RDI’s Acting Executive Director (and author of this article) Heidi Khokhar with USDA Rural Development Oregon State Director Vicki Walker at the Embracing Our Treasure conference in Ontario, Oregon.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Oregon-based nonprofit Rural Development Initiatives is offering a series of webinars on rural development “hot topics” this fall. The series launches September 21 with a session on rural housing and continues through December. More information is available at the RDI website. CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said the webinars are free. There is a charge of $25 per webinar, or $100 for all five, according to Rural Development Initiatives. Our apologies for the error.


As I drive these familiar winding roads throughout the state of Oregon and beyond to the rural communities I have been working in for almost two decades, I think about the work we are doing to advocate for and help elevate the voice of rural communities, about the issues facing rural places, and about the people I have come to know and love. As part of my work as acting executive director for Rural Development Initiatives (RDI), and as part of my work in the many roles I have played at RDI for the past 18 years, I often find myself far from home. Yet it seems like every town I visit in this great Northwest holds a special place in my heart, with a familiar face, a favorite coffee spot, or a great memory. These communities are several miles away, or hundreds of miles away, from my home, and yet they are my home away from home.

These people, these places, and these moments, when our interconnectedness is so apparent, are part of why I have dedicated my life to working in the field of rural vitality. Rural communities are under-represented and underserved, but RDI knows that rural communities and people matter. We are proud and privileged to be serving these communities—I am proud and privileged to be serving them.

Table Mountain in the Columbia River Gorge.
Table Mountain in the Columbia River Gorge.

People are the glue that holds our communities together, and investing in leaders and creating networks of positive and productive people who share a unique skillset is foundational for community and economic vitality. We offer training, not for the sake of training, but as a foundation for a theory of change — one which suggests that leadership development supports individuals in making changes that are important to them and empowers them to focus on their priorities. And this theory of change suggests that a foundation of leadership development strengthens community organizations, cultivates community development that is inclusive of all voices, supports individual and human development, and catalyzes economic development that works for all residents in the community—all resulting in community vitality.

We train community leaders so that, over time, the community has its own set of experts and is more self-sufficient, and we build the capacity of rural communities to define and achieve their own vision of vitality—helping local people address local problems. The economic landscape makes the most tangible shift when rural people move collectively to action, and this is the work that RDI has been focusing on these past 25 years.

So much work has been done and so much work still needs to be done. We continue to hear from communities about issues they are facing such as lack of affordable housing, youth outmigration, changing demographics, lower pace of job growth, and more. We provide services, resources, and tools to address some of these issues. One such resource is a series of webinars called Hot Topics. The series will connect participants virtually and bridge the distance between rural communities. These webinars feature a diverse group of experts who will share information, best practices, and success stories regarding programs and initiatives that are proving practical and effective for rural communities in order to stimulate thinking, discussion, and ideas for next steps. Webinar topics include the rural housing shortage, organizing for economic vitality, growing downtown businesses, accessing capital in rural communities, and retaining and growing young talent. Our Hot Topics webinars start September 21 and are open to anyone, anywhere. You can sign up for the webinars online.

We are continuing to fight to serve rural communities because rural communities are continuing to fight to make their own communities thrive.

Heidi Khokhar is acting executive director of Rural Development Initiatives, a nonprofit based in Eugene, Oregon, that helps communities in the Northwest strengthen rural economic vitality through leadership development.

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