Forging a path for Itasca County’s future through conversation at first-ever Community Cafe

Itasca County Community Cafe: What is the future we want to live into?
















Itasca County educators, government, artists, law enforcement, business owners, environmentalists, social services providers and more gathered together on Tuesday to answer the question: What is the future we want to live in to? Participating in three 20-minute conversations, some over-arching themes surfaced:

  • Care enough to ask for one anothers’ stories
  • Expand Art of Hosting in our community
  • MORE inclusive conversations
  • Better resource self-care and networking
  • Update the area’s socio-economic indicators
  • Be a Good Neighbor and bring a neighbor (to the Grand Gathering on November 22)
  • Seek out voices of the unheard

The themes that came from yesterday’s gathering will inform a Grand Gathering Open Space (more about this gathering technique here) at Grand Rapids High School on November 22, hosted by the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. For more information about the Grand Gathering, contact Jerry Nagel, director of Meadowlark Institute, at or 218-532-2585.













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Connect Itasca seeks to build the case for broadband expansion

A small rural clinic closes. A home buyer chooses to look elsewhere. A teacher can’t teach.

While these situations seem unrelated and strangely paired, they all have one common denominator — broadband.

Not what you expected? Here’s the skinny behind the stories:

  • The Bigfork, Minnesota clinic, a satellite of Essentia, can’t upload patient files because broadband connectivity is spotty at best. Therefore, they can’t provide the services needed by the community.
  • A Grand Rapids-based real estate agent shows a cabin to a perspective buyer who asks, “Is there broadband available?” Once the “no” is heard, the buyer moves on.
  • A teacher in Balsam Township teaches online courses for a local community college. He doesn’t have the bandwidth to video conference with his students or view any online media produced by his students, severely limiting his ability to teach the way he deems most effective.

Map courtesy of Connect Minnesota

“It’s the stories we’ve heard of people struggling, struggling to do homework, to manage their home business, to access the information they want to online,” said Itasca County administrator Trish Klein. “That’s what motivated us to start Connect Itasca.”

Connect Itasca is an initiative, facilitated by Itasca County, to gather quality information and facilitate partnerships to stimulate investment in broadband networks that reach throughout Itasca County.

Information is being collected through an online and print survey to identify specific areas where people lack the broadband service they desire.

“Our hope is to identify the areas of need and to partner with existing providers to justify expanding existing service areas,” said Klein.

Expanded service equals expanded opportunity – for existing and new businesses, residents, students, etc. Research shows that 30- to 50-year-olds are choosing to move to rural, but they expect a solid broadband connection to be part of the relocation package.

University of Minnesota Extension sociologist Ben Winchester says, “People almost expect to have [broadband internet]. They’re surprised not to have it. It’s not something people search and hunt for; it’s something they expect to be there.”

“Five years ago you might be able to get by without having adequate broadband but the world has changed,” said Klein. “The timing is right — for our community, for the state, for the country. We can bring our government, funding and technology partners to the table and leverage the commitment of our champions (description below) to connect Itasca.”

Survey data is being collected through October 31, 2014. If you live in Itasca County, you can take the survey here. It will take about 5 minutes. For up-to-date information about Connect Itasca, follow their Facebook page.

How can you help?

Consider being a champion. A Connect Itasca Champion is a volunteer who commits to spreading the word about the Connect Itasca initiative. A champion should have a passion for the goals of connecting all Itascans. They commit to telling friend and neighbors about the importance of the survey and potentially answering questions submitted through the website. To be a Champion, contact Trish Klein at 218-327-7359 or




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Art of Hosting: Have conversations that matter

Photo courtesy of Shape Shift Strategies Blog

What kind of conversations need to happen in your community right now? Who would be at the table? Would it be the right people? What do people need to know before they can fully participate in the conversation? How would the conversation start?

These are tough questions that are often times overlooked by organizers, but they can make all the difference in what results from the conversation.

Asking the right questions is a founding premise of Art of Hosting, an approach to having conversations that “invite people to step in and take charge of the challenges facing them.

People from all around the world are getting trained in the Art of Hosting, but Minnesota has taken a special interest. Both Bush Foundation and Blandin Foundation have worked with Meadowlark Institute, an organization that trains and supports leaders in the Art of Hosting, to host conversations that matter throughout rural Minnesota.

This work is integral to building inclusive communities. Through this process, new people are invited to call or join conversations that matter to them, conversations they may not have been invited to before.

These groups of people, coming from different backgrounds, learn to use a set of tools that uncover individual biases that arise out of their worldview.

Jerry Nagel, director of Meadowlark Institute, says, “We should remember that our worldview could be much different than someone else’s within our community or local cultural context. And, that people we are working with that are from other local contexts may have differing worldviews within that shared construct.”

He offers The Ladder of Inference as a tool for reflecting on how our worldview’s shape the way we think and communicate.

“As we practice dialogue in our world in order to find ways forward, we must develop the capabilities to work in the multi-varied and rich system of many worldviews. To do so, however, requires skill and practice and the capacity to hold paradoxes or multiple truths all at the same time.”

If you’re interested in learning more about Art of Hosting training opportunities, visit the Meadowlark Institute website and see the programming dates below.

Community World Cafe
September 23, 3-5 PM
Timberlake Lodge
Grand Rapids, MN

The Heart of Hosting the Subtle Energies
September 26-October 2
Frontenac, MN
Info here

The Art of Participatory Leadership
October 21-23
Mankato, MN
Info here

Collaborative Leadership and the Art of Hosting
October 28-30
North Conway, NH
Info here

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Digital storytelling: the megaphone for rural voice

Stories have connecting power. They give us a behind-the-scenes look into people’s lives. They invite us to relate to people on a human level and have the potential to inspire action. That might be why video is expected to be the dominant form of online content by 2017.

In today’s Daily Yonder, TechSoup blogger Jim Lynch talked about how rural communities and organizations can harness to the power of video to create stronger ties to those they care about, decrease feelings of isolation and provide the opportunity to show what living in rural is really like – counteracting existing stereotypes.

So dust off your camera lens and zoom in to these quick tips Lynch gives to be successful in rural advocacy, fundraising and community development efforts.

  • Long-winded in out. Really short is in.

The average attention span of an American is now shorter than that of a goldfish. So, to be successful on social media, you need to give people what they want the most: short stories told visually.

  • Post your video in places where you know your audience is at.

Just because you’re telling a story about a small community, that doesn’t mean the potential audience for that story is small. Social media gives your story a chance to reach an even bigger audience.

  • Seeing is believing. Some rural communities don’t have the right tools to “see.”

You can tell the most stunning visual digital story, but it won’t matter if your audience isn’t able to watch it. Many rural communities face significant technology access challenges. Pew Internet reports that 20% of residents in rural areas, where access to broadband is limited, aren’t online at all.

Take this into consideration when crafting your video and selecting where it will be shown.

See below for additional resources about creating powerful video.

Ten Video Tips for Nonprofits

Five Tips for Creating a Compelling Nonprofit Video

Tips for Shooting A Winning Video For Your Nonprofit


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The Birthplace of Brain Gain: Mitchell, S.D.

Minnesota migration map shows population gains of people ages 30-39. SOURCE: University of Minnesota Extension

Sometimes innovation springs from the strangest places – like a palace housing over 275,000 ears of intricately designed corn.

Mitchell, South Dakota is home to the nation’s only Corn Palace and as Northern Minnesota author Aaron Brown says in his recent Daily Yonder article,

While some might only know Mitchell as a tourist trap on the way to Mt. Rushmore, or as the boyhood home of former Senator and unsuccessful presidential candidate George McGovern, this city has quietly reinvented itself as an economic center for technology, marketing and manufacturing. The nation’s leading supplier of rural telecommunication services developed itself right here, and billboards for miles around tout new high-paying jobs in Mitchell.

Brown spotlights Mitchell as the “Home of the Brain Gain,” a migration trend showing that young adults, ages 30-50, are moving to rural communities from urban centers. He recently wrote a post for us describing the concept in detail.

So how did this happen? And what can rural cities all over American learn from Mitchell, South Dakota?

From the mouths of sociologists, economic developers and recently relocated rural residents…it’s all about quality of life!

Bryan Hisel, executive director of the Mitchell Area Development Corporation, said Mitchell’s success has been a combination of existing local talent and a collective focus on improving quality of life and infrastructure in Mitchell.

“Every community has this opportunity whether they know it or not,” said Hisel. “It comes down to whether the smart people who grew up and live in your community think it’s a good place to live or not.”


“We have really smart people who live in rural America,” said Hisel. “This is a desirable place to grow up, to stay and grow your career and enterprise. If you work on building the community into a quality place to live, that’s the key.

Read the full article at The Daily Yonder and check out our blog post for links to brain gain research and stories.


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Putting generational differences to work in rural Minnesota

Watergate. 9/11. JFK assassination. WWI. WWII. Y2K. What major events shaped the way you view the world? Chances are it depends when you were born.

Similarly, the way you communicate was probably influenced by the technological advances that occurred as you were growing up. These influences, along with parenting trends, media, education, location, and general philosophy, shape our values, said a representative from the Northeast Minnesota Office of Job Training at last week’s Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon. They also shape our work expectations.
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Blandin Broadband Communities Strut Their Stuff

Colorful, dancing feathered figures and the hum of ancestral melodies filled the room as Fond du Lac (FDL) students arranged themselves in such a way that they created a cornucopia of technology. Brandishing iPads, they celebrated their Ojibwe culture, together with community members, through the creation of mobile applications.

Held at the end of July, the FDL App Camp was one project created and executed to highlight the value of broadband in their community. The Camp’s close was the perfect opportunity to celebrate the hard work the community has put in to ensure the FDL reservation has the broadband technology in place to thrive now and into the future.

As a Blandin Broadband Community, during the past year FDL has expanded broadband coverage to 80 homes through hot spots, introduced iPads in the 8th grade classroom and held the App Camp.

Leaders all around the state are crafting creative, dynamic approaches to connecting community members to high-speed Internet. FDL is one of nine Blandin Broadband Communities doing this work. The others (Itasca County, Kanabec County, Lake County, Lake of the Woods, Lac qui Parle Valley, Mille Lacs County, Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, and Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services) are carrying out equally-inspiring and important projects that meet the needs of their community.

Blandin Foundation staff are touring these locations, celebrating the hard work of local leaders who are paving the way to a better future for their community.

To get a glimpse into what these celebrations look like on the “Strut Your Stuff Tour,” follow the links below.

Blandin Foundation is currently seeking up to ten new communities for the 2015-16 cohort of Blandin Broadband Communities. Applications will be accepted through October 17, 2014. Click here for more information.


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Albert Lea busts poverty myths to build community

Photo courtesy of Leaders Partnering to End Poverty Freeborn County Facebook Page

What does poverty look like to you? For many, it looks like a crumpled-clothed, weathered-looking man holding flimsy cardboard sign with chicken-scratch writing.

BUSTED MYTH #1: Not all poverty looks like this!

In fact, poverty might look like your next door neighbor, the woman you say hi to in the grocery store or the child with crisply-pressed pants. Poverty comes in many forms. It’s not easy to identify and even less easy to talk about.

BUSTED MYTH #2: Poverty isn’t easy to talk about

So how do you start the conversation?
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Celebrating rural resiliency and passion across the U.S.

If you threw a dart at a map of the United States, it might get stuck in a canyon in the Southwest, perch on the peak of a prodigious mountain in the Northwest or skim swaying wheat fields of the Midwest. Regardless of where you land, it’s likely to be in rural territory.

An astounding 72 percent of the United States is rural and about sixty million people call it home. Each rural community counted in that 72 percent is unique in their own right, not only in its landscape but in the opportunities and challenges they face. Just like urban areas, rural communities see a world of possibilities for the future.

Yet, they have fewer philanthropic partners dedicated to helping them realize that potential.
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Ecosystem philanthropy: a recipe for change

Problems do not exist in isolation. They are entwined in complex ecosystems. Changemakers must be mindful of the ecosystem, and whenever possible, put the ecosystem to work for them. Herein lies the roots of effective philanthropy.

Bush Foundation President Jen Ford Reedy hit these key points in her recent TEDx talk on ecosystem philanthropy. Her 18 minutes on stage were jam-packed with anecdotes and stories that highlighted the potential pitfalls of quick-fix problem solving that disrupts an ecosystem versus the benefits of longer-term, creative approaches that can change an ecosystem.

She surmised three elements of successful ecosystem philanthropy:

  1. Activate others. Ideas require people to power them. Determine who and what you need to make your idea happen. Go from there.
  2. Do. Wait. Watch. Be patient as you look for the change you want to see happening. Ecosystem philanthropy is not a quick-fix.
  3. Think long and lasting. Create a strategy for the long haul and alter conditions as needed.

You can watch her full talk below. It’s worth your time!

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