A few years ago — after 20 years with government and nonprofit agencies, including managing political campaigns — Dave Colling went back to school to study nonprofit management at Hamline University. He determined his ideal next move would pair community organizing with food, a passion he shares with his wife, their son, and even his dog.
“Everything we do is around food,” said Colling. “We cook, we garden. It’s part of our vacations.”
Which is why Colling talks about his new job, as the executive director of Frogtown Farm, as though he’s found a unicorn.
Sitting at his kitchen table in St. Anthony while his wife, Sarah Steil, fried slices of homemade olive, rosemary, and garlic bread to go with a roasted vegetable salad, he said he didn’t believe such an ideal job existed.He has taken the helm at Frogtown Farm – a 5.5-acre nonprofit urban farm in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood – as it enters a new phase. In its first five years, the organization got a handle on farming, said Ryan Ellis, vice chair of Frogtown Farm’s board of directors, and it is now certified organic and produces enough food to sustain a market and a community food pantry on a weekly basis.
But it’s no longer a fresh-faced startup, and that has implications for its operations, as well as for its funding sources. (Funders like new projects, Colling said. Frogtown Farm doesn’t count as new anymore.) The board wanted someone with a broader community organizing background to turn the farm into an essential gathering place, and it started searching for a new executive director in January, taking their time as they sifted through candidates to find the person who could navigate that shift in focus.
Colling stood out. “His background was really unique,” Ellis said of Colling. “We knew he was a good fit for Frogtown. I think he’s stepped naturally into the position, which has been great comfort to the board.”
From Michigan to Minnesota
Frogtown reminds Colling of where he grew up, in Detroit, living in a rented home with just his mom. It was a poor, distressed area, he said, but the community was filled with people who helped each other. He went to college planning to become a teacher because, as far as he knew, that’s what people who went to college did for a living.
He had no interest in politics until he agreed to volunteer at former U.S. Rep. John Dingell’s campaign office. It launched the first half of his career, in campaigns and government. He remembers sneaking into Bob Dole’s campaign rallies in 1996 with a cellphone so Democrats could hear the candidate’s speeches.
After moving to Minnesota in 1998, he continued his work in politics, including managing Keith Ellison’s 2006 campaign for Congress. Later, he pivoted to work with nonprofits as a consultant, and then on staff with a couple of neighborhood associations. He pursued political office himself only once, a failed bid for St. Anthony City Council in 2017, doing so in response to the fatal shooting of Philando Castile and the city’s decision to close Lowry Grove, a mobile home park, which remains a contentious issue in the community.
“We have a City Council that is very well-intentioned,” he said during the campaign. “But good intentions aren’t going to solve the issues facing a modern, 21st century city.”
In his new role, he looks forward to working with members of a different community facing similar issues, with food at the center. Whether it’s during farm work nights – one of several programs Frogtown Farm started this summer – or future events held at a permanent building it plans to build, the organization aims to bring people together, and Colling sees the farm as valuable in addressing food-related issues, like hunger and access to high quality fresh produce. It also presents opportunities to build community in the neighborhood in a more general way. “Food, to me, really crosses demographic lines in every way,” Colling said.
Colling spent the last two years as executive director of the Harrison Neighborhood Association, where he helped rebuild relationships between residents and the organization, said Nichole Buehler, who took over as interim director there when Colling left.
“He doesn’t take himself too seriously, so it’s easy to talk to him,” she said. “People feel comfortable with him right away, which is a quality I wish I had.”During his time in Harrison, Colling stabilized a chaotic situation (he was the fourth director in a 12-month period). Because of the turnover on the staff and the board of directors – positions that are filled by community residents – Colling spent much of his time there recruiting neighbors who once played a more active role in the neighborhood, Buehler explained.
“You need to have those relationships with the community to bring folks together and get that kind of investment in whatever common goals that they share,” she said. “If people aren’t going to show up, then you’re not going to accomplish much. People are only going to show up if they feel heard.”
Colling said he’s not coming into Frogtown Farms to “empower” anyone, and he’s spent his first two months gathering information and perspectives. Instead, he says it’s his job to provide tools, ask questions, to make introductions — and then step aside. “They already have power,” Colling said.
“It’s not that he’s bringing justice to people,” Ellis said. “It’s important that any director – whether it’s Dave or a board member – when they come in, you really want to give the community the reins and give them the platform to do so.”