Handling Rural Conflict Can Make or Break Small Communities

By Sarah Van Dalsem

Many rural Nebraska communities are focused on progress and growth, with residents concentrating on attracting and retaining young people, developing strong businesses and improving the community's infrastructure.

However, rural development doesn't happen overnight and just like in larger cities, it most likely doesn't happen without some conflict among people in the community, said Randy Cantrell, an extension professor with the Nebraska Rural Initiative at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

"It's common for conflict to exist anywhere," said Cantrell. "Conflict's how we solve problems. Conflict's how we set up the basis for negotiations to come to agreements."

Community disagreements are so common that it is an area of study for Cantrell and other rural researchers at UNL, as well as in institutions across the nation. Cantrell believes that to be successful, a community needs to make the decision to work together for the good of the community and commit to improving internal and external communication. One of the first steps is for the community to create a vision for its future that unites a large percentage of the residents - a vision that compels residents to invite change and invest in the community.

Even so, differences of opinion among residents can arise over many issues, including taxes, urban vs. rural ideas, schools - or just personalities, Cantrell said.

Randy Cantrell
Dr. Randy Cantrell

Moving Past Conflict

In small communities, conflicts can spill over into many facets of life, he said.

"If I let the fact that the guy that runs the hardware store is cheating on his or her spouse affect my ability to buy a hammer, or if some family issue that existed between my family and their family 20 years ago affect my willingness to do business...these things really become kind of problematic," said Cantrell.

Because rural conflict can become very personal to people, the need for unity and communication in a rural community is especially important. Resolving the differences among community members, Cantrell said, is the first step to reaching a common community vision.

"If you go about the business of trying to enhance the economic viability and enhance the quality of life in a setting, then you have to have some sort of agreement on what direction you're going," he said. "You have to be able to put things behind you and move forward."

In order to try and mend a division among the people, Cantrell suggests holding community gatherings or celebrations to help build a network of people who will work together in the future.

Communities that hold active celebrations not only help heal divisions, but engage new and longtime residents in a common activity.

Open Communication Aids Understanding

"It's very common among newcomers in rural communities to say, 'I'm here, but it didn't provide me with the opportunity to participate in the community that I thought it would. My skills aren't recognized, and so I think what I'll do is go someplace else and try again,'" said Cantrell.

Cantrell said people who are a part of a multi-generational family are not likely to leave if they get upset, but newcomers will leave if they cannot integrate into the community. If a community hopes to grow its population, attracting new people to the community and giving them a reason to stay are important goals.

Engaging Newcomers

"If I get three people in a room to have a conversation that they haven't had before, I'm engaging in development, I'm making possible more opportunities," said Cantrell. "If folks allow themselves to become entrenched and angry, then those conversations don't occur and the possibility of some kind of compromise, some way to move forward, is limited."

Cantrell said residents should avoid sneaking up on others with information or actions and should also avoid giving people a reason to believe a decision was made without their input or consideration. "Backroom deals" aren't acceptable - the debate must be put on the table where people can participate, he added.

Media outlets in town also need to have a commitment to presenting all sides of an argument. Extension educators from UNL are also available in most counties to help people understand all sides of tough issues in the communities, Cantrell suggested. The role of extension educators is to provide information based on research, he added.