Skip to main content

SDSU Extension Community Vitality built on foundation of empowering people

About six people sit around a table in a community room with notebooks and pens
Tripp was one of the communities that participated in Horizons, the foundation of SDSU Extension's Community Vitality capstone. (SDSU Extension photo)

Twenty years ago, SDSU Extension did not have community development as a formal area of expertise. That began to change in 2004 when SDSU Extension Director Karla Trautman, then a program leader, started discussing the potential of community development as a capstone. 

Then the phone rang. The Northwest Area Foundation in St. Paul, Minnesota, wanted to partner with SDSU Extension on a new program called Horizons. 

Now a full-fledged capstone within SDSU Extension, community development – since renamed Community Vitality – has evolved and grown in the last 20 years. Both Trautman and Kari O’Neill, SDSU Extension Community Vitality Program Manager, agree the community work they did through Horizons laid the foundation for what would become a successfully thriving SDSU Extension Community Vitality program. 

“Even for tiny communities that went through Horizons, they still use those processes,” O’Neill said. “We left something there that they can still use on their own.”

Over three rounds that each lasted 18 months, SDSU Extension worked with 38 South Dakota communities through Horizons, which challenged rural community members to address poverty and leadership development. Communities took part in small group discussions, study circles, leadership training, visioning and strategic planning and had to meet goals throughout the process.

“It was very intense,” said O’Neill. “It was a multi-faceted program that took a lot of commitment from communities. But it was game-changing for all of us that were involved in it.”

Those experiences helped Community Vitality build some of its signature programs like Marketing Hometown America, the Building Highly Effective Boards curriculum, strategic planning for communities and the annual Energize! conference. All of them are rooted in the same philosophy of helping communities build their own capacity to handle challenges and thrive. 

“That’s our job to help communities build sustainability to carry on the work after we’re gone,” Trautman said. “That’s what Horizons did for us. It was a way for us to engage communities, build resources and define how we want to do business.”

“[Horizons] was very intense. It was a multi-faceted program that took a lot of commitment from communities. But it was game-changing for all of us that were involved in it."

— Kari O'Neill, SDSU Extension Community Vitality Program Manager
A man looks forward and a woman next to him looks at him
Wagner is one of the South Dakota communities that participated in Horizons, the program that helped launch SDSU Extension Community Vitality. (SDSU Extension photo)

Like Horizons, Marketing Hometown America starts with trying to get as many community members involved as possible. Facilitators help community members identify their strengths and weaknesses, pinpoint goals and aspirations, and designate people to champion projects. O’Neill said sometimes helping community members shift their mindset from “we can’t do that” to “yes we can” is all it takes to unlock a new momentum.    

Nine communities have gone through the Marketing Hometown America program since it started in 2016. One of them is Martin, a community of about 1,100 people in southwestern South Dakota. 

As Martin went through Marketing Hometown America it undertook a citywide rebranding effort called Revitalizing Martin. Using sunflowers as their inspiration, the community painted a sunflower on the water tower and is working on a sunflower festival. Community members are also trying to improve safety along Highway 18, the town’s main thoroughfare. 

O’Neill and her team also developed the Building Highly Effective Boards curriculum, which teaches South Dakota board members how to thrive in their roles through specialized training. 

Another hallmark Community Vitality program is the Energize! conference, an annual event designed to invigorate and showcase South Dakota communities with fewer than 5,000 people. The premise is simple, but unique: rather than inviting small community leaders to gather at a larger city hub, Energize! is held in small communities like Lemmon or Wessington Springs. 

It’s a valuable time for community leaders from across the state to network, hear success stories from other similarly sized communities and, importantly, provides the host communities a chance to shine. Trautman said having smaller communities host the conference makes it deeply organic and infuses everyone who attends with hope for their own efforts. 

Also propelled by post-Horizons momentum, early community development efforts gathered survey results showing South Dakotans were interested in learning more about local foods initiatives and tourism. Today, SDSU Extension is an active partner in both areas. One of O’Neill’s favorite projects was the Dakota Fresh Food Hub, a farmer-owned collective created in 2016 to help producers market their products directly. 

“The food hub was a really new idea in South Dakota and required collaboration with many different groups,” O’Neill said. “I love work like that. Any time I can meet new people who are passionate about what they’re doing, it makes me excited to give them more resources that might help them.”

Partnering with other organizations and agencies across South Dakota has been key to Community Vitality’s success, as has working closely with Extension professionals in neighboring states. Developing and maintaining those relationships also helps position SDSU Extension to connect people with the right expert or resource at the right time.

“Sometimes we’re the expert in front of the room and sometimes we’re the connector, the facilitator,” Trautman said. “We do have the expertise in bringing the community together.”

As Community Vitality approaches 20 years of helping South Dakota communities thrive, O’Neill and Trautman said they are proud of the work that’s been done and are excited to see those efforts continue in the future. 

“I’m really proud of the team that we’ve created, the expertise we’ve created and their commitment to that foundation to how we do community vitality work,” Trautman said. “We worked hard to build that foundation, and I think we hit the right formula.”