Group seeks to empower young Kansans to stimulate rural growth

These days in rural Kansas towns, there are two types of people emerging: Power-Ups and Power-Ons.

The Power-Ups are the people who are ages 21 to 39 and live in rural Kansas or have rural roots and dreams to one day return to their hometowns.

The rest are, well, older and are the people who have used traditional means to lead and develop their communities.

The Power-Ups represent the future of Kansas leadership, says Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation and who is helping to nurture the young Power-Ups. The terms were coined by the foundation and used in countless news releases since the beginning of the year.

That’s one reason the Kansas Sampler Foundation is hosting two sessions in October to bring young Kansans together to help discuss the future of their communities.

“The idea for this really came about in early 2000 when I made my first journey around Kansas,” Penner said. “The towns where young people were involved seemed to be doing better. That sparked us into doing this. And while it is true that young people are moving back to small Kansas communities, when you talk with them, they feel they are being used to fill seats. They were being asked to join old organizations and do things the way they have always been done.”

But Kansas is now at a crossroads, Penner said, and a new way of doing things may be in order.

All across Kansas, budget cuts and a sagging economy are dealing blows to rural communities that have for more than a century survived floods, droughts, dust storms and school consolidations.

You can see it with the closings of post offices, schools, grocery stores and sometimes even in the lack of Internet and cell phone services available in areas of the state.

As a whole, rural counties are losing their populations. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly three-quarters of Kansas’ counties lost residents over the past decade.

Some western Kansas counties have less than 2,500 people in the entire county.

But the young ones that stay are pioneers, of sorts, Penner said. They often have new ideas and visions for what communities can offer in the future. They are most likely to use social media to network and market ideas. They are less likely to see a geographical map as a boundary.

“I hope this will change Kansas in that we are trying to empower the young,” Penner said. “We want to empower their voices and help rural Kansas progress. We are calling it a movement. We need to sustain rural communities and pull out all the stops. We need young people to live in these communities.”

Liz Sosa, 31, of Garden City, is one of these Power-Ups. Originally from Hugoton, Sosa chose to live in Garden City because of its rural lifestyle. She manages a small business in Garden City, Inkt Graphics, and works for Public Square Communities, a citizen-driven community development group based on the four cornerstones of community – education, government, human services and business.

“Garden City has become my home,” Sosa said. “I can travel anywhere I want to go but coming home to southwest Kansas is amazing. There are opportunities here – sometimes you have to look for them and dig deep. But what’s great about it is that you can have an impact on the community on some level. My network reaches across the state. I am not isolated from the world by living in western Kansas. If anything, I have an opportunity to draw on the world and bring it back to western Kansas. Geography is becoming less of an issue, based on technology.”

Living in western Kansas is by choice, Sosa said.

“We all have the choice. Why not Wichita? Well, maybe you have chosen Wichita but we are people who choose to be rural. Why not rural?” Sosa said. “We are trying to show people who leave their towns they are welcome to come back. There are jobs and things out here. You have to create opportunities but they are here.”