Using a participatory approach, Rural Support Partners works hand-in-hand with the leaders of nonprofit anchor organizations, networks, and socially-minded businesses to advance the economic transition of Central Appalachia & innovate the field of participatory rural development. We carry out this mission as a social enterprise business that uses the power of market demand to create social, economic, and environmental impacts for Central Appalachia and beyond. Concretely, we provide high-quality and affordable consulting services that help rural leaders, organizations, businesses, and networks achieve deeper impact and broader scale – which in-turn, helps to advance RSP’s mission.

We are constantly working across our body of work to bring forth a collective analysis and vision for the region and find strategic connections among our partners. Over the long haul, we envision our work resulting in an effective, resilient, and strategically connected infrastructure of rural leaders, nonprofit organizations, funders, businesses and public institutions that are working collaboratively and effectively to increase income, assets, and equity among people, families, and communities across Central Appalachia.

Our approach to this work is informed by the latest research on rural development, steeped in the daily reality of rural people and places, and grounded in a commitment to participation. This three-pronged participatory approach means we bring the latest innovation and proven practices to all our projects while ensuring the visions, goals, plans, actions, and results of our work emerge from the hopes and dreams of the partners we serve. To help us be as participatory as possible, we have developed a set of values, attitudes, and behaviors that are at the core of everything we do. With our values at the center, our daily work is informed by a theoretical framework consisting of popular education, community organizing, participatory rural development, and community wealth-creation.

Popular education means we start projects by pulling out the existing wisdom in the room and creating processes that help groups of people to learn from their own experiences. Community organizing tools helps us facilitate common analysis, strengthen leadership capacity, and build the collective power needed for organizations and networks to shape the policies and systems that affect their communities. From participatory rural development, we emphases community participation in project development and implementation while working to create resilient organizations capable of carrying out community change work over the long-haul. And from community wealth creation, we have a framework for understanding systems and finding leverage points for advancing large scale change.  

Pulling tools and practices from these theories have led us to develop our own brand of community practice that we call Systems-Based Organizing. Below, we further define this model and offer deeper insight into the theories that ground our daily work.

System-Based Organizing

Diagram of system-based organizing shows a framework of how engaging leaders, organizations, and networks, and informing the field will create lasting change toward more just and equitable systems

Systems-based organizing is a participatory values-based approach to advancing large-scale systems and policy change by strengthening, connecting, and aligning the leaders and organizations within a specific system or sector. Thus, it is also the integration of community organizing with  leadership development, organizational development, and network development focused within a specific system or sector.

The results? Over time, the strategic integration of community organizing and infrastructure development within a system results in an effective, interconnected, and aligned set of  leaders, organizations, & networks with the capacity and power to advance large-scale systems and policy change. The diagram above outlines our systems-based organizing model, defining the daily work, short-term outcomes, and long-term impact of the approach. The values found at the center of the diagram guide all our work. They can be found listed here.

Popular Education

Popular education – the mindset and underlying way of working – is a participatory approach to adult education that is based on helping groups of people learn from their experiences. Sometimes when outside consultants come into a community, they come in as experts, as the people who have the answers. This is the opposite of popular education, and the opposite of how we work. We always begin our work with the assumption that the people living in local communities know best what their community needs and how to provide it. As facilitators or network coordinators, we are not passive or empty. We have knowledge, expertise, experiences, and concrete ideas to offer. But we always start with the people we are working with. We always assume that the folks sitting in the room with us know more about how to make their communities livable than we do. Collectively, they have the wisdom to bring about significant change. They might not have tapped into that wisdom yet, but it’s there. It is our job to help them surface their collective wisdom and build concrete plans for taking their work to the next level.

In our daily work, we use an approach called the spiral model for popular education, detailed in a post, hereWe have adapted the spiral model from a book called Educating for a Change (by Rick Arnold and colleagues, 1999).

Participatory Development

Participatory development is an approach we use, along with the spiral model for popular education, when we are in a room facilitating a meeting with a group of people.

Participatory development centers upon the planning and implementation of discrete projects that improve a community’s well-being. Unlike some US approaches to community development, however, participatory development starts from the basic belief that everyday people in low-wealth communities are not the target for community development projects; rather, they are the people who determine, drive, and control the entire development process. Participatory development starts from the assumption that marginalized and low-income people best understand the problems they face and how to fix them. Participatory development is notable for three innovations:

  1. Its emphasis on participatory group methods, especially Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) methods such as community mapping, wealth and well-being ranking, and preference ranking;
  2. Its equal emphasis on the attitudes and behaviors necessary for implementing these methods in a way that is fundamentally participatory; and
  3. Its emphasis on building the capacity of groups and organizations to thrive on their own over the long haul.

Community organizing

In our daily work with groups and networks, we have adapted many methods and approaches from the practice of community organizing. Community organizing refers to the process of bringing people together for two main purposes: (1) to get work done that makes communities more livable, and (2) to develop the knowledge, skills, and collective power needed for improving communities.

Some community organizing approaches focus on organizing individuals. Others focus on organizing through institutions such as churches, school parent-teacher associations, or grassroots groups. We organize through anchor organizations and collective impact networks. As mentioned above, anchor organizations are high-capacity organizations that are working on a sustainable economic development strategy across a multi-county region. Collective impact networks are webs of organizations and individuals that are collaborating strategically to move forward a coordinated body of work.  

We call our work systems based organizing, which we describe in more detail above. Our vision is to build an infrastructure of leaders, anchor organizations and collective impact networks that work in a coordinated, strategic way across a geographic region (e.g., Central Appalachia). We bring together organizations and networks that have a high potential for broad and deep impacts. We bring together organizations and networks that have the potential to expand the reach of their work by collaborating with others. We bring together organizations and networks that aim to influence systems and policies and shape broader fields of work.

Community Wealth Creation

The idea behind wealth creation as a framework is that the resources and assets of rural communities – their natural resources, agricultural produce, labor force, and young people – have for too long flowed out of rural areas, along with income and wealth. In practice, networks and organizations that work from a wealth creation framework use a place-based systems approach to rural development that can restore, create, and maintain wealth that stays in low-wealth areas by simultaneously improving economies, the environment, and social conditions.

Wealth creation is more than a conceptual framework, more than a way of thinking about or understanding rural development efforts. Based on the wealth creation framework, we have developed a set of tools, measures, and systems that anchor organizations and collective impact networks use to develop a shared analysis of the challenges they face in their work; collectively plan and carry out a coordinated, aligned, and strategic body of work; and track, measure, and report their outcomes across a broad geographic region (e.g., Central Appalachia, the Deep South). In addition to providing a useful conceptual framework, wealth creation also provides a set of practical tools that help groups of organizations or networks develop shared analyses, shared plans for action, coordinated and strategic bodies of work, and shared systems for measuring the outcomes resulting from that work.