It’s not often that a leadership development program is traced back to the near-extinction of a species of wildlife. But that’s one reason the Rural Development Initiative (RDI) was formed. 

A nonprofit organization based in Eugene, Oregon, RDI was created in 1991 following the federal government’s decision to place the Northern Spotted Owl on the list of endangered species in the United States. 

The move reduced timber harvests on public lands and led to the closures of lumber mills in many rural communities and towns.

Gary Stewart
Photo Courtesy Rural Development Initiatives

“If a small, rural community loses its mill, it loses that employment base,” explained RDI rural community leadership consultant Gary Stewart. “Residents were looking at each other and saying, ‘What do we do now?’ Communities lost tax benefits; employment benefits; and, to some extent, their identities, which were built around the timber industry. Our role was to go in and help communities figure out where they were and then design a path forward so communities could be vital and viable for the folks that were still there.”

Nearly 30 years later, RDI has helped more than 8,000 people in more than 350 rural Pacific Northwest communities diversify their economies, develop strategic action plans, create new job opportunities, build community infrastructure, and foster lifelong learning through leadership development.

RDI isn’t limited to rural communities in Oregon. Since 2004, the organization has worked in communities in Columbia, Mason, Skamania, Spokane, Walla Walla, Whitman, and Yakima counties. RDI employs 17 people and operates on an annual budget of approximately $1.4 million, most of which comes from donations, the federal government, fee for service work, and foundations.

Two years ago, RDI launched the Mason County Rural Community Leadership program.

“In addition to benefitting leaders, the program helps connect residents to each other,” said Mindie Reule, the philanthropic services and programs director at the Community Foundation of South Puget Sound. 

The Community Foundation has committed $75,000 to the program over a three-year period. Other contributors include the Medina Foundation and the Russell Foundation. The initial cohort of participants included 38 people from nonprofit, public, and private sectors who spent nine months building their leadership skills while connecting with one another in a way that promoted community vitality.

Reule said program participants develop new friendships, feel more confident at work, and begin new collaborations. 

“For the Community Foundation, this grant represents investing in the cohesion and well-being of Mason County — and lifting up the wisdom and knowledge that is already there. We hope this program encourages more civic engagement and community leadership.”

Scott Anderson
Photo Courtesy Rural Development Initiatives

Farther south, in Skamania County, Scott Anderson is early in his first term as mayor of Stevenson, a city that counts approximately 1,500 residents and is situated along the Columbia River. When RDI launched a program in Skamania County in 2017, Anderson participated because he thought it would be a good opportunity to build his leadership skills.

“I had been working my way up to running for mayor,” Anderson explained. “The program was a great way to learn how to hone my skills so that I could be the leader that I think the mayor of Stevenson needs to be.”

As for RDI’s future in Washington state, Stewart said the organization is looking at South Sound areas such as Grays Harbor, Lewis, Thurston, and Pierce counties.