Inside Our Towns: Jason Neises

By Ben Speggen

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This article first appeared on the Our Towns Civic Foundation website on June 3, 2022, which you can see here.

Our partner, Our Towns Civic Foundation, has a new podcast. In this episode of the Inside Our Towns podcast, Evan Sanford talks with Jason Neises, the Community Development Coordinator at the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque and Community Heart & Soul Coach, about his role and work at the foundation, real and perceived challenges in small-town America, and the impact Community Heart & Soul has had in Iowa.

You can watch their conversation here:

You can also listen on Spotify here:

In their discussion, Jason and Evan explore how rural communities are using creative ways to get citizens engaged and involved. Jason discusses his experience with Community Heart & Soul®, a nationwide organization that supports local resident-driven community efforts, and is also a supporter of Our Towns, and how that’s helped the region’s residents take an inclusive approach, focus on what matters to them, and think about their towns’ futures in meaningful ways.

We provide the transcript below mainly as a guide to listening to, or watching, the actual discussion — and with awareness that it contains typos and will differ in some word-by-word details from what you may hear for yourself. The time-stamp numbers you see are roughly cued to the portions of the “Inside Our Towns” episode.

Inside Our Towns – E01


Jason Neises, Evan Sanford

Evan Sanford 00:07

Hi there, and welcome to this edition of Inside Our Towns. My name is Evan Sanford, and I’m a contributor for the Our Towns Civic Foundation. In my day job, I’m the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce in Redlands, California. Today, our guest is Jason Neises, who is the Community Development Coordinator at the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque, also known as C. F. GD, he also works with rural communities and the foundation’s seven county region to implement Community Heart & Soul. We’ll get to much more of Jason’s background and what he’s working on in his town, later in the program. But I’d like to welcome Jason to the program. How are you doing?

Jason Neises 00:49

I’m great, Evan, thanks for having me.

Evan Sanford 00:51

Well, let’s get right to it what’s going on in your town?

Jason Neises 00:56

Well, here in eastern Iowa, we are, it’s largely a rural region. So we are hyper focused on helping residents throughout our seven county region get engaged in civic life, and help shape the future of their towns around things that really matter. Most of the residents. In particular, were focused on asset building, as a Community Foundation Philanthropy is our primary mission is just strengthen communities and inspire getting. So we find that the best way to do that is to really identify the assets that each community has, and develop the strength within each town to build upon those strengths and build upon those assets. To not only bring resources like dollars and people and those things to it, but also the passion and the enthusiasm for it. In my work in small towns, I’ve learned that living in small towns, it’s not Plan B, like people are like, Oh, we have to save rural America, we have to get out there and help people because they’re trapped in rural America. People like living in small towns, and I think they feel left behind sometimes. So how can we help people with that mindset that we’re not trying to save you. If you’re if something good is going to happen in your town, you’re probably going to have to do it yourself. And we’ve got the tools to help you do that. I think people have the desire and the need to do it. They just don’t know where to start. And our tools help them find that path and find that place to start using the resources that already exists.

Evan Sanford 02:39

Before we get into those tools and the resources that you’re you’re able to give to these residents. How does one get into the position you’re in as a coach? It’s not a consultant, there’s a difference and talk to us about what that means?

Jason Neises 02:55

Sure, um, well, the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque because one of our primary mission is to help grow the assets and strengthen our rural communities. We were looking for tools, and a toolkit. So the Orton Family Foundation that’s headquartered in Vermont had created this Community Heart & Soul to look at or this process. And they were looking for coaches throughout the country to help work side by side with community leaders. In this process, my background has largely been working with nonprofits and doing strategic planning, community visioning, meetings, facilitation, those sorts of things. So I’ve got a background working with organizations like Iowa State University Extension, and other nonprofits that do this kind of community engagement work. So as our foundation was developing this program, I came on board to take it on. And not only help towns use the Heart & Soul process to do their visioning work, but also to think about how does how do the tools from Heart & Soul help us do our work as a foundation better? How do we tell our story better? How do we connect philanthropic resources to make the biggest impact and those sorts of things? So the Community Heart & Soul process has not only impacted our town, but it’s impacted how our foundation does this work too, which has been kind of fascinating to see.

Evan Sanford 04:31

Well, when did you start with the foundation?

Jason Neises 04:34

I started in 2015. So I’ve been at this about seven years. And I did come to the work from I would say University Extension and Outreach. I am a native to the Dubuque area, but had not lived here for many years prior to coming back to work at extension. Like many people who grew up in the Midwest in the 80s. We were told to leave We were told that there probably weren’t going to be many opportunities for us. But as community leaders here in the Midwest, in particular, I think, did lots of hard work to really understand how quality of life and vitality is an important attraction and retention tool. As my wife and I looked at what was happening in Dubuque and other places from afar, we kind of thought, jeez, they got kind of got their act together, like they’re doing some important work. And it really helped us see a future for ourselves in this area, and really made us want to come back and be a part of it.

Evan Sanford 05:35

You mentioned that you’re a native to the area, what are some of the biggest changes that you’ve seen over the years, and how have residents overcome challenges that have that have arisen?

Jason Neises 05:47

So Dubuque where I live is more of a, like a micropolitan. area. So there’s about 60,000 people interviewed. So it’s not a large town by any means. But it’s also the largest town for many, many miles around this rural area. So it has kind of become a hub for lots of different things for manufacturing, and transportation and retail, and all those sorts of things. So I live on a little farm north of Dubuque, I’ve always kind of considered Dubuque to me, my hometown. For a lot of what’s happened here, in Dubuque to really establish itself as a place where a community of choice where people want to live, there has been a real focus on quality of life. And I think for many, many years, towns, like the view kind of shut themselves off, and said, we know how to do this. And we don’t need any ideas from the outside, and we know what we’re doing. But it really created kind of an insular kind of community. But within the last 15 to 20 years, I think there’s been a real effort locally for leaders to look outside of the community and say, We need to be a part of something broader, something bigger, something regional, something national, something statewide, that’s going to tell people that we’re on the map, and we’re a location that should be considered. So I think there’s been much more openness to broader initiatives and ideas, not just like in this little tiny box of Dubuque,

Evan Sanford 07:11

where there are any major challenges, whether financial, or otherwise over the decades that the citizens have had to overcome? And how has your foundation been a part of teaching them what they need to know and do?

Jason Neises 07:28

Well, a lot of a lot of the problems that were experienced in the Midwest, in particular, in the 80s, were around economic development and workforce development and jobs and these sorts of things. So I think there was a lot of putting out fires in the late 80s and early 90s, like just trying to stabilize the drains from this area, that I was guilty as charged part of trying to greener pastures, and all that sort of thing. So I think there was a lot of fundamental foundational work to make this a place where businesses could thrive, which really is fundamental to a lot of this work. But I think that kind of works, focused on focusing on the economy had many other ripple effects in arts and culture, and thinking about climate change and climate resilience, thinking about how do we how do we provide for people who are struggling at the margins of society and poverty prevention plans, and investing in infrastructure for stormwater mitigation, and all these kinds of things that are important also, like you can’t just zero in only on jobs, you really have to think about, we’ve got institutes of higher learning here. And colleges, we’ve got schools that have been invested in and lots of infrastructure improvements, also outdoor recreation investments, that kind of all our that we tend to think about some of those things as separate. But really, they’re all very interconnected. And without any of those things. It’s hard for the full machine to work, if you will. So I think we’ve done a good job here in Dubuque at least, kind of keeping all those things rising at similar levels so that people feel like they’re living in a vital community. And I think some of those same ideals can translate into rural community. It’s just they have, it’s harder for them like here interviews, we have a planning director. We have a economic development director, we’ve got a budget to do those sorts of broader visioning processes. In small towns, they don’t, they might have a part time city clerk. And that’s their only city staff. So that person is not going to take on a community visioning process or a comp plan that talks to everybody in town. So that’s really what heart and soul comes in. When I think about what’s happened in Dubuque and the broader region, how do we give small towns the tools to do some of that stuff themselves? And to really do the deep dive and really understand what people care about and what keeps them in that town and what they’re proud of? and use those things as a foundation to build upon for themselves and identify what’s unique. What’s their positive story about the future of their town. I think that’s something that Dubuque has struggled with. There were lots of negative narratives about the loss of jobs and all these sorts of things. We had to turn that upside down. And like that can’t be the first thing you talk about anymore is this factory left and this factory shut down. And no, no one wants to live here. Like, stop talking about that, that might be real, but it’s also not the thing that’s going to help our community move forward. And lots of small towns are stuck in that same thing to Oh, you seven engine factory and all we used to have this and we used to have that now it’s all gone. It’s just I don’t want to minimize the stress and the emotional attachment and trauma that some of that stuff causes. But that can’t be the first thing out of your mouth. When someone asks you what’s going on in this town. One of the one of the inspirations from my work has been Ben Winchester, who’s a rural sociologists for the University of Minnesota. And one of my favorite phrases of his is that no one ever moved to a small town out of pity. So if you’re trying to get people to feel sorry for you, and oh, woe is me, this happened and this happens. That’s that’s just not going to happen. You have to have a positive narrative about your town. Oh, we were right next to a state park. We’ve got a great river in a whitewater park that runs through it, our schools are top notch. We’ve got a lovely little downtown and a new coffee shop. Like those are the kinds of things you talk about. We’ve got a community theater, we’ve got these things that we got a brew pub, that opening up downtown, talk about that. Don’t Don’t get stuck in these negative narratives that, while significant and often true, are not going to help you move into the future and heart and soul is really all about creating that new positive narrative about your town

Evan Sanford 11:56

on that there must be some balance that town should have between embracing the history but also the future. The question to me would be where is that line? And how, how do you get maybe the archivist or the librarian or people that know the true history? For example, in Redlands, look at the picture behind me there the city was was founded in an as an industrial town in the citrus industry. And you look at 120 years later, Amazon and all of these warehouses are back in the citrus industry has shrunk. So you have people that are sad that the groves aren’t there that could have been seen for miles. And now there’s warehouses in those same places. So I see the similarities between people being sad about losing parts of their their city, but there is some benefit to embracing the future. But in Redlands, specifically, it’s very interesting to see that come full circle. So now my question to you is, is the foundation, there’s a philosophy that you have it’s broken down into three sections, I’m hoping that you can walk us through that and how those programs fit in each of those philosophies.

Jason Neises 13:18

Well, the Heart & Soul process is guided by three core principles. The first one is to focus on what matters most. And I think to us, that process is is critical to how the success of how we do this, because even in the example you just you just described about Redlands how do people now feel about the economic situation in Redlands? And how do the people who historically have a connection to the citizen citrus industry, they might seem like they’re in different directions, but they probably have something in common? Like they care about jobs, and they care about economic prosperity. So rather than focusing on the differences, that would seem to separate those folks, what do you have in common? Oh, you care about having a clean, safe workplace. You care about those communities, those organizations investing back into community as they experienced success, like what do you have in common? That’s what’s focused on that. And that’s not going to minimize the concerns you have on either end of what seems to divide you. Those things have to be acknowledged. But we want to focus on what you have in common. And we see that happen a lot with things like schools, or school development, especially in small towns with limited resources, thinking about building the new middle school and having a bond referendum that’s going to fund that. Like longtime residents might say the old middle school was good enough for me, and I don’t have kids in school anymore. Why should I my taxes go up to pay for that? New School and people On the other hand, are saying, well, you know, my kids, you know, it’s too small and it’s going to cost a lot of money to renovate and the gym that’s too small and the cafeteria is not up to code. And you know, there’s all those real things. But that’s a that’s a conflict instead of saying, hey, you know, what’s really important to this town is young families. With without young families, our tax base was gonna go down or school enrollments gonna go down, the school budget will go down, we won’t have young people to be volunteers and you sports and all this kind of stuff. So we need young families in this town. Do we all agree on whether you hate or love the idea of a new middle school? Can we agree on those kinds of things? Yes, yes. And one of the stories that I have for you and your listeners is from a town of Monticello, Iowa, where they have some community events, and the photos, show events that they had, where they take quotes about what people care about in the town, and display those. And they did videos and photo montages and social media, where residents themselves were telling their story about what they love about the town, and what could perhaps make it better. And they’re not telling those stories to me, they’re telling those things to their neighbors, because it’s through that sharing of stories, and that connecting across things that they have in common, that’s really going to help us chart that vision for the future. So throughout the heart and soul process, we focus on those things that matter most of the residents. And we have events, like the one that I was showing you from Monticello, where people can actually hear and see what their neighbors care about, and find what they have in common that will then become our guide, as we make decisions about the future.

Evan Sanford 16:47

So what is the second pillar?

Jason Neises 16:50

So the second pillar that is that really helps us make those stories meaningful is involve everyone. A lot of community development processes tend to be the same old crowd, like the same people that show up at city council meetings and same people that you see at the Chamber meeting. Those people’s voices are pretty amplified and a lot of small towns, and they often guide a lot of the decisions. But we know that there are people who have trouble attending city council meetings to go into these comp plan, review processes, it’s normal radio, everyday citizens often get left out of things. So the Heart & Soul process is designed to map out who lives here. What kinds of people are here? What are their ages? What are their socio economic statuses? What are their race, gender, ethnicity, ethnicities, cultural backgrounds? How long have they lived in this town? Are they long? How many are longtime residents? How many are newcomers? And how do we then through our story gathering and data collection process, be sure that we’re hearing from people from all over that map, and making sure that their voices are amplified and considered as we think about the future? The sound? One of the most commonly overlooked voices is youth. It’s hard to get used to come to a meeting like what what, what young person is going to go to a city council meeting where they’re talking about the, you know, the comp plan, which has never happened in the history of any town. So we do special activities with youth. And I’ve given you some pictures that show some activities we did in Bellevue, Iowa, where youth was one of their focus targeted audiences, like we want our kids to see a future for themselves in Bellevue. So we’re going to ask them, What would this town have to look like for you to consider living here as an adult? And they held an activity where the children actually got to design their town like, if Bellevue could if we can have a white blank slate for Bellevue? What would it look like? And they took little model buildings and laid them all out and said, what they like about Bellevue and what they don’t like about it, and what would make it even better. And they were a and then after they split their little towns together, we had a meeting where civic leaders were invited in town, nearby residents came and heard these youth present about what they wanted to see about the future of this town. It was very revealing for the adults to kind of be in the audience and the youth to be the ones who were doing the presenting. We also did extensive surveying with the youth and asking them questions about, you know, would you consider living here as an as an adult? and a high number, I think, like around 70% of the youth said that they would that they consider living in Bellevue as an adult and of course, the adults were like, I thought all the kids wanted to leave. Well, you never asked them. And when you ask them, and they say that 70% of them want to say but then when on the other hand, you ask them have you ever been asked asked to participate in any kind of civic engagement or any planning activities that would help chart the course of this town. And 2% of them say they’ve been asked. But 70% of them say they want to be a part of the future. How do we close that gap? And Bellevue has been working really hard on doing that to get more youth at the table, as we’re talking about the future of the town.

Evan Sanford 20:21

That is really fascinating. To hear such a clear example of how it worked. I mean, just a couple of weeks ago, I was at a planning commission meeting, of course, it was five and a half hours, and I was the youngest person in the room by probably 20 to 30 years, easily, thanks to my position, it was as something that I should be there for. But what other 27 year old is going to out of concern and general interest, choose to go to that meeting, I can’t think of one other person. So this is really interesting to think about all the ways that cities and small towns, go to school districts or the university and get people to participate in their future. A nickname for this town used to be called Deadlands instead of Redlands, because of the connotation, and the lack of activity, and that was something that people actually enjoyed the fact that it was a Mayberry of some sorts that it just stayed the same for so long. And there wasn’t the kind of development you saw as the decades progressed and other cities in Southern California. So you take a look at the city now. And things are really happening in a big way, you have an enormous mall development in the center of town that has been ad for over a decade, right after the recession. It’s been bought and sold and bought and sold, and developers have come to make their pitch for what that looks like. That’s been happening for over 12 years. At the same time, you have a train now coming from Los Angeles all the way into Redlands ending in Redlands, you have a University Village at the University of Redlands, as building a South Campus, you have a museum that’s almost finished being built an enormous hotel just north of the freeway where there’s an abandoned lot, all of these things in the next five years, are most likely going to be built and will change forever, the demographic of the community and the opportunities for businesses and will shape this community to not have the input of people who will be here for the next 40 5060 years. That seems like a real missed opportunity. Because you’re really going to make this a very different town than it is right now. And for people who have been here for 5060 years. This is all they know. And and yeah, it’s scary to think of all of the changes. And so the conversation really becomes to me, are they against development, or against too much development, you can’t really watch things go by because the state will end up coming in and mandate housing and things like that, where if, if the city and the community doesn’t make these decisions, now they’re going to be forced to build housing and the community won’t have a say. So finding more ways to encourage more people and younger people who have in the case of a university where they’re coming from out of state, but maybe fall in love with the community like myself, that end up wanting to stay there, they should have a seat at the table, they should feel compelled to contribute, but also know that they can contribute. So what you’re saying is very, very interesting, and a very real example of what’s going on right here.

Jason Neises 24:11

The other important part of that is like getting, like getting out of that mindset that to find those people that you just described, sometimes you have to do your community engagement differently. Like you can’t just shrug your shoulders and say, we had a meeting at 330. On Wednesday, nobody came, they had their chance. That’s just not good enough anymore. So we spend a lot of time really thinking about not only who is missing, like whose voice was missing, but how would we get their feedback? It’s not going to be at the seat at the city chambers, council chambers at 330. On Wednesday, it might be Sunday, Saturday afternoon at the soccer fields. It might be at the county fair. It might be at a coffee shop. Can we you know think of different ways to engage the community at those locations and meet people where they already are to get the feedback versus waiting for them to come to us. I can’t emphasize that point enough. And I think that’s one of the things that makes us all unique is that we try to create those opportunities in new ways, using, again, kind of the infrastructure in that town as our support system for that.

Evan Sanford 25:16

Let’s talk about the third pillar of the philosophy, the foundation.

Jason Neises 25:21

The third kind of guiding principle, is play the long game. And I think this was another thing that makes Heart & Soul unique is that we aren’t just talking about something that’s a little more transitory, like an action plan, that once you’re done, you check things off, it’s over. And everybody forgets about heart and soul, we really are thinking about who are we impacting? And how are we changing the way they think about how decisions get made in their town. So I do as a coach, I don’t come in like a consultant often would, and run the meetings and write the surveys and conduct the surveys and analyze data, and then give them a report. I’m really working alongside my team to help them do that stuff. So that even after I’m gone, they have learned a skill like how to conduct an interview. They’ve learned a skill, like how do you take qualitative data from interviews or surveys or whatever, distill that down into data points, analyze it, and then present it to people so they can make better decisions about what people care about, like that skill, if I’ve done my job correctly, will live on beyond my time, and that my limited time in that town. So that’s kind of that long game idea. And the other part that I think makes heart and soul unique is that it’s often not driven by like the city. Like they’re not you, they’re not always the one driving the bus. So having, having it kind of take place outside of some of the normal power structures, sometimes invites new people in to participate. And I think we’ve got some really good examples of how we have cultivated emerging leaders, like people who didn’t see themselves because I’m not an elected official. I’m not on a City Commission, who cares what I have to think. But they got involved with heart and soul, because their neighbor asked them to, like, you’d be really good at this. And I met you at yoga class. And I think you’re really, you really seem to love this town come to this meeting with me. And we’ve just got lots of examples where especially younger people have kind of found their voice through the heart and soul process. And it’s them getting involved with heart and soul and becoming then maybe even transitioning into a formal leadership role. That’s that long game part.

Evan Sanford 27:41

So what would your advice be, for other towns looking to help themselves if they can’t get the help? Resource wise or just leadership wise? What what is it that they can do?

Jason Neises 27:57

Well, I definitely, I think Heart & Soul in particular, it’s perfect for a town that has lots of assets. And but it might be a little stuck, like, we just don’t know how to take our take to the next level. Like maybe we aren’t attracting those new leaders, we get the same people are all kind of involved in the same people are doing everything, Heart & Soul gives you kind of a roadmap on how to take it to the next level. And I hesitate to even use the word grow. Like I think even some of the stuff you were talking about Evan, like we’re gonna help your talent grow. That’s one of those trigger words that sometimes there’s people in your town that don’t want to grow. Right. And that’s the people you’re probably talking to like, I like it just the way it is. So we try to avoid kind of talking about growth and change. We talked about vitality, and how to keep your town and exciting, revitalized place. Those are words that are a little more inclusive, like everybody wants that everybody wants a town that’s vital and active and enthusiastic and vibrant. But growing and changing sometimes, sometimes is part of it. And sometimes it’s not like we don’t necessarily have to grow or change. We just have to do what we’re doing better.

Evan Sanford 29:09

Now, before we end today, I want to see if there’s something that you’ve been trying to make happen, or you’re working towards implementing something new trying to address a challenge that hasn’t been addressed this far. Can you tell us if there’s anything on the burners right now?

Jason Neises 29:30

Well, I think a lot of the problems. The challenges that we see facing rural America right now, are things that seem overwhelming for individual communities to address, housing, and childcare and transportation like these are giant issues that very small towns have a tough time addressing. And I think it’s that being a welcoming and inclusive community part that might be one of those kind of regional type of initiatives that we can to work towards. So I think they to your original point, I’m hoping to do more of that kind of work in our rural community to help small towns say that we’re going to be welcoming to people from all backgrounds. Because we know that we have workforce crises, or we have school enrollment declines, and these sorts of things. So we want to be welcoming to people who didn’t, haven’t lived here for five generations, you know, that might have been your previous definition of who constitute constitutes an official resident of your town. That’s probably not good enough anymore. So how do you develop the community culture of being welcoming and inclusive?

Evan Sanford 30:38

Is there anything else you want to add about what’s going on in your town?

Jason Neises 30:42

I don’t know if you’ve noticed anything, but I could talk about this stuff all day. So that’s a dangerous question to ask me. But yeah, I don’t know. I just would encourage people to keep their minds open to like, what do What’s that little boost, they need to get more people involved in their town, and to really chart a clear path into the future that will be really inclusive and welcoming for people who want to get involved.

Evan Sanford 31:08

I didn’t notice but I’ve enjoyed talking with you both in our, in our previous conversation, trying to get to know each other, and then of course, in today’s conversation, so I’d like to thank our guests, Jason Neises for his time today, and thank you as well for listening to this edition of Inside Our Towns.

Jason Neises 31:29

It’s been a pleasure, Evan, thank you.