the meantime, here's the blog post we shared about the first year's event!)

  • Artists in residency

  • Public art

  • Similar to foreign exchange students except with businesses, people will live in the community for 6months+

  • Rural to rural trips (this would be similar to our concept but rather than pulling in people from the larger city center, you'd be touring or pulling in people from the small communities around you)

  • Create local rural champions

  • Build something together

  • Group/city causes

Ideas to Engage Local Organizations

One of our core values at GST is "We Work Together". We believe in collaboration and these ideas are those that allow you to tap into the great work of organizations that may already exist in your community. Look for alignment with the organizations or businesses that have an overlapping mission and pool your resources and people power to try new things.

  • Use local chamber to bring in examples from other communities

  • Celebrating/Elevating all types of the community to local public offices

  • Rural job fairs; include higher-paying remote employers

  • Include brainstorming sessions on ways to improve your community in schools

  • Have kids on the city commission

  • Choose one business to help build their brand

  • Get instagram business on-board

  • Create space for young families

  • Job swaps

  • Rural community social platform- sales, posting, calendars

  • Invite entrepreneurs to town

  • Online communities

  • Find community needs

  • Adopt a ________

  • Pay it forward campaign

  • Sister cities

  • MLM idea (All we know about this idea is simply the idea of developing ambassadors; MLMs are GREAT at this and that's why they're so effective. If you can develop a small army of doers or changemakers, think of the impact that could be made!)

  • Let pioneers come into towns and share their ideas

Ideas to Educate + Develop People

Help people grow. Clearly, we're into this at GST as that's what the "growing" actually means, but this is a fun list of things to consider and we always encourage you to start with the talent you have. The more we create regular growth and development experiences for our residents, the more they learn to lean on each other rather than always feeling like they have to travel to bigger cities to get the same experiences. Grow your own; it's possible and it's awesome.

  • Bring in a strategic planner to help the community design for growth

  • Find a common goal interest & plan for future

  • Create a forum for community leaders to share their passions

  • Infuse art or creative placemaking into problem-solving

  • Celebrate differences

  • art=diversity+more young people

  • Collabs with colleges

  • Educate people on diversity

  • Use town theater on tough topics (while we've never done this in our community, we think this topic is GENIUS)

  • Mentor and mentee relationship

  • Foster authentic ownership

  • Healing generational trauma workshops

  • Develop a path to recognize and celebrate diversity

  • Teach something simple, but new, that somehow helps

  • Inclusion dialogue with formal and informal social groups in our community

  • Create a space for meeting new people (we hosted a newcomer's social in our community and had a lot of success simply asking new people what they need, what they don't yet know, and we really discovered the gaps that exist in our information for helping people find their way)

  • Regular gatherings with facilitated idea sharing

  • Idea board at a local hangout

  • Training all kinds

Ideas to Shift Local Mindsets

This entire set of ideas is less about the "do this" kinds of actions but more about the equally important subtle mindset shifts that typically need to be present to accompany any change or new idea. Take a look and see if there's something that your town's collective attitude might need. Then think about the ways you can slowly start to say it out loud more often and in public discourse to start to plant the seeds of the attitude shift in others. Say something out loud often enough and it'll start to take off; trust us. It's happened here more times than we can even count!

  • Be yourself/ be different/ kindness spreads

  • Get to know each other

  • Identify individuals and their respective gifts in the community

  • Celebrating wins of what is working

  • Honor the potential, not fixing what is “broken”

  • Go to them mentality/ meet them where they are

  • Involve young people

  • More field trips for school kids

  • Student or family exchange program

  • Retain young people & family

  • Celebrate education

  • Start with younger generations

  • Change is ok

  • Peace and pancakes

  • Do the things that there afraid of

  • Cross-country community “pals” with other small towns (NDSU Extension here in NoDak offers a Community Exchange program that we just got to participate in with another local community; it's neat and we highly encourage you to check that out if you're in ND: Community Impressions Program)

  • Human relationships melt fear

  • Change your personal mindset, people will follow

  • Show that change is not always scary or bad

  • Be the change (we say this all the time; if you want it, bring it)

Ideas for Community Events

We can appreciate that sometimes the idea of planning more events can be SUPER exhausting. But, this list came from a group of people that offered a unique perspective and we think it's a great little list. Also, we do have one big recommendation if you host people. Priya Parker's book "The Art of Gathering" is a game-changer for helping us think differently about why we gather and how we can be more intentional about hosting people well. Check it out HERE.

  • Festivals & celebrations that give town culture

  • Invite everyone; Intentionally ask people to participate + personally invite people you know and love

  • Host event to bring people together- sip+shop & bus tour

  • Small town Saturday

  • Puppy and kitty convos

  • Networking events/ events to show what's possible

  • Yoga

  • Have a dinner and surprise people with an exercise

  • Wine tasting events, art show

  • Support show up

  • Bring baby animals

  • Find ways to connect less mainstream interests

  • Promote service groups to keep people in the know

  • Keep people in the know about what's happening in the community

  • Host social events with drinks so people open up

  • Community birthday parties

Ideas to Get Community Input

People support a world they help create. Remember this anytime you're trying something new...get others involved early and often and allow them to shape your thing (whatever your thing is) as much as possible if you need/want maximum buy-in.

  • Ask questions & listen to get to know the town

  • Recognize people who are “getting it done”

  • Define who you are/want to be as a community

  • Ask each town member to share their “wildest local dreams”

  • Integrate old and new

  • Celebrate people from there that did more with their lives than expected

  • Go to the barber shop and other locations where people "talk" and plant seeds of new ideas

  • Community/ peer analysis-feedback

  • Create reasons to collaborate

  • Pop-up convo shops

  • Idea bank space

  • Keep them educated on your ideas

  • Help them feel like a part of your team

  • Team up with people for co-branding opportunities

  • Facilitate as project

  • Large table conversations

OK, if after that massive list, you don't get ONE good idea to try, then, we're not even sure how we can help you!

Here's what we DO know.

The "way we've always done it" is just fine if you're happy with what you've got.

Chances are, you're aware of things you'd like to improve, and even greater chances are that you've found yourself around a table with the same 8-10 people on, oh let's say 5-8 separate occasions, discussing the challenges around this thing and still...


That's because we get too close to our own stuff and it's hard to see new ways when we just keep asking the same folks because they're on the "committee", "board" or whatever other word we could throw air quotes around to make our point.

The brainstorming activity that generated this rad list is actually a service we offer at GST!

Seriously, it's a process we facilitate to help groups engage a broader cross-section of people to both produce new ideas to solve a challenge and create a clear set of actionable steps to move the best idea forward.

It's fun! It's impactful! And we'd LOVE to come to your town! Also, if you're a company that cares about the vitality of any small town, you can sponsor this program for a town you love!

So click HERE to check out the program and of course, feel free to reach out anytime.

Don't believe it'll work for your town? When was the last time you generated 103 new ideas to solve a problem you have? We're guessing, likely never, so we'd love to discuss your biggest challenge.

AND? We cannot WAIT to hear which of these awesome ideas you decide to try! We are pretty fired up about a few for our community and you better believe, we'll share the results!

Here's to becoming more welcoming, inclusive communities!


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