Congratulations to the 2021-2022 Rural Voices Youth Contest winners!
About the Contest
The NCRPC sponsors the Rural Voices Youth Contest each year to engage high school seniors in North Central Kansas in thoughtful reflection on rural Kansas and to promote a discussion among citizens based on their insights. The 2021-2022 theme was “Rural Kansas…Tomorrow’s Leaders.”
By Phillip Shirkey
Rural Voices: My Community and Me
America is a rural country.“Oh beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain” is not just a lyric in a song, but a statement about America. What makes our country so unique in the world is that it is a collection, not of massive coastal cities or of densely populated areas, but of small towns and communities who look out for their own and work together to make this country great. America is a country built on small communities, families, scattered throughout the beautiful countryside who, in order to achieve their dreams, encourage learning, leading, and teaching. Kansas is the epitome of that unique American culture and astounding American community.
My community is Concordia, a small town in North Central Kansas whose residents number only five thousand. They make up for that in spirit and in drive, propelling the younger generation to take up the mantle of leadership and to safeguard the community for the generation after them. For example, the American Legion chapter in Concordia promotes two events, Boys’ State and Girls’ State. These are opportunities for high school students a scant few years away from joining adult society to learn how the Kansas government functions and why it sometimes doesn’t. These events see a few Concordians every year go to Manhattan and meet with hundreds of their peers from around the state, form a simulated government, and run a virtual state of Kansas. But, of course, this one-time event only scratches the surface of how Concordia prepares its youth to make their voices heard. Our teachers encourage respectful political discourse in the classroom and challenge our assumptions on politics and power, to show us how a real leader should behave and support our ambitions to make the world a better place. Our school administration coordinates visits and seminars featuring Kansans who have achieved their dreams, such as state Attorney General Derek Schmidt, K-State coach Bill Snyder, and others. They provide once-in-a-lifetime insight on how an ordinary person can become an extraordinary leader. Our residents are very involved in the political process and the leadership of our community. For example, this last November saw a bond issue come up for debate. Voices from across our city and county spoke on both sides of the issue. Our youth spoke with their parents and researched the issue on their own. We were supported by our community as we did what all Americans should do: learn about the issues which will affect us and use the empowerment provided by our community to speak up on these issues.
While I could go on about how my community has helped me recently, that is but one issue which determines how rural voices of youths like me are heard. Another important matter centers around how a community can ensure that these youth will not simply migrate to the coasts, as so many have done, but will go back to their roots and, like Napoleon coming back to France after his exile, rekindle in their community pride and hope for the future. For a community to survive, it must retain young people to lead it into the next era. If it fails to do so, it will simply go extinct. In a modern world, one which changes every hour of the day, it is impossible to be static. It isn’t enough to say that the younger generation will automatically return to their homeland in a civilization of billions, with countless evolving opportunities. Instead, every community must encourage its youth to return and lead in the future. My community does a good job of this. One would think that a Kansas town would have predominantly old leaders. Those “community grandfathers”, you’d expect, would be running the show. However, nothing could be further than the truth. Many of the people who lead our town are in their 30s and 40s. These are people who were born here, left to pursue their dreams at the time or get an education or accomplish some other task, but returned home when they realized that there was something in Concordia that did not exist in Chicago or Charleston: community. My town of Concordia is small enough and close enough that its leaders personally know everyone that they affect. Whereas the mayor of New York City only sees a handful of his constituents, the mayor of Concordia eats lunch in the same cheap pizza place as everyone else. They have to answer to their community and they are kept honest by them. That is a magnet for good leadership. My community has an ability unique to small towns: it encourages young people to return because they know that they can be led honestly and themselves can lead honestly.
That brings me to my final point. I consider myself a competent and smart leader (of course, everyone thinks they’re smart). I lead my school now and I hope one day to lead my community. Perhaps the most important task of a leader, though, is not just to lead in the moment, but to plan for the future. Otto von Bismarck, ruler of Prussia from 1871 to 1890, was a good leader in the moment, propelling his country forward to create a German Empire. But, for the success he fostered, his country was cataclysmically destroyed a few decades later in World War One because he failed to include the next generation in his plans. Bismarck only planned for his own gain, and did not encourage future leaders to take his place. I have many ways to address this and secure my community’s future. As a leader, I would support programs like the National Honor Society and the Rotary Club, opportunities for our youth to learn the value of having a strong work ethic and moral center. As someone who has grown up in a social-media filled time, I could utilize online polls and the latest technology to gauge how the younger members of the community view our leaders. A group like teenagers, for instance, has little leadership power or political influence, but that’s not the point. The point of community leadership is to let all of our rural voices be heard. That is what my community is best at and that is what I will do with everything I am given.
By Hart Nurnberg
Cultivating Leadership in my Kansas Community
I see lush wheat fields swaying on the rolling hills; I hear the weather vane rattling on top of my barn; I feel a gentle breeze in my hair. These are the sensations that I experience from my front porch. I live in the middle of nowhere in Saline County, Kansas. In addition to living in the middle of nowhere, I also attend a school that’s surrounded by a cow pasture. People from urban communities may think that an absence of next-door neighbors means an absence of community. However, this could not be further from the truth. Though my home is remote, my community is extremely connected and intentionally cultivates driven and energetic leaders.
My first experience with leaders in my community was getting taught by caring teachers. From kindergarten to my senior year, the teachers at my school have been some of the most impactful people in my life. My class has only 50 people, so my teachers have given each and every one of their students special attention. They genuinely care for my peers and me, and the school environment is productive and welcoming because of it. I attribute much of the extreme academic success of my class to this tight-knit school setting where everyone gets the resources needed to succeed. Not only do our teachers encourage us to succeed in the classroom, but they also track our growth throughout our high school careers and encourage us to get involved in activities to apply our unique strengths. One of my most important extracurricular activities, FCCLA, has helped boost my confidence and leadership skills. I never would have joined this club if my FACS teacher, Mrs. Wilson, had not been aware of my strengths and weaknesses and encouraged me to join. The caring leadership and intentional guidance of my school’s teachers help every student succeed in and out of the classroom.
Engaged teachers aren’t the only step toward building leaders in my community. My community has a diverse range of leaders, and they constantly collaborate with the area’s youth to increase awareness and understanding of the impact we can have in the future at a local, state and even global level. In an effort to recognize students’ hard work, my school’s administration team established the Top 10% Luncheon to recognize and celebrate students at the top of their class academically. At this luncheon, students receive an award for their hard work. The most important part about this event, however, is the guest speaker. Every year, a successful Southeast of Saline graduate gives a speech to the students. They talk about their career, their goals, how Southeast of Saline Schools prepared them for their future, and how they apply leadership skills to better their environment. I always walk away from these speeches feeling inspired to give back to my community. I also gain more appreciation for the commitment and dedication that these leaders have to my community. These speakers have included local state representatives, non-profit directors, farmers, authors, artists, foster parents, scientists, and more. Many students don’t see the energy that these leaders put into the community, but the luncheon bridges this gap and shows us that we, Southeast of Saline students, have the ability to affect the lives of others.
Southeast of Saline graduates have had a great impact on their families, coworkers, and wider communities. They reach out to students to show them the power of their voices, and I would like to continue this chain reaction of success. There are a few ways I plan to continue cultivating and empowering leaders in my community. First, I would like to take over my family’s pumpkin patch. My family has run The Sunny Side Pumpkin Patch for the past 20 years, and my parents are ready to retire. I have a lot to learn before I take over the family business, but I’ve gained valuable leadership experience so far through planning and delegating for prom as class president, balancing my FCCLA district’s financial situation as the district treasurer, and helping run the books for my school’s scholars’ bowl tournament as my scholars’ bowl team captain. The pumpkin patch gives families the opportunity to get out of the house and enjoy a fun activity together. However, none of this is possible without my siblings’ and parents’ hard work over the summer. We plant pumpkins, roll drip tape, hoe weeds, and spray plants all summer long. The great reward that comes every October is the direct result of our daily commitment. I’ve learned many lessons from living on the pumpkin patch, and I would be thrilled to carry on its legacy of family and community values. As a leader in my community, I’d like to collaborate with the youth in my own way. Once October comes, the business needs many volunteers; it’s all hands on deck. I’d like to bring in some of the youth of the community to volunteer and help execute the daily routine of the pumpkin patch. They’ll be able to apply hard work and diligence, and it will create a tighter-knit community overall.
If I want volunteers, I’m going to need to do something to help retain people to come back to the area after college. The main reason people come back to my community after graduating is because of our school. They want their kids to have the same educational experience that they had. I hope to keep Southeast of Saline an appealing district with its supportive, forward-thinking, rural pull that attracts people to the school. There are many straightforward ways to do this, such as running for the board of education, attending athletic events, and even speaking at the Top 10% Luncheon. I’d love to share the story of my leadership and empower students to come back and lead in the community. I also have parliamentary procedure experience being the president of my FCCLA chapter’s parliamentary procedure team. I get great satisfaction from debating and working out issues between groups with several interests to create a productive result. Applying these skills to my school district would be very rewarding.
Overall, I’m extremely grateful to live in an engaging community that cultivates leaders. Even though I can see wheat fields for miles from my front porch, I still feel extremely connected to my community. Through getting taught by supportive teachers, listening and engaging with inspiring Southeast of Saline graduates, and working on my family’s pumpkin patch, I’ve become a well-rounded leader. I’m eager to come back to my community after high school and inspire another generation of rural youth.
Check back in Fall 2022 for details on the 2022-2023 Rural Voices Youth Contest.