The city of Sheyenne is nestled within the hills of the Sheyenne River Valley and Continental Divide. It is surrounded by rich farmland, cattle grazing prairie pastures and abundant wildlife. Born when the railroad came through, Sheyenne has been home to active volunteers and go-getters with a small town spirit since 1883.
Like many of North Dakota’s small towns, Sheyenne saw a booming population during the Homesteading Movement, followed by a slow and steady population decline trending down at 1.09% in more recent years.
In the early 2000s, Sheyenne lost its restaurant, grocery store, bank, and — eventually its school. A school that had persisted in that small town for 99 years.
The story of Sheyenne isn’t unique across our state — a small, once booming community now doing their best to thrive in our current reality.
When businesses close, schools consolidate, and residents move out of town, they often leave behind buildings, homes, and even churches that can become abandoned and dilapidated.
How many of us living in rural areas can easily think of at least two to three abandoned or dilapidated buildings in our hometowns? Typically these buildings have significant meaning, whether they were the old town movie theater, bowling alley, bank, post office, or school — institutions that really built small town pride and contributed to the sense of community.
And as communities like Sheyenne seek to improve their circumstances, they find it difficult to access much-needed resources, like government grants and private philanthropy, to make investments in their quality of life. And this is true all across the country, not just in North Dakota.
One staggering statistic that I have come across over the last year is regarding private philanthropy or large foundations: Although rural communities contain roughly 59 million people, or 20% of the U.S. population, only 7% of funds from the top 1,200 major foundations goes to rural areas.
It’s not even close to equitable, much less proportional.
Communities also encounter the significant barrier of capacity when it comes to not only accessing outside dollars but also executing planned projects. Capacity is the staffing, resources and expertise needed to apply for funding, fulfill onerous reporting requirements, and design, build and maintain projects over the long term. Many rural communities simply lack the staff — and the tax base to support staff — needed to apply for federal programs or private philanthropic dollars.
According to Headwaters Economics Rural Capacity Map, 93% of counties across the country have a higher capacity rating than Eddy County, where Sheyenne is located.
Yet, with these challenges, the community of Sheyenne is continuing to push forward and thrive – because of the creativity and heart of its people.
In the fall of 2022, Sheyenne GRIT (Growth, Renewal, Imagination, Teamwork) applied to StrengthenND’s Creative Community Solutions Grantmaking Program with an idea they wanted to try — a community-owned financing tool that would allow them to make their own decisions and exercise flexibility to improve their community.
With a focus on housing, Main Street improvements, and business recruitment and retention, Sheyenne GRIT – an all-volunteer group – has the freedom and opportunity to invest in projects they believe will yield the greatest return on investment for their community over the next six years. They don’t have to adhere to a typical funder’s structure of specific lists of activities and a specific timeline. They get to take $150,000 worth of risks while being proactive and creative.
It’s been nearly a year since an initial investment of $75,000 was made in the community-owned financing tool, with the second investment of $75,000 coming later in February. And what they have done, to date, to build community and improve the community’s future economic mobility is tremendous. They are actively seeking and leveraging additional grant dollars into the community through their available cash. They have recently just sold a dilapidated home that they purchased and totally renovated through mostly volunteer efforts, yielding an $18,000 profit that will go back into their fund. Neighbors who haven’t spoken in some time due to disagreements came together to work on the home – to be a part of the community – and rebuilt relationships. They’ve beautified their Main Street. They have begun to dream BIG about their futures again.
The leadership and coordination efforts of Sheyenne GRIT, what they have truly been able to do, are an example of true rural innovation — neighbors pulling together to make the best of what they have by using assets in a new and different way.
The work of Sheyenne GRIT can shed some light to rural grantmakers about how to meaningfully invest in rural and remote communities. For example, what would happen if grantmakers truly trusted that the people living in the communities being funded had the best ideas, the best intentions, and could yield the best outcomes? What would happen if grantmakers walked alongside as partners, in a helpful way, to continue to support the growth of organizations and communities? What would happen if grantmakers quit relying on outside “experts” to help communities, and, instead, put in significant resources to cultivate homegrown solutions?
A hard truth that is difficult for some to swallow in rural areas is that there will never be enough money funneled in to solve a community’s problems. A second hard truth is that there will never be an agency or administration that can swoop in to solve a community’s problems.
In rural North Dakota, we need to rely on each other. To work together. To know that we need each and every one of us in our community to thrive.
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