By Michael D. Wilcox, Associate Director, NCRCRD

NCRCRD Director Maria Marshall and I are steadfastly working across the North Central Region (NCR) to meet with representatives from our region’s thirty-four Land-grant institutions (LGI). Since late 2020, when the NCRCRD migrated to Purdue University, we have had the distinct pleasure of meeting face-to-face with eighteen NCR LGIs – or more than half.

During these meetings, we strive to learn everything we can about research, extension, and teaching activities at these exceptional institutions, and we discuss the center’s mission and related efforts. Often, we are asked, “Given the name of the Center, who do you serve?” Our answer is always the same: “Everyone.”

At first glance, our mission to ‘build rural communities through cutting-edge research and extension programs and innovative partnerships’ sounds like we only focus on a segment of the population. However, when one considers how systems such as foodsheds, entrepreneurial ecosystems, health coalitions, workforce development pathways, community resilience planning, and emergency response work in the real world, it doesn’t take long to recognize that the entire rural–urban continuum is inexorably intertwined. As such, while we may not concentrate our efforts in urban areas, our collective work touches the lives of community members across a broad spectrum.

The Regional Rural Development Centers (RRDC) are unique. No other USDA-funded entity has intentionally brought together the 1862, 1890, and 1994 LGIs to promote inclusive excellence through relationship building, networking, partnerships, and collaborations like the RRDCs since 1972. However, one must understand that rural America is not a monolith to do so successfully.

There are many examples of rural America thriving and being diverse. And there are certainly examples of the opposite. No matter the case, every community has assets that should be accounted for during strategic planning and strategy implementation. However, the NCRCRD and our partner institutions know this looks and feels different depending on the community. Our recent NCRCRD-funded train-the-trainer for the Future Opportunities for Rural Workforce and Rural Development (FORWARD) program provides a perfect example.

The FORWARD curriculum was funded by Ascendium and created/piloted/published through a collaboration between APLU, NCRCRD, and several LGIs. Like many community development-oriented curricula, FORWARD strongly connects to the Community Capitals Framework and the Appreciative Inquiry process. With funding from an NCRCRD Extension Collaboration and Implementation Grant, an Extension training team from Arkansas and Indiana was invited to Minnesota to train university leaders and Extension personnel from White Earth Tribal & Community College, Red Lake Nation College, and the University of Minnesota.

The Community Capitals Framework and Appreciative Inquiry were introduced as the training kicked off. While this approach is commonly used, it didn’t resonate with our 1994 Tribal College participants. As facilitators, we recognized immediately that we needed to adapt our worldview to understand what was valued within these tribal communities. Our Westernized or scientific ecological knowledge approach lacked cultural relevancy, so we needed to change to fit the ideas, values, and traditions of the people we are trying to serve through an adaptation informed by Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge. As one Native American colleague described, we needed to indigenize the content and process.

As such, we were offered an opportunity as trainers/facilitators to explore workforce development from an additional point of view – an Indigenous Anishinaabe one. After much discussion, the group thought about assets in two different ways – through the lens of air, water, and land (endowments from the Creator and the base of many different workforce and rural development opportunities in White Earth and Red Lake) and The Seven Teachings which include: bravery, honesty, humility, respect, truth, love and wisdom. To “invest” these assets, we needed to think about our end goal or the motivation for our Appreciative Inquiry process. As the title notes, the curriculum is motivated by the desire to advance rural and workforce development. But this notion, like the assets, needed to be reframed. Our dialogue continued, and finally, a suggestion surfaced: Mino-Bimaadiziwin. I wasn’t familiar with the concept, so now the teacher became the student.

Mino-Bimaadiziwin can be translated in many ways, but “the good life” is the translation we connected with that day. Might rural and workforce development be considered helping communities foster pathways to the good life or Mino-Bimaadiziwin? After two days, I think we came to the consensus that they most certainly can.

The NCRCRD figured prominently in this experience as a funder, convener, facilitator, partner, and developer. As with everything the NCRDCRD does, the process was inclusive, two-way, and highly collaborative. The next step is to work towards learning from this lesson, cultivating the necessary partnerships, and assuming our multifaced roles to create a new FORWARD module that will better connect the current curriculum to Indigenous audiences so we can continue to serve: EVERYONE.

[1] For an excellent introduction to the concept of Mino-Bimaadiziwin, please see: