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‘Driving Change’ panel: Leadership begins with fostering community, supporting others

MinnPost has assembled a panel of leadership experts and scholars, who are rotating in commenting on each of what will be 24 examples of leadership profiled in our yearlong series, “Driving Change: A Lens on Leadership.” Today Erma Vizenor, chairwoman of the White Earth Nation, comments on aspects of leadership presented in “Muriel Krusemark: the force behind Hoffman’s turnaround.”

Muriel Krusemark is Hoffman's economic development coordinator.
MinnPost photo by Sharon Schmickle
Muriel Krusemark is Hoffman’s economic development coordinator.

People might think economic development begins with business meetings. For Muriel Krusemark, though, it began with fostering a caring community and building one-on-one relationships around the town of Hoffman, Minn.

Every effective leader needs to build such basic human relationships, said Erma Vizenor, chairwoman of the White Earth Nation in Northwestern Minnesota.

“The success of everything that we do — whether or not we are Native American — depends on building relationships,” Vizenor said. “It is all about relationships.”

As a young girl on the White Earth Reservation, Vizenor never dreamed she could earn a doctoral degree from Harvard University — something she eventually did under a Bush Leadership fellowship.

“But still I had dreams and I had visions, and I wanted to do something with my life,” Vizenor said.

One lesson learned over the years is that dreams and visions become realities when you “build relationships with people who can support you and help you,” she said.

It’s more than a matter of shaking many hands. Vizenor recalled one Harvard professor who stressed the importance of weaving trust and credibility into relationships.

“I have taken that to heart,” Vizenor said.

Helping others, helping yourself
A closely related quality of Krusemark’s leadership as Hoffman’s economic development coordinator was her willingness to support others — whether that called for encouraging a building owner to develop tiny Motel 1 or cooking a hot meal for jail inmates who helped gut a building on Main Street.

“Any time that I stand up to speak — and I’m not afraid to do so — I run through my mind quickly ‘Am I going to help the situation or am I going to hurt it?’ ” said Vizenor, who is the first woman leader of Minnesota’s largest reservation.

Erma Vizenor
Erma Vizenor

“I cannot marginalize people,” Vizenor said. “I need to bring partnerships on board. I need to have an open mind. I need to be collaborative. … I am there to build and not tear down.”

Lead by listening
Another aspect of relationship building is to listen to the people you seek to lead. One of Krusemark’s first acts on her economic development job was to survey Hoffman residents, asking what the town needed. She also made rounds of businesses that had stayed open, asking how she could help.

“If you don’t listen and you sit and talk to yourself, you will be working by yourself,” Vizenor said.

To be sure, you must also sell people on your own visions.

But a leader needs people to lead. And the way to bring them on board, Vizenor said, is “to listen, to carry through on their needs and what they want to do.”

Children first
While Krusemark’s official goal was to attract and keep businesses in town, she stretched her range to include amenities for the children of Hoffman, arguing that people prefer to live and work in a community that provides for its children.

I asked Vizenor whether that was an effective leadership strategy.

“I agree with it,” Vizenor said.

Indeed, Vizenor takes the strategy a step further, insisting that effective leaders in economic development must promote improvements in schools, job training and other educational opportunities.

A community’s lack of quality education for children can have “a direct and negative impact on economic development,” Vizenor said.  

Challenges for Native American leaders
For Vizenor, the education challenge extends to educating Minnesota as a whole about the rights, needs and legal status of Native Americans. “We have a lot of education to do, not only within our tribe, but also in the state at large,” she said.

Among other problems, the state has made little progress toward ending disparities in achievement and graduation rates in the public schools, where most Native Americans get their educations.

“They are just as tragic as when I went to high school,” Vizenor said.

Another festering issue has been reclaiming land that “was just stolen” from White Earth members, Vizenor said. Still, White Earth and other Minnesota tribes have made real strides in economic development as they built casinos and provided jobs in counties where poverty rates had been high.

Coming home
Like Vizenor, Krusemark left her rural Minnesota town for several years. In Krusemark’s case it was to work in the Twin Cities. But she came back, ready to make use of the lessons she had learned while gone.

Rural towns suffer an acute shortage of leaders who are willing to come home again, Vizenor said.

“It is important, and I often have been asked, ‘Erma, what are you going to do about the brain drain?’ ” she said.

On reservations, the problem is complicated by politics, by fears that a given job is only secure until the next tribal election, she said.

“My priority here was stability,” she said. “We were not going to have this constant turnover of people.”

Still, rural communities on and off the reservation struggle to lure back those with the education and/or work experience that make them potential community leaders.  

“We need those people here,” Vizenor said.

Accepting reality and moving on
Those who do come back home to help lead their communities need to do so with eyes wide open to the realities driven by decline over time. Krusemark said it was important for her to accept the fact that Hoffman never would be the bustling farm town she had known as a girl and a young shopkeeper.

It would be easy to be defeated by that reality, Vizenor said.

“This is a tough balance,” she said. “What happens, especially in communities where there has been a lot of poverty, is that hopelessness sets in. And the challenges seem almost overwhelming.”

Problems that build up can seem like a mountain.

“And often times we have to move that mountain one stone at a time,” she said. “What is important is that we keep moving the stones.

True leadership in economic development involves a long process of gradually building and maintaining a community’s infrastructure, trained work force and innovative spirit.   

And too often, “people expect results tomorrow,” Vizenor said.

Yes, a community needs to work for some immediate solutions.”But one has to be very realistic,” she said. “If we are not realistic, we are not going to last.”

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