When we hear “economic development,” we often think of new plant openings, education programs, or tourism initiatives. But economic development can also mean figuring out what a community already has—its heritage, its assets—as well as the barriers that are currently keeping the community from capitalizing on those. When you go into a community, talking to people from different backgrounds and walks of life, you can get a much better sense of the community’s promise and possibilities.
Last summer, undergraduate students from the University of Texas did just that: under the Home to Texas program, they returned to their rural communities, working full-time internships while collecting documents and interviewing civic leaders. These students summarized their interviews and gave brief presentations on their communities based on what they learned.
This summer, we are building on that program with a more focused research project. In this project, called “Economic development in rural Texas: A study of heritage, assets, barriers, and stakeholders in six rural communities,” six Ph.D. students are each researching a community in rural Texas. After studying the community via documents (from economic development plans to city websites to newspaper articles and tourism materials), these graduate research assistants (GRAs) will interview 10-14 people per community, seeking to understand how the community sees its heritage, assets, barriers, and stakeholders. They will be using the interviews and documents to answer these questions:
- How do community leaders understand their community heritage as constraining or enabling development?
- Where do community leaders and members see potential for change and growth in community development? Where do they see barriers, threats, and hard choices?
- How do community leaders describe the relations among community development stakeholders, including expectations and trust among them?
At the end of the summer, our team will prepare reports for each community, summarizing the feedback we got from the interviews and comparing it with a paired community, one that shares the same basic challenges. In this way, we hope to bring the community’s insights back to it, giving stakeholders a chance to talk and think together about how to address their challenges and grow together as a community.
We are really excited about learning about, and with, these six communities!