Overcoming the Crisis of Hope

By David Iaquinta, Ph.D., Nebraska Wesleyan University

David Iaquinta, Ph.D.
David Iaquinta, Ph.D.

Change requires imagination, vision, cooperation and effort - all driven by hope. Yet, the scope of the challenges we currently face has led to a learned helplessness of the nation's collective spirit and a crisis of hope in the individual.

Overcoming that crisis of hope will require putting people back into the equation when planning for the future of Nebraska and of the country.

Throughout history, people have formed human systems - families, communities, economies, political systems and culture. Each is affected by the geography and environment of the region.

Nebraska's small population is unevenly distributed; two-thirds of the population is located in the eastern one-third of the state. This distribution poses questions about the roles and sustainability of communities.

As Nebraska plans for its future, regional and state leaders must consider some key questions. Each Nebraskan might consider his or her civic role in the state, relative to these questions:

Top 10 Questions Related to the Future of Nebraska's Communities

  1. Which communities, or types of communities, are sustainable?
  2. Why do people choose to live in various Nebraska communities?
  3. How do people construct a culture tied to place, community and region?
  4. What role does identity play in why people choose to stay in Nebraska?
  5. How can current and impending demographic changes be harnessed by Nebraska communities?
  6. How can Nebraska's communities benefit from the global commitment to developing non-petroleum-based energy systems?
  7. Why is it important to have a vital hierarchy of place in Nebraska?
  8. What links between urban, town and rural places are necessary to their mutual survival, and how do these links reflect globalization?
  9. How is entrepreneurship important to overall community vitality?
  10. How will decisions be made as to which communities receive which kinds of support?

Agriculture and Urbanization

Agriculture is purposely not listed in the Top 10 Questions because it is not central to every community in Nebraska. However, it is an essential component of the vitality of Nebraska as a whole and needs to be factored into the Top 10 Questions, even though it may not be the starting point for considering options.

Urbanization is more than just the growth of urban places in size and number or the growth in percentage of population living in urban places. It necessarily involves consideration of how cities are linked to each other, to rural places and to the continuously emerging urban-like interstices. I will integrate this important concept after first applying the capital-assets approach to the Nebraska experience.

Capitals and Sustainability of Communities
Not every community in rural Nebraska may be sustainable, though no community should be "written off" without a serious attempt to assess its capital assets, matching them with market opportunities in regional, national and/or global areas.

Social Capital - Participation Central to Success
The assessment process can't be left solely to experts, outsiders and elites (i.e., elected politicians, the wealthy and politically influential). It requires broad community participation, with all stakeholders, including relevant experts and elites and ultimately incorporating appropriate state, regional and national policy support - either existing or sought. Participation is a measure of existing social capital and also a mechanism for building it. Participation is one of the central components of capital - assets that each community uses to enhance its vitality and sustainability.

Additional Capitals
Generally, consideration of capital has been limited to financial capital and human (or intellectual) capital. However, Putnam (1993, 2000) and others say there are additional important capitals. A more complete list should include:

  • economic capital
  • human capital
  • built capital
  • environmental capital
  • cultural capital
  • bonding social capital
  • bridging social capital
  • political capital
  • spiritual capital

These capitals create a common framework for integrating knowledge accumulated by different disciplines. At the same time, they decrease the political control that allows economic and efficiency concerns to take precedence over all other concerns when assessing community health and vitality. Consequently, the evaluation process includes human concerns, social impacts, values, long-term externalities, environmental impacts and differential impacts by race, social class, ethnicity and gender. Because economic capital (money, wealth, goods, etc.) and human capital (education, skills, knowledge, etc. held by people) are well discussed and understood, I focus primarily on the remaining seven capitals.

Capital Assets -Building Consensus
Based on my international work with rural communities, periurban settlements and urban governance systems, I favor a capital assets approach to assessing community strengths and charting sustainable futures. My experience also reinforces the necessity for broad stakeholder participation in any planning and development process.

Cornelia and Jan Flora, in their third edition of Rural Communities: Legacy and Change (2008), do an excellent job of applying these ideas to the American experience and more particularly, to the Midwest. Based on their research across rural communities, they show the many and complex interactions among the various capitals and their distribution across different segments of local communities.

However, the capital assets approach is not a magic formula for creating a successful community. Instead, it is a practical and analytical framework for allowing a community to find entry points into a community-wide discussion aimed at sustainable development. Stakeholders in the community emphasize different values and capital strengths. These differences have to be bridged. Often, civic groups are the cross-cutting community organizations and can identify underlying interests and counter rigid positions. Principled negotiation, like that advocated by Fisher and Ury in Getting to Yes (1981), is useful. It also means being willing to surrender "sacred cows," stereotypes and all the cherished mythologies undergirding social advantage and disadvantage in order to benefit everyone. It means listening to one another and respecting the legitimacy of everyone's interests.

Community action will require harnessing the entrepreneurial spirit. What is needed is a balance between the motivating power of self-interest and the sustainability of collective benefit. Sustainability rests on characteristics such as diversity, flexibility, redundancy and feedback. Communities will be more successful when the various capitals are in a dynamic equilibrium with enough interdependency that they continue to have influence - even if not always equal. In the end, the interest of the individual is linked to the interest of the community, which is linked to the interest of the larger urban and regional hierarchy.

Cultural Capital - Individualism, Work Ethic and Fairness
No single description fits all Nebraska communities, but there are some reflections that are significant.

"The outcomes for Nebraska's small towns and rural communities are tied strongly to what decisions are made in the corridors of power.

First, cultural capital in Nebraska is highlighted by three core values - "rugged individualism," a strong work ethic and a bedrock sense of fairness. These vary across social classes and place, but are fairly present throughout. These are important values in terms of their relevance in attracting economic enterprise and entrepreneurial investment. They are relevant at all levels, to both labor marketing strategies and facilitating entrepreneurship.

Second, a sense of place links business owners, farm families and working class individuals to a larger degree than managers and professionals. Therefore, attracting and maintaining a professional class requires appealing to specific characteristics which match place with personal/family interests of these individuals. In general, people most likely to stay in Nebraska or relocate here are those who have pre-existing ties to the state and those whose family aspirations include children and a perception of a family-friendly quality of life. Additionally, another group of potential recruits lies with marketing certain natural capital features to appropriate target groups and individuals.

Natural Capital - the State's Natural Amenities
Natural capital refers to the natural amenities of a region. Nebraska sports the open expanse of the prairie, the solitude of the Sandhills and the vast horizon with its big weather and wind. Natural assets do appeal to certain individuals and are conducive to certain forms of enterprise. The task is to identify the matches and market them effectively.

Natural capital considerations, combined with evolving national policy interests, suggest that communities will be more successful when they tie into newly-developing energy systems. This requires changes in community thinking as well as changes in public policy at the state level (such as instituting legislation to facilitate wind energy generation) and at the federal level (such as removing restrictions that limit federal support for public utilities, which would facilitate construction of new transmission lines).

It will also be important to build bridging social capital by creating public-private partnerships.

Human Capital - Keeping People in the State
Like the rest of the nation, Nebraska faces the aging of the baby boom generation. This involves costs such as increasing Social Security and Medicare demands, but it also presents opportunities.

In terms of human capital, the baby boom generation is the first generation to move significantly into higher education. They have an unprecedented level of formal education and skills (human capital) and will bring these into their retirement years. They also have a generational heritage of activism - including formative roles in the civil rights movement, the women's movement and the environmental movement. Given their past history and their human capital, it is useful to ask what they will want from their retirement years. They may be looking for more creative ways to invest both their self-interest and their human capital into meaningful community legacies. Smart communities will work to incorporate this resource into their discussions and planning.

At the other end of the demographic spectrum are young, college-educated labor market entrants. Rural communities in particular, but Nebraska in general, have a difficult time holding onto this human capital. What we know from surveys and interviews worldwide is that young people cite two main reasons for leaving rural areas: lack of employment opportunities and lack of desirable amenities and services. Communities need to consider both of these when seeking to enhance their human capital profile. Aspects of built capital are relevant.

Built Capital - Transportation, Communication, Building
Built capital takes many forms, but three are particularly important: transportation, communication and environmentally-sustainable building.

Some communities already have access to traditional transportation networks, such as the Interstate system or rail corridors. But success into the future will depend on the ability of communities to work in coordination with one another, with the state and with private enterprise to develop a new generation of transportation options. This is closely connected to the role of new electronic communication technologies that alter the relationship between work and place and between commercial enterprise and place.

For rural Nebraska, the comparative advantages of low land values, inexpensive housing, lower taxes, lower labor costs and relatively fixed shipping costs (depending on the availability of mass carriers such as FedEx and United Parcel Service) must be paired to the quality of life assets desired. Some of those assets include relief from pollution and urban stress, good schools, low crime and so forth. These traits will assist in attracting talented professionals and families. The ability to move forward on innovative, environmentally-conscious building design and more environmentally-sustainable retrofitted housing stock will also appeal to professionals and to the desire for new energy alternatives.

While small communities have limited resources available for redeveloping built capital, their small scale and size affords greater flexibility in adapting to new alternatives, given they can be integrated with existing cultural capital such as values and preferences. It is important to recognize that the issue is not simply deciding what is "efficient" and then dealing with the consequences of disrupted preferences, which is the classic economic model.

The preferred capital assets model is to create a solution which, from the start, incorporates cultural capital and community values into the development of built and financial capital. Where spiritual capital fits into this enterprise, we defer to the end of this article after considering the urban hierarchy.

Urban Hierarchy
Thus far, the focus has been mostly on the role and needs of small Nebraska towns and rural communities, but this does not imply a lack of concern for larger urban centers.

Comparing Nebraska to a Developing Country
Curiously, in terms of its urban hierarchy, Nebraska as a state looks like the situation in many developing countries. Geographers and sociologists use a "rank size rule" to define a balanced urban hierarchy. This rule states that there should be two second-rank cities (i.e., those with populations about one-half that of the largest city), three third-ranked cities (i.e., those with populations about one-third that of the largest city) and so on. Clearly, this is not the case for Nebraska's urban hierarchy.

The Primate City Structure - Nebraska's Disproportionate Growth
Instead, Nebraska has what sociologists and demographers call a primate city structure, in which one city vastly out-distances all others in size. There is a large volume of literature documenting the many negative consequences of this condition. The bottom line of this literature is that the dominant city draws to itself a disproportionate share of the resources (financial, political, social, economic, entrepreneurial, demographic, etc.) of the political entity (i.e., Nebraska). The dynamic of this influence is seen clearly when one looks at the historic development of the eastern metropolitan corridor in Nebraska.

Consequences to Ineffective Regional Planning
Even as the Interstate system is widened to six lanes between Omaha and Lincoln, the respective municipalities resist effective regional planning, clinging instead to a competitive posture which flies in the face of both efficiency and larger community interest. The problem at the urban hierarchy level mirrors the problem of elites (i.e., the privileged and powerful) within communities. Neither the existence of elites nor the presence of a primate city is necessarily a problem in and of itself.

The problem arises when their undue dominance allows them to exclude the interests of non-elites and "lesser" communities from the discussion and decision-making. It is the concentration of power, leading to exclusion and capital discounting, that creates less-than-optimal solutions.

The Airport Example
An example of this is two airports within the eastern metropolitan corridor, neither with good land transport. An early decision as to airport location would have greatly facilitated innovative solutions to the overall transportation problem in eastern Nebraska and could, in turn, have provided more alternatives to serving surrounding rural communities.

Importance of Urban Hierarchy
My point is not to criticize the past, but to point out how important the overall urban hierarchy is to all cities and towns in Nebraska. Recognizing some of the inherent limitations of the existing hierarchy is similar to acknowledging the impending retirement of the baby boom generation. Both are facts of life, both present challenges and both offer opportunities.

A fundamental need is to create a balance between the bonding social capital -the value of seeing oneself as a Lincolnite, an Omahan or an Ordite - and the bridging social capital - the value of seeing oneself as a Nebraskan. In the absence of civic human agency, decisions can be directed simply by corporate board room fiat far away from the community or the state that is experiencing the impact. Increasingly, the source of the impacts can even lie elsewhere in the world.

Agriculture and Big Business
Nebraska has an overall reliance on agriculture as a basic industry and economic wellspring for many communities and the state as a whole. ConAgra and other large economic conglomerates are large stakeholders in this system, but not the owners. The system depends upon many individuals, communities and linkages. ConAgra, for instance, may be a peer without equal within the current system, but it is not itself the system. In the end, the people who make up ConAgra have to live, work and find meaning in the same system that they have the potential to dominate.

The same can be said for Omaha as a city, except the power brokers are often more public in their personae. Expecting ConAgra or Omaha to act altruistically is fantasy. However, expecting them to respond cooperatively to appropriately-framed, long-term self-interest is reasonable. They are both staffed by individuals making systematically corporate decisions.

The outcomes for Nebraska's small towns and rural communities are tied strongly to what decisions are made in the corridors of power, whether they are public or private, national or state, global or local. What seem important are the forms of bridging social capital in place that allow human agency at the local level to coordinate effectively with human agency and systemic needs at larger levels.

Governance, Regulation, Policy
One form of such bridging social capital is governance; another is regulation; still another is policy.

Governance refers to the adequacy of fair representation in government. It variously calls to mind issues of campaign financing, special interests, patronage and democracy.

Regulation can create undue burden and mindless bureaucracy, but on the other hand, it can level the playing field, stabilize the system and advance important social goals.

Policy is the outcome of negotiating competing values, interests and goals, and it ultimately reflects the current balance between public interest and private gain.

The most effective public policy is likely to be the one that creates a level playing field for competing interests while facilitating structures that develop bridging social capital at all levels. Such bridging mechanisms include:

  • public-private partnerships
  • multi-jurisdiction service providers
  • intergovernmental panels and boards
  • trans-professional organizations
  • intercommunity networks and entities
  • intra-community civic organizations

The important point is that they allow various stakeholders to share interests instead of locking them into stereotyped perceptions of each other's positions. This is especially the case when the participants come together to solve an issue which can't be solved by any one constituency alone. The objective is to expand and strengthen bridging social capital, not to rubber-stamp a decision already made without full disclosure.

Race, Ethnicity and Gender in Nebraska's Future
Race, ethnic identity and gender issues will be integral to Nebraska's future as they have been to its past.

The context of life has changed dramatically along these dimensions within both Nebraska and the nation as a whole. Not only will demographics continue to shift in the future, but the nature and social meaning of these categories will also continue to change. So important are these changes that the topic is worthy of a completely separate article in a separate publication devoted solely to such issues. Nonetheless, the present article would be incomplete without at least noting the impact these groups will have on the state's future in many areas.

Due to their magnitude in the population and their rate of growth, women and Hispanics will be significant players in any Nebraska future. Women have moved permanently into the work place and old barriers to advancement continue to erode. Women bring new perspectives and skills to the market place and their movement out of exclusively domestic roles means continued change in the relationship between home and the workplace for families, businesses and society.

Hispanics are, on the one hand, longtime citizens of Nebraska, particularly in the West, and on the other hand, a relatively new and growing labor force in many small Nebraska communities. Response to this change has been as mixed as it has been to other "new" groups that have settled in Nebraska over its history. Some communities have adapted well, recognizing the shift as an opportunity for economic revitalization while others have hardened their stereotypes. Clearly, much more could be done.

Other groups, such as African-Americans and Native Americans pose ongoing challenges for Nebraska in terms of continued isolation, deprivation and exclusion. These are old social divisions, embedded in the structure of our social arrangements, yet both African-Americans and Native Americans have strong cultural ties to Nebraska and will continue to play a significant role in the future of the state. Like Hispanics, they offer alternative models for community development and new perspectives on our future.

The Asian-American population will continue to grow at a rapid rate, influencing Nebraska's future in unknown ways. They are the fastest growing segment of the population in the U.S. and Nebraska is no exception to this growth. Asian-Americans have the highest levels of educational attainment in the country and are certainly part of the professional class that can add value to Nebraska's many communities.

Nebraska population graphs

Again, the challenge for all Nebraskans is whether adequate bridging social capital can be built to overcome historical bias and largely-irrational fears. If so, a great wealth of diverse talent can be harnessed. If not, the differences will sap human capital, social capital and economic capital at all levels.

"For What It's Worth"
I am a mathematician, a biologist, a demographer, a sociologist, a father and a human being. As a mathematician, I treasure the illogical truth that all formal systems generate their own contradictions. As a biologist, I appreciate the tenacity with which life persists in the face of entropic inevitability. As a demographer, I relish the persistence of individualism amidst the homogenizing influence of categories and classes. As a sociologist, I recognize the power of social systems and culture to pre-figure the range of opportunities visible to individuals depending on their location in the social system. As a father, I wish for my children to live meaningful, shared lives in a peaceful and productive world. And, as a human being, I treasure the hope which, even amidst the most dire of circumstances, continues to animate human agency, giving rise to both individualism and altruism in equal measure.

We Can Do Better!
It is with this hope that I suggest that we can do better. We can do better for ourselves by doing better for others. We can do better for our children by doing better for our communities. We can do better for our environment by working together, harnessing our long-range self-interest, enjoying the success of our neighbors and living more simply and intelligently as a community.

A final form of capital needs to be incorporated into the capital assets approach and into the pursuit of sustainable community development - spiritual capital. I do not mean primarily religion, religious affiliation or religiosity, although spiritual capital may or may not include these things for a given individual. Instead, spiritual capital is the spiritual enlightenment from which springs hope and belief in the fundamental worth of life and shared experience. It seems to me that the significance of all forms of capital - indeed, of human experience itself - rests on the ultimate capacity to hope and to trust in both the importance of the individual and the benefits of collective endeavor. In the absence of such capital, what will sate the appetite of the individual or the community? With spiritual capital in place, the value of the process itself is meaningful even if the outcomes are not guaranteed. The process is the platform for future success, whatever the outcome of the present exercise.

So it seems we CAN do better! That alone should be enough to move us to action together.