Rural Diversity: A Training Asset

 Terene Bennett, Training Specialist, National CASA

Many times I've heard staff and volunteers from rural programs state, "we don't have any diversity." But, as Sarah Calvert in Blount County, AL, says, "If persons indicate that there is no diversity in their community, they are not familiar with the demographics. Each community has a diverse population." For trainers, rural diversity can be an asset: a wealth of diverse attitudes and opportunities to expand knowledge, similar to fruit ripe enough to be harvested and enjoyed.

Rural CASA/GAL programs can embrace diversity. It needs to begin with leadership. In the words of Christina McIntyre, program director of three rural programs in Nebraska:  "Leadership in taking a role and having the real desire to provide diversity in their programs." Keeping diversity a constant consideration could help identify community champions, develop a synergy and promote a responsibility that flows from leadership to volunteers. Program staff should inventory current resources: technology, community relationships, available transportation options, trainer support. They should also look for opportunities to close the disparity and exposure gap through shared learning experiences where different communities (racially, socially or economically) work together. 

Training in rural communities can enhance the sense of belonging for minority communities, as well as provide sense of familiarity for those who are not part of the minority community. Notice I said "minority," not people of color. Diversity can mean more than race or ethnicity. Still think your program lacks diversity? Then look around and partner with a neighboring CASA/GAL program to enrich your diverse base. Employ a buddy system where you pair volunteers with those unlike them. For example, Sherri Howard, executive director of TLC CASA in Dublin, GA, makes certain the volunteer communicates with someone of the same racial or cultural background to help the volunteer better prepare to advocate effectively for the assigned child.

Training can also add to the wealth of impoverished communities—both communities of color and white communities—by providing subsidies for travel, arranging ride-shares, offering child care services for attendees during training and providing food for nourishment. Identify and enlist the support of local merchants and neighborhood groups by asking for donations to cover travel, snacks for trainees or even recommendations for meeting space. Modeling collaboration means being congruent in the behavior we expect of volunteers.

Rural communities have the rich opportunity to develop and harvest cooperative relationships. Taking training on the road to minority or impoverished communities or co-training or partnering with other organizations not only closes the distance gap, but also aids in building community. And it provides your trainees with a sense of the community dynamics and helps with identifying available services. Remember, identifying community resources is a training homework assignment!

Don't forget one of the most important training assets: our volunteers! Christina uses her diverse population to inform the program of community cultural events to help fulfill continuing education requirements and provide greater exposure to the volunteers and the program.

When approaching a faith-based community, we normally focus on the pastor, though this can often yield little in the way of results. My advice: stay the course, just switch lanes. Host a breakfast, lunch or tea for church mothers or elders, deaconesses or “Church wives” and include those from the community you serve as well as from those who serve. The ultimate goal may be volunteers, but start small by asking for a small donation in order to underwrite training one volunteer.

When time and distance are issues, close the geographical gap with technology such as Skype and a webcam. The use of social media like Facebook or wiki sites enables trainees to share learning experiences, ask questions and bond with each other while you, as trainers, assess the written communication skills of your potential CASA/GAL volunteers.

Training should yield more than advocates. The richness of diversity within rural communities should provide opportunities to build community assets which include residents, organizations and infrastructure. What a rich harvest!

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