20 things I have learned in 20 years of community development (and life)

By Dena Beck, Affiliated Fund Development Coordinator

When I moved back to my hometown after graduating from Kansas State University in 2000, I was already viewing it in a different light than when I first moved there 20 years earlier.

It was 1980, I was nine years old, and I was going into the fourth grade. I had left behind my life in Custer County, my intact family, the only friends I ever knew, and a town I loved. I still love to go back to Sargent—my first hometown.

Moving to Minden was a good transition. I had some family there, a house, and a new school. In looking back, one of the reasons I got into community development was because I wanted people to feel welcomed, safe, and included in their community just like I did back then. I have often said I was like a bird with a broken wing when I got to Minden. My parents had divorced (I did not even know what the word meant in 1979), but with family around me, a welcoming school, and an accessible community I started to mend. With all that love, support, and encouragement, I was ready to soar after graduating high school.

Minden didn’t offer many job opportunities for my Horticultural Therapy degree when I returned in 2000. When the second-generation jeweler in town suggested I apply for the job at the Minden Chamber of Commerce, I replied, “What, I don’t know anything about Chamber work.” She said, “That’s OK, you love Minden.” I interviewed and got the job, filling the shoes of a lovely woman who was 76 years old and had been there for 26 years.

This job opened my eyes to what actually powers a community—businesses, infrastructure, leaders, connectedness, opportunities, and volunteerism. It was an energizing job for me at a time in my life when I was starting a family and building my future. However, when a position came open with the Rural Enterprise Assistance Project (REAP), I was ready for full-time work, to try working from home, and do a part of Chamber work that I really enjoyed – working with entrepreneurs!

Working at REAP offered yet another eye-opening experience for me with lots of learning and connecting over 12 years. At that point, I had a yearning to better serve rural communities which I had grown to love. In previous jobs I learned I could help a business do financial projections, write a marketing plan, and even secure a loan. But if that business operated in a community with boarded up store fronts, ball fields in disrepair, or an inaccessible library, its potential decreased.

Three people sent me the job description for Nebraska Community Foundation’s Affiliated Fund Development Coordinator position in the South-Central/Southeast region… I was intrigued.  After three years on staff at NCF, my eyes again opened just a little wider. Bringing all the other experiences with me and merging them with NCF’s mission to unleash abundant local assets, inspire charitable giving, and connect ambitious people to build stronger communities and a Greater Nebraska has been an exciting new chapter in my community development career, and I am enjoying life and the work I get to do every day.

Here are 20 things I’ve learned in my 20 years of community development:

  1. Progress can be messy. It’s OK.
  2. Much like navigating our driveway in the spring, there are times when we need to back the truck up, turn the wheel a bit, and move forward – sometimes with the pedal down!
  3. Much like navigating the driveway in the winter, sometimes it is one-third strategy, two-thirds give her hell!
  4. Never punish the punctual and offer the tardy a little grace.
  5. No matter how hard it is, take the high road.
  6. Everyone has strengths and people often need to be asked to share theirs. So, ask what they are and how they can be utilized.
  7. Which of your assets are underutilized? How might they be shared?
  8. Boards and groups with power need to be reflective of the community. Look around and encourage others to take leadership roles and invite all voices to the table. If you feel underrepresented, get involved!
  9. If you’re stuck on something, clean out your purse. It will take your mind off what you are working on and it likely needs it.
  10. You may not be invited to hang with the cool kids or groups in which you could contribute, that’s OK. Keep on doing good.
  11. Using your strengths will be better for those in which you share them, and you will feel more content and maybe even exhilarated.
  12. Stretch yourself, but don’t try to put a square peg in a round hole.
  13. When you are learning new things, be humble and don’t be afraid to say you don’t know. Learning is powerful!
  14. Covet your time. It is a valuable and a non-renewable resource.
  15. One of my favorites, “Don’t be an a**.” You may be tired, irritated, or the person in front of you may be one. Refrain and see #5.
  16. Hurt, misunderstanding, and frustration manifest differently with everyone. If someone appears angry, understand it may be something else and that feeling is heavy for them.
  17. In life and especially in times of conflict, most people just want to feel genuinely seen and heard.
  18. One of my favorite quotes from William Makepeace Thackeray, “Whatever you are, try to be a good one.”
  19. Put your stake in the ground, but not too deep it doesn’t flex.
  20. Enjoy the day . . . even if things aren’t going how you planned, it’s raining, or you’re simply in a funk. Find a way.

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