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Years ago, I made the mistake of conflating the concepts of “economic development” and “community development.” To most people, this might not appear to be a serious indiscretion, but the two concepts are not entirely interchangeable. 

Not understanding the difference between the two notions can be costly in time, financial resources, and has the potential to obfuscate the real issues in a community. In small rural towns like Rushville, Illinois, those are resources that can’t afford to be squandered.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t alone. I had taken the same approach to community improvement programming as those who had served before me. Our lack of knowledge about community development made us ineffective leaders. 

Essentially, we left our practitioners to aimlessly fend for themselves, with little guidance and no clear goals. We had no real way to measure if what we were doing was having a meaningful impact, either economically or socially.

We produced new public works projects, but they were hardly transformative. Early in my first term as a mayor of Rushville, Illinois, I failed to create goals for community improvement.

My hope was, as we made improvements to the industrial park and pursued improving our downtown, entrepreneurship would increase with new and better jobs coming to the community. This period was the depth of the Great Recession and the economic development wasn’t occurring and economic growth wasn’t any better. There were no new business start-ups and new jobs weren’t coming to Rushville.

While I was pursuing my master’s degree, I became familiar with the Community Capitals Framework (CCF). The CCF is a holistic and systematic approach to community improvement and/or development. It was the tool I needed to help me make a clear distinctions between economic development and community development. 

Through the use of the CCF, I’m able to visualize outcomes and identify the data needed to measure progress towards achieving our goals. However, the real power of this tool is how it enables users to identify seven key capitals in a community. Human capital is one of the seven community capitals.

What Is Human Capital?

In its basic form, human capital reflects the investments individuals make in their education, training for employment, and health. As the level of human capital rises, productivity levels rise and individual earnings can increase. 

However, human capital isn’t limited to producing economic outcomes.This isn’t to say that human capital can’t be measured through quantitative or qualitative analysis. This capital is important to the strength and vitality of a community. 

Communities with strong human capital have leaders who are capable of reaching across differences and focus on assets and fellow influencers. The attributes of human capital include the individual qualities that help us participate in organizations and build our communities.

Avoiding Hegemony in Community Development

Avoiding the effects of hegemony in rural community development work (particularly in the Midwest) can be challenging. A lack of diversity within an organization or committee can have a limiting effect on the scope and breadth of development projects and whom the projects benefit. Frequently, this is reflected in the neighborhoods and projects we concentrate our efforts on and with whom we engage to assist us in our work. 

In metropolitan communities, hegemony often results in the gentrification of neighborhoods. However, we also see the effects of homogenous design features in rural communities. The cookie cutter approach used by some states in the creation of welcoming gateway signage into small towns gives the appearance of all small and rural towns being alike. Unfortunately, it fails to reflect the cultural uniqueness of a community.

The Dual Role of Human Capital in Community Development

Human capital plays two important roles in community development work. As an input, CD organizers rely upon the characteristics of human capital to build their teams. We weigh the needs of our organization against the assets of skills, knowledge, and capabilities of available talent to find the best fit and produce our desired outcomes.

As an output of our work, we often engage in projects that are aimed to improve the quality of life in our communities. Those improvements may include improving housing stock, providing healthcare services, or rallying behind supporting local schools.

An Example of the Dual Role of Human Capital in Community Development

In Rushville, our community development work was performed under our brand Energize Rushville. The initial focus of our work was to address affordable housing issues. 

Appropriately, the name of the first committee was The Rushville Housing Committee. The housing committee was comprised of eleven persons. Committee members were selected based on their skills in organizing and leadership. They were also selected for their subject matter expertise, including construction, finance, and education. 

Elected officials were deliberately excluded from committee membership, including myself. If the committee were to work in the spirt for which it was created, it needed to operate as a citizen’s committee and not an extension of local units of government and work with a diverse group of consultants and NGOs. 

The first work product was a publication of the results of a community housing needs assessment. Through the assessment, the committee identified deficiencies in the safety and quality of rental properties, a need for improving the stock of income-based and supportive housing options for senior citizens, and the need to improve access to local services, primarily assisting French speaking West African residents who immigrated to Rushville.

Many of the members were also engaged in community improvement projects with other organizations, including churches. Through their social capital ties, members were also bringing new ideas to the committee, expanding the committee’s sphere of influence. 

Those ideas included ways to facilitate the inclusion of our new West African community members and the creation of an annual community-wide wellness program, branded as Exercise Rushville. This program led to the recruitment of new participants. The newcomers have organized road races for runners and formed a community cycling group. 

In the thirteen years since its formation, the Rushville Housing Committee has transitioned into a community development team. They’ve also adopted a new name: “Grow Rushville.” 

The committee now has its own identity and its own goals. The success of this group is nothing short of remarkable. Its members have unleashed the power of human capital, which has enabled them to reproduce the social capital necessary to build new relationships. 

It resulted in achieving ambitious goals and creating new community assets that can be utilized by anyone. Later this year, the community will cut the ribbon on a new $6 million fitness and community center.

My next article will discuss the role of cultural capital in community development, using another example from Rushville, Illinois.

Scott Thompson is a labor market economist who lives in Iowa. He is the former mayor of Rushville, Illinois. Read Scott’s previous Daily Yonder columns. The opinions expressed in this column are his own.