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From the Desk: A transformational approach

Five years ago in March, Indiana University established the Center for Rural Engagement to create transformative university-rural community partnerships that improve Hoosier lives. Rooted in that early charge, the center has collaborated with more than 87 Indiana communities across 58 counties, engaging 33,700 residents in new and expanding initiatives.

Alongside the center, thousands of IU students and their faculty mentors have built a bridge that unites IU’s resources and rural communities’ visions for a stronger future for Indiana.

The center partners with communities to develop novel programs that address quality of place, health and wellness, and community resilience. Together with community leaders and residents, we use an asset-based approach to these projects that leverages the existing resources within communities.

This approach has led to remarkable and creative transformation of public spaces in Salem and Holland, Indiana, featuring locally inspired public art and park features designed by our partners at the Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture + Design. Now, Huntingburg has secured support to redesign a central alley to create a new gathering space and enhance local identity.

The town of Paoli leveraged the Hoosier Housing Ready Toolkit to expand its stock of attainable and desirable housing.

Daviess County followed its community health improvement planning process, which was conducted with a School of Public Health-Bloomington team, to secure $1 million from the U.S. Health and Resources Services Administration. The county will use the funding to increase substance-use-disorder peer-recovery services.

A local food-as-medicine initiative that started in collaboration with Lost River Market and Deli and IU Sustainable Food Systems Science gained support from the Indiana Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The initiative is now expanding across seven rural Indiana counties.

A positive impact on our state

For the past four months, my colleagues and I have been deeply involved in the IUB 2030 strategic planning process. This process has not only provided a chance to reflect on the many ways that IU Bloomington serves the state, but also to think about the distinctive impacts the center is having on Hoosiers’ lives:

  • The center matches students with professional opportunities, retaining talent in Indiana and providing students with the chance to contribute to the vitality of rural communities. Through our award-winning, community-engaged teaching initiative, Sustaining Hoosier Communities, hundreds of students connect with rural leaders and residents each year while working on community projects. These high-impact experiences are building professional pathways for our students here at home.
  • The center is at the forefront of developing innovative approaches to rural health and well-being that have a positive impact on Indiana communities and can be replicated across the nation. Our work begins in Indiana’s rural communities, but our impact extends to the world. Through programs like the Trauma-Informed Care Certificate, developed with the School of Social Work and the School of Public Health-Bloomington, we are reaching professionals across the U.S. and empowering them with an understanding of trauma, the way it affects individuals, and approaches communities can take to reduce further harm.
  • The center is helping IU Bloomington transform into a university that is more deeply engaged in the community. The center exemplifies Indiana University’s mission to create, disseminate, preserve and apply knowledge to meet the educational, service and research needs here in Indiana and internationally.

A bright future

The center continues to actively pursue strategic partnerships to expand and enhance our most successful initiatives. These partnerships, and the funding they attract, increase our capacity to continue our work well beyond the center’s foundational grant. We know there is a need for trusted organizations to work side by side with rural community leaders, and we continue to receive interest from state, federal and philanthropic organizations seeking partnerships to grow rurally focused collaborations.

Together with the School of Social Work and supported by the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs, Hoosiers now have access to free mental well-being appointments in six libraries and faith organizations across Indiana. Creative Arts for Vets, which supports mental health and well-being for veterans, active-duty service members and their families, has expanded thanks to support from the Indiana Department of Health and veterans’ organizations.

The new Resilience Funding Hub, formed with our partners at the Environmental Resilience Institute, has garnered support from private funders and will expand capacity in communities to attract and secure funding and grants. The center is a key partner in the Hoosier Enduring Legacy Program, a major state initiative to help communities and their strategic planning processes make the most of the American Rescue Plan funding they received in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The center has facilitated more than $16 million in external funding to support rural vitality since its launch in 2018. This increasing public and private funding support is a demonstration of trust and faith in Indiana University and Indiana’s rural communities.

Our successes are a testament to Indiana University’s commitment to the Hoosier state and its support of thriving rural communities everywhere. With five years of remarkable collaborations built upon IU’s 200-plus years of service, the Center for Rural Engagement, its partners and its supporters are creating a brighter future together.

Kerry Thomson is executive director of the Center for Rural Engagement.