Health on the Plains: Episode 8, Sustaining rural culture with the Kansas Sampler Foundation

50 Min Read

Mar 18, 2024


Wyatt J. Beckman, M.P.H.
Photo of Marci Penner and Sarah Green, co-directors of the Kansas Sampler Foundation


On Episode 8, host Wyatt Beckman take listeners to Inman, Kansas, to visit with Marci Penner and Sarah Green, co-directors of the Kansas Sampler Foundation, to learn how the foundation is working to sustain rural culture by promoting communities and resources that highlight the unique stories of Kansans.

Episode Highlights: 

  • 1:37 – 5:19: Wyatt introduces Marci Penner and Sarah Green, who co-direct the Kansas Sampler Foundation, a nonprofit committed to serving and supporting rural communities in Kansas. They talk about the foundation’s history and mission.
  • 5:20 – 10:13: They discuss the eight elements of rural culture in Kansas, including architecture, art, commerce, cuisine, customs, geography, history, and people.
  • 10:14 – 25:44: They discuss the Power Up Movement, which aims to empower young people in rural communities to realize their potential to make their rural community a better place through ongoing efforts.
  • 25:45 – 44:22: They discuss the unique aspects of small towns in Kansas, including their volunteer-led nature and the impact this has on the community.
  • 44:23 – 51:19:They emphasize the importance of reframing negative experiences, such as losing a school, to move forward and build a healthy community.
  • 51:20 – 53:01: They touch on people living in poverty in rural communities.
  • 53:02 – 59:35: Marci and Sarah share stories of visiting rural Kansas communities.

Full Transcript

Voice over  0:00 

This is Health on the Plains, a podcast about rural communities, rural life and the many factors influencing the health and well-being of rural Kansans. Health on the Plains is a podcast from the Kansas Health Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization, committed to informing policy and improving health in Kansas. Through honest nuanced conversations with leaders and doers from a variety of backgrounds. The Health on the Plains podcast offers unique insights into real health challenges in Kansas and shines a light on the people and organizations working to make their communities healthier, more vibrant places to call home.

Wyatt Beckman 0:41

Welcome back to another episode of Health on the Plains. We are here, in the country outside of Inman, Kansas, and we are at the offices and event space of the Kansas Sampler Foundation. We just wrapped up a wonderful conversation with our co-director Sarah Green and Marci Penner. We talk some about the history of the Kansas Sampler Foundation, the work they do to shift how we think about and how we view our rural communities to empower, especially those small rural communities and the young adults that are rural by choice that live there and want to want to see those communities thrive. It’s a really wide-ranging conversation that really gets into some of the key challenges, opportunities and values embedded in in engaging work to make thriving rural communities here in Kansas. I hope you enjoy.

Welcome back to another episode of Health on the Plains. I’m your host Wyatt Beckman. Today, we are just outside Inman, Kansas. And for this episode, we have two wonderful guests, Marci Penner and Sarah Green. Marci and Sarah are co-directors of the Kansas Sampler Foundation, which is where we’re at right now. Marci has been with the foundation since its founding. And the space we sit in today is built on on the Penner family farm. In 2023, Sarah joined, and Marci and Sarah became co-directors. And Sarah joined with two decades of work and experiences in public service journalism, consulting, all right here in Kansas. The Kansas Sampler Foundation is a public nonprofit organization that is committed to serving and supporting rural communities with a goal to keep every town viable, that shows the will and spirit to help itself. As some of the recognizable work, the Kansas Sampler Foundation does includes the Kansas Explorers Club, the Kansas Guidebook, the Big Kansas Road Trip, the Eight Wonders of Kansas and the Big Rural Brainstorm. There’s a lot for us to dive in today. And we’re super excited to have you both on the podcast. Thank you both for joining us.

Marci Penner 2:58

Great to be with you.

Wyatt Beckman 3:00

So the roots of the Kansas Sampler Foundation go back to the summer of 1990, and a road trip that you took with your father. So for those that are a little less familiar. Can you tell us a little bit about the history of the Kansas Sampler Foundation?

Marci Penner 3:18

Yeah, I had just moved back to Kansas and Dad and I decided to travel the state to see what we would see. He had written some coffee-table photo-essay books, and people would say, “How do you get to those places.” So we went out, but it was it was this road trip that led to all that’s happening today, because we met people in their place, and we listened. And then people started asking us to do programs after the guidebooks came out. So we got to deal with the audience, as well as the people in rural communities. And it led to a nonprofit to educate Kansans about Kansas, because they didn’t know their own state very well. But also to network and support rural communities. Back then, without social media and other things, it was harder to share success avenues. So that’s what, that’s how it started.

Wyatt Beckman 4:24

And now it’s grown into this great organization that’s been around for 30 years. You recently just celebrated 30 year anniversary?

Marci Penner 4:33

We did. Which would be 1993 as a start. So those first early years were just Dad and I doing Dad and I things.

Wyatt Beckman 4:42

Well, that’s wonderful. Thanks for the little bit of the history work. We’re going to talk a lot about the work you do and the approach to the work you do because you have lots of different programs and efforts. And I want to start sort of with with what you have built into your mission. You say that the mission is to preserve and sustain rural culture by educating Kansans about Kansas, as you said, and networking to support rural communities. So how do you think about rural culture? What does that mean to you into the work?

Marci Penner 5:20

It means something very specific to us. So Dad and I would go around and would say, what do you have in your town that we could put in a guidebook. They would say, we don’t have anything go to the next town. So we came up with these eight things that every town has, even if there’s no evidence left, they have a story to tell. And these eight elements in combination are what we call rural culture. So in alphabetical order, their architecture, art, commerce, cuisine, customs, geography, history and people. So when you go into a town, you can, like architecture is what are the buildings look like. In a city, you know, you’ve got the limestone, and in Atchison, it’s more red brick. And those categories help you think about how towns are different and the same. But we get to frame our work around those eight different categories. So that’s really every aspect of rural. So that that has given us permission to work with everything from preservation and restoration to art, to supporting grocery stores and restaurants. And it helped broaden our view and our work.

Wyatt Beckman 6:40

That’s awesome. And you rattled them off. You probably have them mem…

Marci Penner 6:46

I’ve said them few times.

Wyatt Beckman 6:47

Yeah. And we have, are those connected to the eight wonders?

Marci Penner 6:51

They’re exactly that. So you do know that it used to be the seven wonders of the world, that we decided to do the eight wonders of Kansas, and in a way to educate Kansans. So we did a campaign for each element on its own, and did contests and led to a guide book. And I think it did. You know, now people don’t even know we did the eight wonders. It’s just sort of in the fabric of Kansas that we have the eight wonders of Kansas.

Wyatt Beckman 7:22

Yeah, and I grew up in Ness City. And we have one of the eight wonders of architecture of architecture, specifically, our old bank building, a beautiful limestone building. And I remember a certain point, when I learned about the eight wonders. It did make me think about, you know, this was a pretty unique thing that I, in a lot of ways, took for granted as a kid. It was just, it was the big building downtown. It was where we had prom on the third floor. But I don’t know that I appreciated it the way the way I could have. It seems like part of the work of the eight wonders, but even the work more broadly of the foundation, is to help people appreciate what we have in Kansas, and especially what we have in those rural communities where we might, we might be inclined to first think about what we don’t have. Right. Do you think do you think that that’s important? That’s an important shift to facilitate a lot of the sustainability and the idea of building communities for the future is how they see themselves?

Marci Penner 8:33

Absolutely. I mean, how can a town like itself, which we hope a community of the future does, if they don’t, aren’t proud of who they are and what they have. And in the case of what you just said, you sometimes don’t see what’s under your own nose until it gets put into a context of this is special, and people are coming to see it. And I think it we just need those nudges, especially in Kansas that gets a bad rap about what we don’t, have who we aren’t.

Sarah Green 9:11

Well, so we even have a whole program area called Seeing Kansas with New Eyes, and we could have called it something else. But we picked that name on purpose because this idea that there are things to see that are worthy, that are beautiful, but maybe they need a nudge or somebody from the outside coming in and being like, that is amazing. And we get to do that.

Marci Penner 9:40

I just want to add that all of this helps show that people care about rural. I think that’s the bottom line. See it with new eyes. Don’t just use the, think about the stereotype or what people joke about. We want people to know that they should care about rural. Even the people that live there. And then you got the urban. But if you don’t share the story and all the nuances, how would you care about something? You have to make the case.

Wyatt Beckman 10:14

Absolutely. And it’s interesting. And I think this is true that when we talk about how we might have some misperceptions or think about rural communities, sometimes that’s framed as how people that don’t live in rural communities view rural communities, but it can also include how folks inside of our own communities view themselves. It sounds like that can be just as important for facilitating the work to improve those communities is that you, and you can, I would think you can do both at the same time, you can say we have great things here. And we want to make it better. And then sometimes you need the first to be willing to work on the second. So I want to hear some about the some of your key program areas. And there, you have four key program areas. And one of them really centers around young people. And you started a project and an effort that you called the Power Up movement, and you define Power Ups as individuals aged 21 to 39, who are rural by choice. So they’re choosing to be in their communities in those rural places. So why the focus on rural? Or why the focus on young people in rural communities, why are they so important?

Marci Penner 11:41

On my guidebook, one journey to every town in the state in the early 2000s. This is a great thing about actually being out there, I noticed that it became a trend that in the towns where I met young people that were either leaders or in businesses, that town had a different energy. And it became true across the state. And as I traveled, I remembered who they were. And after the journey, it seemed like, okay, this is something, let’s bring some of those folks together and see what they think. And I forgot what year it was, maybe 12 or 15 years ago, but they got together. And they they started to talk about all these things that were true for each of them, like some of them had moved back by choice after being gone, having an education. The people in the town made them feel like they were losers. Why did you have to move back? What are you doing here in a town like this? It was their choice. But that’s the reception they got, or they wanted to make a difference in their town. And some time the older leaders don’t let you do that. And that that was a common theme, or they wanted to meet other young people with that same passion for living rural. So we decided to call it something. We gave them the name, the Power Ups, and started bringing more and more together. And magical things started to happen, which we can do a whole podcast on the road meeting that happened and how we brought these people forward at conferences we did, but it was goosebumpling. Once that group was identified as a valuable part of rural that had been invisible. And our goal, not just us, but the group. Realize that if we could elevate, empower, engage these power ups, we could make rural a better place. And it’s an ongoing process. It’s not easy. Do you want to add anything to that?

Sarah Green 14:13

It’s taking. It’s so interesting. So we talked about the journey. Everything is a journey. Rural Kansas is a journey. The Power Up movement is definitely a journey. It started as, it’s very loose. There are tenants in there, there’s a structure to it. But over time, I always sort of thought, before I aged out of being a Power Up, I always thought it was almost like a chamber of commerce, but not located in a city, but all of a sudden you had connections for support, for jobs. Is there somebody who’s a web designer? Is there are somebody who does T shirts? You know, like, who do I know? They don’t have to be in my town. Or maybe I know that person in my town, but I, you know, I can’t work with them for whatever reason, but I have this other person I can. And so the network component of it is the magical piece.

Marci Penner 15:18

And you became friends.

Sarah Green 15:20

Oh, yes.

Marci Penner 15:21

You know, it wasn’t just work. It was like,

Sarah Green 15:24

I always say, once I got in with the Power Ups, I never sat in a meeting alone again. It’s special. And it’s like, we went out, we all, some of us still get, we still get together. We went somewhere. And somebody was like, “Oh, I’m from Tribune.” “I’m from Abilene.” You know, just say where they were from. And people are always like, do you, how do y’all know each other, it was just like a family reunion. But it is. It’s one of the really the strongest groups that maybe you met through your job. But it’s not like a conference or a, you know, something that’s so focused on your job. It’s like seeing people for what you do, but more who you are.

Wyatt Beckman 16:18

There’s so many interesting things I can, I can pull on in that net. One that stands out is we talked about earlier, the influence and the importance of how communities see themselves. And when you started talking about the history of it, talked about that experience that folks that are these Power Ups can sometimes feel when they move back, and how it’s seen as sort of, well, you tried to have the bigger better, and now you’re back. And it sounds like that could feel kind of isolated, for overall, a young Power Up that’s in this early career age group that made the choice to come back to feel like they’re seen as sort of giving up or choosing an easier route, or whatever that misperception can be. And I think sounds like all the work tries to chip away at those perceptions of how you view themselves. But even while that’s happening, connecting these folks can help it not feel so, so isolating. And you can you can learn and swap stories and you can share experiences and figure out how to advance the work. So it sounds like there, I can see how there would be an immense value, even if you’re the only one in your community and connecting with someone else that has some of that similar experience.

Sarah Green 17:47

And then think about it. If a person is moving back. Young, young been pretty subjective and relative, but like say they went to Chicago or Dallas or wherever, from a rural community. And then they’re moving back. They’re getting it from both ways, right? Like, no one is like, “Good for you.” The people from the city where they lived are often like, “Why would you do that to yourself?” And then the people from their hometown or wherever the community is, “Why are you here?”

Marci Penner 18:19

“You couldn’t make it?”

Sarah Green 18:20

Yeah. So you’re overcoming a lot to even make that choice, even if it’s one you want. And we know people do want it as a choice.

Wyatt Beckman 18:31

What a great insight that, yeah, that perception comes from both, can come from both sides. And so, having the ability to turn, even if it’s virtually sometimes, to turn and lean on someone and say, “This is worth it, this is great. We’re going to overcome some of these challenges together, and how did you respond to this person when they asked you this sort of question?” That can help that person stay engaged and keep going.

Marci Penner 19:02

I mean, just think about all those people from Chicago or wherever, getting together and seeing a group that all had the same feeling that somehow we’re all meant something to them. And this group, they all understood each other. So they, you know, they finally felt valued and validated and, and seen. And then that group sort of acted as a block of promotion for rural. Like the legislators, they wanted to a legislative caucus. And, you know, I mean, so many things out of that, that were, not just nice, but important, impactful, changing lives.

Wyatt Beckman 19:49

Absolutely. And I and I want to I want to connect that to one of the pieces that that seems to have come out of this work and and that’s the collaboration you had with the Office for Rural Prosperity to get some of this, you know, in a report and take it to another level. And in 2021, you talked with, interviewed, 175 of these folks in this age group from all 105 counties, and you put it together in a great report that identified a lot of those challenges that some of these folks are encountering, and some of the successes and ways that communities are supporting them. And there are a ton of great insights in that report. But one thing, one thing stood out to me that I wanted to ask you about, there was a quote that you pulled out from all of the things you heard as an example that you wanted to highlight. And it was from one of the participants and the quote is, “All I want is a salad with some nice lettuce and soft serve ice cream for my kids.” So why out of all the things you heard was that the quote thats…

Marci Penner 20:58

Well it, to me, it symbolized we don’t need everything. I don’t need this town to have entertainment venues and nice restaurants. All I want is some fresh lettuce and soft serve ice cream. So it was, it was just sort of like, I can deal with everything. All the things we don’t have. I just want some simple things. And that symbolizes to me what I heard from many of those 175 that it’s okay not to have everything Chicago has because I’m choosing this, I want this. But some simple things are on my mind.

Wyatt Beckman 21:43

I sometimes think that, along those lines, when we talk about rural communities and rural towns, we don’t want them to just be smaller versions of cities. And I think sometimes when we talk about improving our rural communities, our entry into the conversation is like how do we take everything in a big city and just downsize it and put in a rural community. And I don’t think that’s what, it sounds like when you talk to folks in these rural communities, that’s not what they want. They don’t want their rural community to be those other places. They want it to be what it is, and, and part of the Eight Wonders work and some of the other work is helping identify and celebrate the unique things in those communities.

Sarah Green 22:28

It’s very surprising, what is really on people’s minds. We went to a town over the summer, they have a cafe called like, I would say, co-located in a gas station and convenience store. So it’s the grocery store, it’s the cafe, it’s the coffee shop, it’s everything. And so we’re going through town and just looking for people to talk to. We stopped in and talked to some people who lived there. And even in this small group of the two, two or three people, kind of in and out of this conversation. The way they saw their community was very different, depending on all of their like, lived experience. But when we said, you know what, what is this town need? A splash pad, a splash pad, because the kids needed a place to go in the summer to cool off. No swimming pool…

Marci Penner 23:28

They didn’t really have any businesses even.

Sarah Green 23:31

No, no. But that was it. And that’s it. That’s achievable. Yeah, we can, we can do that.

Marci Penner 23:39

And do you think that was because they wanted the sense of community?

Sarah Green 23:42


Marci Penner 23:43

From that? Not, we can go somewhere else to buy clothing or groceries.

Sarah Green 23:48

Where are you going, doing our errands and wherever.

Marci Penner 23:50

But a splashpad.

Sarah Green 23:52

Yeah. And then just thinking about like, they have all the infrastructure needed. If they could get the, you know, actual technical place set up. The kids are already riding their bikes all over the place. They’re, you know, they’re, they have enough ways to access it. They would probably not put it on the other side of the highway. You know, there’s space in town. Like all of these barriers that other places are trying to figure out how to overcome. They don’t exist. There. It’s all, it’s ready.

Wyatt Beckman 24:28

What I hear in that, too. That’s a great, great little example. I would bet that in a lot of situations, if we would take that same town, and we would take a group of folks that are not from that community, and maybe from another side of the state or from another place and we take them to that town and we take a look at this town and what does it need? That’s probably not what they what they’re going to come up with. And it just emphasizes the immense value and importance of listening to the folks in the community and creating ways for them to identify and work collectively to achieve some of the challenges that they identify in their priorities. And those often look different than what we might think from the outside,

Marci Penner 25:19

What you can’t see when you drive through that town is that the community likes itself. You know, you can’t see that. So if you’re like, you suggest someone from somewhere else drives through, they go, “I don’t want to live here.” But the people that live there, they love living there, because they’re, they do things for each other. And sometimes it’s the things you can’t see that really make a town a community.

Wyatt Beckman 25:45

Absolutely. And I want to ask about another one of your project areas that that I think builds on. And it seems to focus, in particular, on some of the communities like that that are particularly small. And you have an area that is focused on the idea of connecting, and that’s broadly, connections for lots of communities. But then that area focus on those communities, less than 1,500 people, places like Inman, that we drove through on the way here. Places like Ness City, where I’m from. And it turns out that Kansas has a lot of those places, a lot of those communities. I looked at Census data, the most recent 2022 estimates, and of the 626 incorporated places in Kansas, 143 have a population of 1,500 or more. So that’s only 2e%. So said another way, 77% of the cities in Kansas, those incorporated places that are recognized by the state and by the Census, have fewer than 1,500 people. That’s a lot of places. And no, like most adages and generalizations, there’s ideas that we say, you know, small town, everyone knows everyone. And I think that’s an over-generalization. But there’s some truth in it. But one thing that you pointed out that just not the idea that everyone knows everyone, but is maybe a hidden piece, in what the fabric of those communities is, is that their volunteer led. And that tell me what that means and how that shapes some of the work they do. Because I think that’s another example of something that someone driving through might go small town, I bet they all know each other, and have some thoughts about what that means. But they might not think about the impact of this volunteer-led piece. So what does that mean?

Marci Penner 27:48

So we’re talking like over 470 towns that are volunteer led, the vast majority of them do not have a paid city manager, chamber, eco devo. To sustain a small town is hard enough, but to put that on the backs of volunteers who aren’t trained to do that, who maybe never went to college, maybe never left the town. It’s on them to figure out how to keep the water, the sewer, all these things. It’s really difficult. And when Dad and I started, we realized that that group wasn’t being recognized as for their care, special characteristics, they were more looked at, as well, it wouldn’t hurt if we lost that town. Or that town doesn’t matter that much. They didn’t have an identity, they didn’t have the respect that they deserve for trying to stay alive. And your opening comment was that we support communities that have the will and gumption. So there are some towns in that grouping, who don’t care. In fact, one town wanted to unincorporate, and they couldn’t even get enough of a quorum together to vote themselves into uncorporation. So we weren’t going to put our efforts into a town like that. But it has nothing to do with population in terms of which towns care about themselves enough. And it goes in cycles, people die, people come in. And when we find a town full of community doers that love their town, and they want to have dreams and goals, man, we’re there for them.

Sarah Green 29:50

And I think that’s another really important piece of this. There’s a, we talk a lot about capacity in rural communities and that means a lot of different things. But if if there isn’t a person whose job it is to be in charge of the town, but maybe that’s shared across quite a few people. There’s also not always someone, they’re working on today’s stuff. How do we get a new electric grid? How are we going to fund our fill in the blank? Like how do we keep our parks mowed? Whatever it is, that’s their work, what whether or not they’re compensated for it, that’s their work, they’re maxed out. And they may not be thinking about the future, it’s no one’s job in town to be like, “Okay, here’s where we are today. I think we could go somewhere.” That person, we want to find that person. And in it, you don’t know if that person exists, when you drive in to a place, you had to do some poking around to find them. But it’s, it’s a consequence of just the structure of how communities function sometimes.

Wyatt Beckman 31:09

And that volunteer wood piece really is a neat way of capturing that combination of factors and like, you drive into one of those communities, and there’s not you can’t point to the office place where the the planning commission that’s thinking about, that’s putting drafting the 2040 city plan together, there’s there’s no office, there’s no person. And so that work, if it if someone is interested in doing it, falls on their their free time, or their volunteer time, where it’s a combination of us are trying to work together and piece this together. And, and that, that can be really challenging, I can imagine. And so part of the work that you all try to do is connect and support those folks,

Marci Penner 31:59

Especially, especially, all of our programs are designed for the volunteer led communities, if others want to. But with your policy work, I think another thing that’s important to hear is that, like if the Office of Rural Prosperity has a grant, but there’s no email that stays steady, year after year, because it changes from volunteer to volunteer, they don’t always get the information. And so you might not get the data, you’re looking at their policy people made. These towns may not get the information, they may or might not know there’s help out there for them. So I think I mean, still today, if you go on the League of Kansas Municipalities, you’ll see smaller towns that don’t even, you can’t email, there’s no email. There’s, it’s hard to contact them. So we’re looking for contacts in every town.

Wyatt Beckman 32:59

And even if there is a contact person, yeah, there’s, I think in the context of a local hospital or local health department or EMS agency that EMS in a lot of these small communities is volunteer led, as well, or volunteer service. So all the folks that are doing it, have other jobs, that that’s the they have other full-time jobs, and they do the service on top of it. They might, even in cases where they hear about this opportunity, there’s this funding that that we could apply for, it’s a hard ask to take to further sort of eat into what little free available time you have to find the resources and to apply for that that grant opportunity.

Sarah Green 33:45

So, especially in public health, there is often a big focus on a multi-sector approach. Guess what, rural Kansas is a multi-sector approach. However, it’s not just that the housing person and the economic development person and the health department person, they are this actually the same person. And it turns out that it, maybe by default, maybe by choice, maybe by being voluntold for the work. And also, it’s very difficult when one person is doing all of those things. So even that shift and understanding how that work looks is really important.

Wyatt Beckman 34:34

So when we, or organizations, we as like a state, a collective state are trying to think about supporting rural communities that have the will and the gumption to help themselves. There’s can still be things that we could be cognizant of in how we design those opportunities and the requirements we put on those opportunities and how those are accessible or not accessible for small, particularly small community is where the one person might be wearing multiple hats and not have a formal grant-writing background, doesn’t mean they couldn’t be really successful in the project. But the way you maybe receive the money is can be a barrier, the application.

Marci Penner 35:13

That’s so true, but we do see efforts. We see this rural issues, volunteer-led community issues, being better understood and efforts being made. It’s just, it’s just so complex in the simplicity of it all.

Wyatt Beckman 35:34

So I want to I want to talk about something that you have a great visual cue for here, which was unprompted. Unplanned but you are wearing a shirt?

Marci Penner 35:49

Oh, yeah. I just happened to wear it.

Wyatt Beckman 35:50

So, we’re talking about some of the program areas. But underneath all the work you do, there’s some common threads, there’s some common values. And we’ve talked about some of those already. One of the values that you have is that rural is not less than, and you think so much of that value that you even put it on a shirt. So can you tell me a little bit about that value? And how that shows up in the different work in the different program areas?

Marci Penner 36:19

Yeah, first of all, you’ll be interested to know it was your board member, Christy Hopkins, that came up with this. What, she was one of our core Power Up people. And one day, she just said, “You know, rural is not less than,” and we all go, “That needs to be a shirt.” But it’s that rallying cry, you just got to kind of get worked up about it. And, you know, we, those of us who work rural sometime need to get a little fired up that we believe that and we may be bucking the trend or what the majority think, but, and we know there’s warts, so don’t mistake that we think rural is all awesome. I think it has so much potential. But it is not less than. Right?

Sarah Green 37:13

Right! She also came up with the corollary phrase, “Rural Kansas just need some swagger.”

Marci Penner 37:19

Yeah. So that can, we need a shirt.

Sarah Green 37:22

We probably do.

Wyatt Beckman 37:23

That could be a shirt to and and that’s great. I think the shirt, this shirt is fun. And what a fun connection that that came from Christy, who’s wonderful. And is one of our board members from out in Tribune, in western Kansas. One of the other program areas that you all have that shifts us from some of the work that you’ve been doing, and we talk some about the history, but it’s really forward focused, is this idea of building thriving communities. And you just mentioned this value, that at least starting from the perspective of rural, it’s not less than. But there are challenges, there are gaps, there are things that we can improve, there are words you could say. So when you think about that program area and the work and building thriving communities, what are some of the ingredients that we need in thriving communities and where maybe we need to do some work to find more of those ingredients or build those.

Marci Penner 38:24

Let me set you up for this.

Sarah Green 38:26


Marci Penner 38:27

So there’s all these efforts to recruit people to rural. But our concern is, once they get there, will they’d be happy. And we think that what we heard from those 175 interviewees helped us explain what a community of the future might look like, that people who move there would find appealing. And some of those elements are.

Sarah Green 38:56

Our shorthand way to talk about it is, “Does this place like itself?” Any effort to get anyone back or to a rural community has to keep that in mind if it’s going to be successful. Do you want to live in a place that doesn’t like itself? Do you want to live in a place where people are like, “Oh, don’t move here? Because it’s not great.” The Power Up and Go report had two sections. One was policy recommendations for the most part, but the second part lifted up this idea that those things are important. Child care is important. Broadband is important. But how people are welcomed, how people feel like they belong, how they can contribute, how they’re not seen as fresh meat when they come in, and it’s like, great, you’re here. The church has a committee. The city has a committee. You can be in our Rotary club. You can, you know, it’s, it sounds welcoming, but it can also be really overwhelming. So it’s the idea that these communities are diverse in culture, in thought, in how they treat one another. These are things that cost $0, it turns out. These are things that have everything to do with how you show up, how you keep welcoming someone, whether it’s year one, year five, year 25. A lot of places where there isn’t a lot of turnover. I have a friend in western Kansas, who is still new in town, and she’s lived there for like 25 years at this point. And she’s, they still say, “Well, you’re not from around here.” Because they know and, and she, she will always be othered. It, she has made huge contributions to this place. Enormous. And she’s not from there.

Marci Penner 41:06

So young people want inclusive, inclusivity, they want to see the community investing  in itself. It’s just like, they want community, they don’t want factions, they don’t want someone up there telling them how to do it. And it’s hard. But until you suggest that these things can exist, or you should think about them, our conference coming up is the theme is creating communities of the future. So we’re going to be sharing about all these elements that don’t cost.

Sarah Green 41:41

And really, something we’re trying to think about is just like the most basic action items, like maybe you can’t see yourself in, you know, like recruiting a business to town, but you like to have people over for dinner. You know, you have a role. It doesn’t matter how old you are, doesn’t matter how long you’ve lived there. And in fact, probably better if you’ve lived there a long time, you have a lot of power. What are you doing with it? And then how can you help others have more of that power too?

Wyatt Beckman 42:20

That, 25, being in a community for 25 years and still being being perceived as sort of that not from here, is sticking with me. And I think about the to connect it to some some common challenges we know in, in sort of the public health health care space. One of those things is recruiting a physician. If you are lucky enough to have someone that you’re recruiting that used to be from there, you’re running into some of the challenges we talked about earlier. Oh, you couldn’t make it in Chicago. So you came back, you decide to be a family doc here. But if you’re not one of those communities that has a local kid that wants to come back, you might be trying to recruit someone that’s never lived there. And if that’s the feeling that they’re going to have the entire time they’re there, that that’s a challenge, and that that’s a barrier. And it probably makes keeping them there in the community for a long period of time more difficult.

Sarah Green 43:23

And think about that example too, a physician in a small town comes in at a certain level of authority just because of their job. People know them, you know, people will be aware of them. Okay, so what if you’re not a physician, and you don’t have any authority, but you, you just you just want to live in a place where your kids can throw their bikes wherever they end up on the sidewalk of the down… you know, that you want, you want a certain place. And if you don’t have that authority, you might also have an even harder time. And I think that’s what is hard to see. It’s really like how do we help you feel like you belong?

Marci Penner 44:18

Belong, not just welcome.

Sarah Green 44:20


Marci Penner 44:21

But belong.

Wyatt Beckman 44:23

I sometimes have wondered where some of comes from for folks that have been in a community for a long time. And I think one thing that I have thought about is for a long time, and still in many communities, especially our rural communities. The story they’ve seen, and that they’ve experienced is one of loss. It’s our schools got consolidated, so we lost some history, our hospital left, our business that was here moved to the bigger town down the road. And so when, when get in that sort of experience, one reaction, I think, can be to hold on to everything you have, and to really want to protect it. And keep keep the history, keep the traditions. And I think that there can be positives to that reaction. But one thing I think it can sometimes lead into is this hesitancy for change, for newness, for different way of thinking. And is that something you’ve you’ve had? What does that sound like to you?

Marci Penner 45:43

Well, we have a rule, it’s called the reframe rule. And we talk about it at the first of every event we do. That we don’t want to hear you talk on and on about how you lost your school, let’s reframe that about what you can do now. Because to talk about those things, doesn’t get you anywhere, it just makes you mad, makes you angry, it makes you feel less than. So we’ve got to work hard, and it’s not easy to reframe it. I mean, it’s easy to feel like you’re getting picked on, when you lose your school and you don’t think you should have. And I get all that and there needs to be a grieving process. But you need those people in the community that have the strength to say this has happened. If we want to be a healthy community, how can we reframe and move on? And it’s, that’s what I mean about the complexity. Because they don’t have paid, there’s probably not a mental health clinic, there’s probably you know, that’s, it’s just got to be someone in the town that dares step up to buck all the negativity going on. And that’s not easy.

Sarah Green 47:05

And a lot of times it’s the Power Ups.

Marci Penner 47:07


Sarah Green 47:07

So our colleague, Simone Elder, we should also say, we, we believe in supporting this age group, we talked about how it’s a journey. Part of the journey now is that we have a staff person who has Power Up in her job title. And she is one, she has been one. She is, Simone is the Power Up. So she gets it, she lives it. And how they show up in this is really fascinating. Simone and I spoke to a group yesterday, and she and I talk a lot. I’m in a transition plan right now to, what do we pull forward while we’re creating this community of the future? It’s not throw everything out, at all, by any means. We like this stuff. I mean, we’re here for a reason, we’re choosing to live for a reason. It’s not just a wholesale, let’s get rid of it all and start from scratch. It’s how we honor the past. But see ourselves for who we are and who we can be. And putting, it’s putting those pieces together a lot of the time.

Marci Penner 48:27

You’re talking about our nonprofit, but you’re also talking about a community.

Sarah Green 48:31

Yes, well, yes.

Marci Penner 48:32

That transitions. Yeah, it’s a good analogy.

Wyatt Beckman 48:35

And that work, use the word complex, it’s, I think about the way we, at maybe a state level or a large organization level might view again, this from the outside looking in, how we might view helping or supporting a rural community, and the tendency to try to find that one thing they need that if they had the business or if they had the hospital if they had this and all those things can contribute. But the real work is sort of underneath that. It’s how you’re thinking about your community, how you’re building connections, how you’re thinking about the future, how you’re pulling in the good from the past and finding new ways to do it. And that that takes more time. And that has to be built on and involve the expertise and the lived experience of the folks right there in that community.

Marci Penner 49:30

Because you can’t come in and be an expert on, say, all the programs that have worked in a larger town, because of all the volunteer-led characteristics. So you first of all, you have to see that community for who it is, what it is. They want to feel like you see them. And now maybe if you can come talk to us about what we can do with our capacity. Maybe we can move it forward.

Sarah Green 50:00

You talked earlier about a big assumption, which is this is a small town. So everybody knows everyone else. Yes, you would maybe be surprised to know that we can be in a very small town and realize that people are not talking about

Marci Penner 50:18

They must not like each other that town.

Sarah Green 50:19


Wyatt Beckman 50:21

And I, yeah, it’s one of those assumptions that I hear. And I even hear when I tell people where I’m from. Sometimes the comment is, I don’t know if I could live there. And that’s usually followed by the everyone must have known everything that was going on. And like, there are relative things to this. But a lot of times I point out that, especially those committed leaders that are that are doing this work. Oftentimes, you’re so focused on trying to do the important work, you’re doing that, they’re busy, might not have time to know everyone, you might not have had time to go talk to the new family. And we sort of assume that just because there’s smaller people that things are simpler, or less complex, and there’s less going on. So and I think that’s a misconception that can sometimes get in the way in how we approach doing this work, is we assume that things are simple and less nuanced when they really aren’t.

Marci Penner 51:20

And then there’s the invisible people, the poverty. Immigrants that kind of tend to hide. So if your community doesn’t feel welcoming, they’re gonna be more hidden. And how well do you really know your neighbors? You know, do you spend time really getting to know them? Or just, we see that you have two trucks that don’t work anymore in the driveway, and we don’t like that. But why, you know, anyway? Yeah, there’s a stereotype isn’t there. We know everybody know, all the stuff that goes on.

Wyatt Beckman 52:01

So we’ve talked some about the challenges and some of the some of the misconceptions or some of these sorts of approaches that folks have that impact this work, I want to shift a little bit because I, I know you all, get the opportunity. And you, you talked before we actually got on camera that you’re doing some onboarding, and you get to do some very fun onboarding, where you get to visit all of those incorporated places.

Marci Penner 52:35

Every one.

Wyatt Beckman 52:37

Every single one in the state. And I can only imagine some of the fun stories and experiences you’ve had. Are there any that really stand out where maybe you went into a community for the first time and you went? Wow, I never would have thought in in this place that they’d have this wonderful thing or I’d meet this wonderful person. Is there any fun story like that, that you want to share?

Marci Penner 53:00

Do you want me to go?

Sarah Green 53:01

Yes, I do.

Marci Penner 53:02

So who would expect that a post office would be the mental health clinic, the social gathering place? But we’ll even say the town. We went into Little River. And we had visited around is going great. And then we decided to go the post office. And that place was crowded. We wanted to talk to the clerk, but the window, there were three stools there and little kids were on them. And it looked like they go every day. And Laurie had candy. You know, so they, but this was in the summer and one kid was like six, nine and 10. And the parents just say, go get our mail. They biked downtown. And then birthday people were coming in. And it was just kind of magical. But the post office, andthis post office clerk, was like the Welcome Wagon lady. I mean, she just put love out there. In another town. The post office was, there’s no other businesses. So the only people that more isolated people saw during the day would be the post office lady. And she would take time to hear their issues or hear a joke or make sure they were okay if they didn’t come in and we have a lot of good post office stories. Can you think of another one?

Sarah Green 54:36

We went to one town and we’re having a little, so we’re trying to talk to at least one person everywhere. And we’re we’re mostly successful. There are some places that it’s hard. But it’s not because if you go into a town in the middle of the day and it’s empty, it’s not because nobody lives there. And it’s not because nobody likes living there. We went to, can I say the name? We went to Wilmore, which is population 3,133, somewhere in there. And this place loves itself. It loves itself so much. They have these cool things. So, in the background of all of this, we have this Kansas Explorers Club to help people get out and do what we call “explorerie things.” There’s a family in this town, they kind of divide their time between Wilmore and elsewhere, but they always wanted to have a carousel. So they put a carousel in.

Marci Penner 55:33

They went to Texas to get it.

Sarah Green 55:34

Yeah, they it’s, it’s the most beautiful like hand painted, like old-school carousel. There’s a nice enclosure around it. If they’re home, you honk. And they will come out and let you ride on their carousel. And that’s it. So like, that’s a cool, that’s cool. The people who live there work somewhere else, they’re commuters, as much as anyone who lives in Topeka, Kansas City, they’re commuting somewhere else to work. There’s not necessarily businesses. There is, like a, general store in town. But everything’s mowed, there are nice painted quilt blocks on the light poles. It it is a nice place. And you can tell it is a nice place, even though no one is there. They’re just somewhere else during the day.

Marci Penner 56:27

And you know, you can feel it.

Sarah Green 56:31


Wyatt Beckman 56:33

So we’ve heard a lot about so many things today. I love the stories that and I have a special affinity for post offices, one of my parents works for post office and they, they reach all the community so they can be wonderful eyes and ears to connect with folks. So thank you for some of those stories. I want to end with sort of looking even more to the future. So we talked about some of the current work, you’re doing some of the history. In the next 10, 15, 20 years, what are some of the hopes for what the work looks like for the Kansas Sampler Foundation?

Marci Penner 57:12

I just want to say that, because we believe in this work so much. We’ve done this transition to bring in Sarah and Simone to continue the work. So I think on this road trip, you see all the potential of what can be done yet. But I’ll turn that question over to you.

Sarah Green 57:35

It’s a lot of faith in the work and in the people. Marci always says the answers are on the road. And this the trip that we’re on, the previous ones, there’s a book, you can, you can see it. This is literally about trying to understand what’s going on right now. So we, policymakers, funders, Kansans can do some things now to get ready for the future. Everyone knows that northeast Kansas is big and getting bigger. We know. It’s not about reversing population trends. It’s not, I mean, there are places where that would be great. How do we keep listening? How do we keep putting these communities at the center of their own story, to make their own decisions, to make their own choices, to make sure they have agency to do their work, and it’s about getting them what they need. Sometimes it’s money, but sometimes it’s a friend for the 25 year old economic development director, who’s having a real tough time right now. And if we can help her, that’s a systems change. So finding people, listening to them, supporting them, connecting them. That is what you’ve always done, and we’re gonna keep doing that.

Marci Penner 59:15

And that’s what we’re doing to reframe the future of rural.

Wyatt Beckman 59:19

Oh, that’s wonderful. What a great way to, to end a really great conversation. I thank you both so much for being such gracious hosts having us here and for sharing all of your amazing wisdom and insights with us. We really appreciate it.

Marci Penner 59:32

We appreciate your interest.

Voice over 59:35

You just heard Health on the Plains. Look for new episodes twice per month. Follow us on social media, and continue to listen to the latest episodes wherever you regularly listen to podcasts. Learn more at Thanks for listening.

Transcribed by

Health on the Plains Production Team

Wyatt J. Beckman, M.P.H., C.H.E.S., Host

Theresa Freed, M.A., Producer, Editor

Emma Uridge, C.H.E.S., Field Producer, Coordinator

Stewart Cole, Editor, Graphic Designer

About Kansas Health Institute

The Kansas Health Institute supports effective policymaking through nonpartisan research, education and engagement. KHI believes evidence-based information, objective analysis and civil dialogue enable policy leaders to be champions for a healthier Kansas. Established in 1995 with a multiyear grant from the Kansas Health Foundation, KHI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization based in Topeka.

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