Educational Administration, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in The Bloomsbury Handbook of Rural Education in the United States, ed. Amy Price Azano, Karen Eppley, & Catharine Biddle (2021).


Copyright 2022 Bloomsbury Academic. Used by permission.


Complex social problems such as teen pregnancy, youth suicide, student achievement, and foster care placement result from the interplay of problems in both the public and private sectors. Isolated approaches by single organizations in individual sectors, in general, have failed to “move the needle” on many of these problems. Such “wicked” problems are defined by complexity, interrelatedness, unpredictability, open-ended, intractable, and often subjected to competing values (Head & Alford, 2015). As such, wicked problems do not respond to technical, readymade solutions. Instead, they require adaptive and iterative approaches to learning about the causes of complex challenges, generating solutions, measuring the impact, and using knowledge generated to revise solutions (Edmondson & Zimpher, 2014; Kania & Kramer, 2011). Rural communities are not immune from such problems. For example, research suggests rural youth are more likely to die by suicide than their urban peers (Fontanella et al., 2015; Singh et al., 2013) and young women aged fifteen to twenty-four in rural places are more likely than their urban peers to experience unplanned pregnancies (Sutton et al., 2019). Place-based, cross-sector partnerships have increasingly been seen as a strategy for tackling these types of complex social problems by bringing together local assets and drawing on strengths such as local knowledge, local leadership, and social networks to support children and families (Boyd et al., 2008; Henig et al., 2016; Kerr et al., 2014). By identifying local challenges and focusing on local assets, these partnerships seek to avoid the short-termism of shifting national priorities and policy churn, as well as policy solutions crafted by “distant experts” (Jennings, 1999; Kerr et al., 2014; Stone et al., 2001). For place-based cross-sector partnerships to be effective, they must be “fit for purpose, in this place, at this time” (Lawson, 2013, p. 614, emphasis original). They must also be “locally developed interventions that engage with an ecological understanding of place” (Kerr et al., 2014, p. 131). This ecological understanding of place includes local demographics, organizational environments, and social geography (Lawson et al., 2014). When partnerships fulfill these recommendations, they have the potential to be asset- and place-based interventions for complex social challenges.