Insights from Civic Nebraska’s statewide listening tour

Civic Nebraska recently embarked on a statewide listening tour to engage with Grand Island, North Platte, Scottsbluff/Gering, and Norfolk. The discussions illuminated the common strengths and the unique challenges faced by each area and provided insights into the state of civic engagement across Nebraska.

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Civic Nebraska recently embarked on a statewide listening tour to engage with four communities: Grand Island, North Platte, Scottsbluff/Gering, and Norfolk. These discussions illuminated the common strengths and the unique challenges faced by each area and provided us with some insights into the state of civic engagement across Nebraska.

Grand Island: a grassroots powerhouse

Grand Islanders highlighted how ballot initiatives have spurred civic participation. The community’s ability to mobilize, particularly during 2020, has created a deeper bench of trained organizers who foster a culture of political engagement. This is reflected in the increasing number of young people considering running for office, with the youngest school board member in Grand Island’s history being Latinx.
The establishment of the Young Professionals of Color Networking Group is a testament to Grand Island’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. Young leaders are learning about community, organizing, and political action, and their efforts are gaining recognition from established power brokers. Collectively, their work is hard to ignore and creates a sense of optimism about the city’s future.
Challenges do remain. Grand Island is marked by silos that restrict the spread of expertise and civic knowledge. The community’s diversity, while present, is often confined to specific areas, and civil discourse can be difficult. The Leadership Unlimited program, which has diversified its membership, stands as a potential bridge-builder, fostering more inclusive and representative leadership.

North Platte: a vision for stability and growth

North Platte exemplifies strong leadership and vision. Attendees, including State Sen. Mike Jacobson and Mayor Brandon Kelliher, emphasized the collaboration between public offices and the city’s proactive approach to economic development. North Platte voters’ willingness to enact a half-cent sales tax to support a new recreation center demonstrates a collective commitment to progress.
The recent turnaround in North Platte’s political landscape was driven by leaders who rejected the status quo and worked to address local challenges. This included overcoming opposition from the West Nebraska Taxpayers Association, spearheaded by former State Sen. Mike Groene, and successfully implementing sales and property tax initiatives. The downtown revitalization, which has provided economic and aesthetic benefits, is a visible testament to these efforts.
Sustaining such growth poses a challenge. There is a fear that the community’s historical reluctance to invest tax dollars could resurface, potentially stalling progress. And while there is a strong volunteer spirit, financial contributions are less common and less prevalent. There’s an ongoing need to attract and retain young people, particularly college graduates who often seek higher wages elsewhere.

Scottsbluff/Gering: harnessing community spirit

The Scottsbluff/Gering area is known for its strong sense of community and civic pride. Leaders highlighted the region’s collaborative initiatives, such as the Valley Visions project, which unites Gering, Scottsbluff, and Terrytown. Community events, such as the Horizon Music Festival and Bands on Broadway, have invigorated civic life, encouraging more residents to take the initiative in hosting and participating in local events.
Leadership Scotts Bluff plays a crucial role in fostering civic engagement, creating a pipeline for future leaders through programs like the Youth Leadership Council. The area’s creative district, public art, and robust school system, particularly the career academy, further contribute to a vibrant civic landscape.
Unfortunately, voter engagement remains low, with turnout significantly below the state average. This is compounded by a lack of trust in institutions and local government and a feeling of division within the community. Efforts to include youth voices in decision-making and to diversify leadership have started but require more focus and support.

Norfolk: a model of collaboration and inclusion

Norfolk stands out for its exceptional spirit of collaboration and openness to new ideas. Attendees praised the community’s innovative projects, such as the Innovation Hub and the Riverfront Project. The city’s leadership is noted for its approachability and willingness to partner across sectors, fostering a climate where new initiatives can thrive.
The Hispanic Youth Council is a potent example of Norfolk’s commitment to inclusion, empowering young leaders to take ownership of community issues. The community’s political climate has also seen a positive shift, with moderate leadership pushing back against extremism and fostering a more inclusive environment.
Despite these strengths, Norfolk faces challenges we also heard in other communities. Substance abuse stigma, mental health issues, and the need for more diverse leadership are pressing concerns. There’s a need for better communication and outreach to ensure all community members, particularly those from marginalized groups, feel included and engaged.

Common strengths

Grand Island, North Platte, Scottsbluff/Gering, and Norfolk have obvious and notable strengths in grassroots movements and community engagement. Grand Island’s trained organizers and ballot initiatives, North Platte’s proactive economic development, Scottsbluff/Gering’s collaborative projects like Valley Visions, and Norfolk’s innovative endeavors and active Hispanic Youth Council all are excellent examples.
Collaborative leadership is another shared strength. Grand Island’s leadership programs, North Platte’s unified public offices, Scottsbluff/Gering’s Valley Visions and Leadership Scotts Bluff, and Norfolk’s collaborative projects and approachable leadership underscore the power of teamwork.
Youth engagement is also a common asset. Grand Island’s youth participation in elections, Scottsbluff/Gering’s Youth Leadership Council, and Norfolk’s Hispanic Youth Council show a commitment to developing future leaders. Efforts toward diversity and inclusion are also evident, with Grand Island’s networking group for young professionals of color and Norfolk’s Hispanic Youth Council fostering an inclusive environment.
Finally, a strong sense of community spirit and pride is palpable in Scottsbluff/Gering’s vibrant civic life, Norfolk’s collaborative spirit, and North Platte’s collective commitment to progress.

Common challenges and opportunities

Despite these strengths, each community faces challenges that hinder broader civic engagement. A recurring issue is the need for more inclusive representation. In Grand Island, silos create opportunities for mobilizing based on fear rather than unity. The same was echoed in Scottsbluff/Gering, where difficulty in engaging with institutions and low voter turnout present barriers to civic participation.
In North Platte, sustaining growth and improvement remains a challenge, with a lingering fear of using tax dollars for community betterment. Norfolk, despite its collaborative efforts, struggles with mental health services and substance abuse, issues that need urgent attention. Moreover, there’s a need for greater diversity in city leadership and breaking down barriers to Latino participation.
We were particularly inspired by the resolve in Scottsbluff/Gering to continue conversations among participants who come from different sectors and constituencies and who had not previously engaged in conversations of this sort.

Ideas to foster civic engagement

Several ideas emerged during the listening tour. In Grand Island, the idea of a “National Write A Letter to a Public Official Day” was conceived as an example effort to normalize political engagement from a young age. Another promising idea is creating pathways for high school graduates to engage in their communities and local workforce opportunities, addressing the current reality where many feel the need to leave their hometowns to make a living, have their voices heard, and make a difference.
In North Platte, the idea of an “Intra-Nebraska exchange project” was conceived to bridge the gap between urban and rural communities and experiences, fostering political action and cross-cultural awareness among younger generations. Scottsbluff/Gering could benefit from a leadership mentorship program focused on cross-cultural navigation, promoting diversity in leadership structures.
Communities were also generally excited to hear of Civic Nebraska’s new partnership, Documenters Nebraska, with Flatwater Free Press. Documenters Nebraska equips and compensates residents to document the meetings of commissions, boards, and other public governing bodies. Many areas of Nebraska face a decline in news and media coverage – “news deserts” – and Documenters is seen as a step in the right direction for maintaining accountability and transparency of officials.
Finally, we learned of the significant engagement barrier posed by the geographic distance between many parts of the state and the seat of our state government. It was noted that virtual legislative testimony was made possible during the pandemic, but that option no longer exists to participate in the legislative process digitally. Perhaps policy solutions could address this to allow greater access to the legislative process by our state’s far-flung constituents.
We learned a lot during our time on the road. Most of all, the stories from our listening tour underscore the resilience, creativity, and collaborative spirit of Nebraska communities. By addressing common challenges and leveraging shared strengths, our towns and cities can continue to enhance civic leadership and engagement – and create that more modern and robust democracy for all Nebraskans to which we so often refer.

– Kyle Cartwright, Director of Development

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