Prepare Action-Able Leadership

Communities have and prepare leaders with the will, skills, relationships, diversity, knowledge, and power needed to fully engage the community and the region to establish, align, and achieve priorities that increase both well-being and equity outcomes.

All leaders, both formal and informal, must have skills and connections to lead the community and region towards full prosperity. Historically, people of color, immigrants, low-income people and those working multiple jobs, women and mothers, and youth in many rural places have been excluded, sometimes intentionally by design, and sometimes due to a lack of understanding about barriers to their participation, from these leadership structures. 

But a wider range of leadership leads to a wider range of community benefits. Thus, communities must ensure that their leadership structures – and leadership opportunities over a person’s lifespan – are accessible to all community members to ensure full community engagement and the full range of perspectives in community planning and doing.

Building Block Evidence

Evidence suggests this building block is important because building the agency and civic capacity of individuals in the community, and activating that capacity, can help communities center and address community priorities. Expert opinion also suggests that designing community and economic development efforts for rural vitality requires fostering rural leaders through programs that elevate inclusion, resilience, and collaboration.1 This actionable leadership can encompass work in areas such as community capacity, community power building, rural place leadership, civic capacity, and collective efficacy. Individuals build civic skills, knowledge, and outlooks through opportunities to play a role in community groups or institutions.2 Those civic skills and knowledge are applied collectively to achieve community-level changes. High-quality civic experiences with structured activities, opportunities for participants to have ownership in the work, and work with people with diverse identities and perspectives have a lasting impact on participation.3 Other work highlights the importance of understanding community power building and how power operates as important aspects of creating community conditions that support the health of the community, especially when faced with opposition to those efforts (for more, see work on psychological empowerment, critical consciousness, and community organizing literature).

The US model of community leadership programs offers a model for building civic skills and knowledge and offering opportunities for practice for community and economic development and civic participation. These structured programs engage groups of community members in learning about their communities and building civic and leadership capacity to contribute to and lead in their communities. Studies of these programs have found multiple positive impacts on participants, including increases in their engagement in community and leadership activities, levels of community knowledge and awareness,4 and access to intergenerational networks.5 Comprehensive research has shown that community leadership programs have a positive impact at the individual level on participants’ community skills, knowledge, and relational networks, but also at the community level through the increased capacity of the relational networks and organizations.6 For examples and case studies of rural leadership programs, see the Rural Economic Development Institute, Ruralead Learning Initiative, Rural Community Leadership Program, or HUD’s Rural Capacity Building Program for community development and affordable housing. Cooperative Extension has long provided capacity building in rural communities, from structured leadership development to shorter courses in topics such as navigating local government, facilitating conversations, and grant-writing (Community Development Extension Library). 

Though not a robust literature base, at least one systematic review found that community efforts to improve collective efficacy are often associated with a reduction in health disparities, especially when efficacy was built at multiple levels (individual, family, community).7

  1. Khokhar 2021
  2. Flanagan 2013
  3. Pancer 2016
  4. Bono 2010
  5. Fritsch 2018
  6. Pigg 2015
  7. Butel 2019

Curated ReSources

Building Power Together: Sustainable Forestry and African-American Land Retention Network

This short case study has insight and tips on how communities that have been historically and systematically excluded can develop authentic and effective leadership that builds power to challenge the status quo.

Broadening Authentic Leadership: Student Action with Farmworkers

This short case study has insights and suggestions for how rural-serving organizations can effectively welcome and truly empower leaders from all backgrounds.

Aspen Fesival Ideas Image
Four Community-Centered Takeaways from Aspen Ideas Festival

Driving around my hometown of Truckee, California, I reflect on my time at the Aspen Ideas Festival this past week…

Shared Prosperity: Building Power Towards an Equitable Rural Economy

Oct. 13th, 2021, 11AM

Building power and capacity within groups on the economic and social margins is a crucial component for strong, healthy and economically diverse rural communities.

Field Items

Man playing chess with two children

Check out the West Virginia Community Development Hub’s case studies of leaders bringing hope and opportunity. These are the stories of real West Virginians who are making a difference.

Meeting Leaders Where They Are

Rural Development Initiatives (RDI) shares lessons from their Rural Community Leadership Program.


RuraLead explored these essential questions: Who gets to lead? Who has power in rural places? What constitutes good leadership? What does it look like in practice? How do people become leaders in rural communities? How do we strengthen and support rural leadership?

We see the framework as a living document, which necessarily must evolve over time, and we seek to expand the collective ownership of the Thrive Rural Framework among rural equity, opportunity, health, and prosperity ecosystem actors. Please share your insights with us about things the framework is missing or ways it should change.

Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group