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Building coalitions, fixing systems: Janet Lewis Muth’s fingerprints are all over Rice County initiatives

While covering important events in our civic and cultural life, journalists typically focus on facts, controversies, issues and their impact. They rarely look through the lens of understanding leaders and leadership: who is leading the causes and creating change, how those leaders were motivated to tackle tough problems and create opportunities for their communities, and how they worked through the challenges that arose.

In a yearlong series, MinnPost is profiling such leaders in order to provide new insights — and, we hope in some cases, inspiration — for our readers. Each profile is paired with comments from members of a panel of experienced leaders and scholars of leadership. The project is made possible by a grant from the Bush Foundation.

NORTHFIELD, Minn. — If  Rice County raised flags to mark civic achievement, the banner of Janet Lewis Muth would fly over Northfield’s new transit system, a safe-kids initiative in Faribault, a help center for newcomers in Northfield and healthier homes across the county.

Janet Lewis Muth
MinnPost/Sharon Schmickle
Janet Lewis Muth

That’s the short list.

But Muth would object, insisting that she can’t take credit for those developments.

In a sense, she would be right.

While Muth has a finger in dozens of Rice County initiatives, she tries to do as little hands-on work as possible. Instead, she builds coalitions, helping people communicate across cultural and bureaucratic barriers to get things done.

“We try to not be about running programs. … We try to be about connecting people,” Muth said of a coalition she leads.

“She is all about standing in the background, providing support and letting the folks who did the work claim the credit,” said Kathy Sandberg, coordinator for Rice County Family Services Collaborative.

And so, Muth’s story also is a story of dynamic people and organizations in the Northfield-Faribault area. Their response to sharp government cutbacks has been to innovate, pull together and leverage resources. The upshot is that in some cases their communities are getting more service even with less money.
One of Muth’s strategies is to help other leaders streamline systems for delivering everything from bus rides to healthy living conditions for kids.

“You can help one individual with a given problem, but if you change systems then you help much more broadly,” said Adrienne Falcon who directs academic civic engagement at Carleton College in Northfield.

“Janet is someone who is able to navigate levels from individual help to systems change really effectively,” Falcon said.

Getting more for less
Take, for example, Northfield’s lost welcome center.

The city had maintained an office with a bilingual staff to help a surge of newcomers navigate the complexities of local services and regulations. Like most other cities wrestling with tough economic times, Northfield was forced to cut spending last year, including the $70,000 budget for the welcome center.

The resulting void left immigrants, in particular, without the help they needed to find services and also to translate everything from medical instructions to utility bills. Hundreds of Latino and Somali families have moved to Rice County in recent years, and the U.S. Census Bureau reports that a language other than English is spoken in 10 percent of the homes in the county. In Northfield, Latinos made up the fastest growing population group between 2000 and 2010.

A coalition led by Muth stepped in to fill the welcome-center void.

Rather than simply lobby to save the old center, they assessed the needs of newcomers and identified critical points where Northfield could meet those needs. They debated politically sensitive questions: Should a community invest time and money to welcome newcomers at all? If so, who should take responsibility?

They listened to neighborhood leaders, city officials and social service agencies. And they pulled together donations, office equipment and pledges of in-kind support.

City-coalition partnership
The result was the Northfield LINK Center, a partnership between the city and Muth’s coalition.

For 20 hours each week, residents can walk up to a desk near the entrance of the Northfield Community Resource Center to get information and assistance about food, housing, health care and local services.

Janet Lewis Muth reviews plans with Sara Doyle, an AmeriCorps Vista worker.
MinnPost photo by Sharon Schmickle
Janet Lewis Muth reviews plans with Sara Doyle, an AmeriCorps Vista worker.

But the center is more than a walk-up desk. It is a hub for resources ranging from adult education to help with family violence. A public-health nurse is on hand during certain hours. A city council member shows up periodically to meet with constituents. And residents can use an office to meet with people from organizations and agencies that don’t have a physical presence in Northfield.

Thanks to volunteers, part-time staffers and creative agencies in the coalition, Northfield is getting this service for $22,100 a year — an annual savings of $47,900 from the cost of the old Welcome Center.

The project was a winner this year in the Minnesota Community Pride Showcase competition, and it was among those honored at the State Fair at a program sponsored by the Minnesota State Fair, MinnPost and InCommons.

Spurred by poverty
Muth’s passion for such civic causes came to life when she was 17 years old. She is 41 now.

As a girl growing up in West Bend, Wis., Muth thought for years that she wanted to be a veterinarian.

“I loved animals. I loved biology. That was what I wanted to do,” she said.

Then, as a high-school junior she spent a year in Venezuela, where desperate poverty changed her life plan. Precise poverty statistics in Venezuela have been elusive and controversial under the regime of President Hugo Chavez. By several measures though, at least one third of Venezuelans lived in extreme poverty back then.

“Coming from a small town in Wisconsin, I had never been exposed to that kind of poverty,” Muth said. “I was 17 years old. I really had never thought about those things before.”

That was during the 1980s when famine in Africa inspired millions of young people to think in we-are-the-world mode. Still, Muth said, “It was just all images on TV and really far away for me.”

Until Venezuela.

“Suddenly, it seemed to me that dedicating my life to taking care of people’s pets in privileged America — I don’t know how to describe it, but it just didn’t seem like the right path for me,” she said.

Peace Corps worker, then parent
So Muth majored in Spanish at Oberlin College in Ohio. Truthfully, she was majoring in Peace Corps preparation.

“The specific major was sort of irrelevant to me,” she said. “It was more about what was going to help me get a position in the Peace Corps.”

The strategy worked, and she landed a two-year Peace Corps assignment in Cape Verde, an island country off the west coast of Africa. Her job involved advance preparation for a UNICEF plan to help rural villages build rainwater catchment systems and latrines.

“My role was to go in with a Cape Verdian national to essentially prepare the communities for the arrival of this UNICEF project,” she said. “We did knowledge surveys with folks about water practices and hygiene practices.”

They held meetings to learn whether communities had the interest and time to invest in water and sanitation projects if they were given the materials to do so. Muth also helped with education projects such as putting together a hygiene curriculum for elementary school teachers and training volunteer kindergarten teachers.

Upon her return to the United States, Muth eventually went to the University of Minnesota to get a master’s degree in public health.

Then she ran into an old school friend at a Christmas party. This time the relationship was deeper than friendship. She moved to Connecticut where he lived. By the time he took a job as a chemistry professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, they had two-week-old twins, a boy and a girl. Later, a second daughter was born.

“I gave up working and stayed home with the children for five years,” she said.

Growing Up Healthy
The timing was serendipitous. When Muth was ready to go back to work in 2006, a coalition of community organizations was seeking a leader for a new county-wide initiative.

Concerned workers in the public schools, public health agencies and early childhood programs had decided to apply for a slot in a “Growing Up Healthy” initiative sponsored by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation.

Sure doctors and nurses treated kids in Rice County when they got sick.

But a child’s health and well-being is affected by a myriad of factors that never are seen in a medical clinic — or, sadly, are seen too late. To name just a few: mold in some of the trailers that newcomers called home, speeding traffic on streets where kids were playing, and inadequate nutrition.

Further, parents who couldn’t speak English were reluctant to connect with schools, health services and early childhood programs.

The core group of advocates for the county’s children won the grant and hired Muth to coordinate the program. Now, after a series of Blue Cross and Blue Shield grants, Rice County’s version of Growing Up Healthy is running on its own.

From speed bumps to tamales
Muth’s mission was to connect kids in marginalized families with the community resources they needed to — well, grow up healthy. That called for grassroots organizing in neighborhoods where the kids were living, identifying problems and doing something to get them solved.

Residents work in a community garden near Faribault.
Courtesy of Growing Up Healthy, Rice County
Residents work in a community garden near Faribault.

You can see some of the results taking shape at the Cannon River Mobile Home Park on the outskirts of Faribault. It’s a place that spells poverty and progress in the same sentence. Paint is peeling on many run-down trailers and cardboard subs for windows here and there. But lawns are mowed, and flowers splash their bright colors across planters and borders.    

Thanks to Growing Up Healthy, Cannon River families have a new community garden. Speed bumps have been ordered for busy streets where kids play. Some mobile homes are newly winterized. Some have had plumbing, electrical and roof repairs. And there is a program for kids who had been left home alone while their parents went to work during summer vacation.

Moving on to Northfield, you can even taste results at a multicultural cooking club.

For one reason or another, Latino families hadn’t participated in the dinners parents occasionally serve at Greenvale Park Elementary School. When mothers of some of the students offered to teach Muth how to make tamales, she saw a door opening for nutritional education and also better connections between the families and the school.

Muth arranged for a church kitchen, helped the women shop and threw in her recipe for a fresh and healthy salsa. They made more than 200 tamales and took the meal to school for a dinner with teachers.

“The response was unbelievable,” Muth said.

The teachers were excited. The Latino families were proud. The tamales were delicious.

And the idea for a cooking club was born.

The group Women in Northfield Giving Support provided funding. And eventually food-security-minded students at Carleton College adopted the project. They’ve scavenged fresh, local produce for dishes ranging from veggie lasagna to zucchini bread to tostadas.

Give a man a vegetable?
You might ask what this largely adult activity has to do with kids’ health.

A lot, said Hannah Puczko who directs the Community Services Division of the Northfield Public Schools.

“Children succeed best in school when parents are involved, and that also relates to children being healthy and coming to school,” Puczko said. “If you think of the whole hierarchy of needs, families are not going to be focusing on success in school if their critical need of safe, stable housing isn’t met first or access to healthy foods isn’t met.”

The cooking club and the community gardens are very much in tune with the old proverb about giving a man a fish, Puczko said.

“It’s not that you feed people,” she said. “You teach them how to fish or to grow vegetables. … Janet gets that.”

And it was in keeping with Muth’s leadership style to step back and allow Carleton students to help lead the cooking club.

Families share recipes and healthy food at the multicultural cooking club.
Courtesy of Growing Up Healthy, Rice County
Families share recipes and healthy food at the multicultural cooking club.

“There is a concept called leadership from behind, and that’s what I see Janet do all of the time,” Puczko said. “She might be in the public eye sometimes. … But in terms of people in the neighborhoods, she is leading from behind, empowering people … that’s a real skill, not necessarily being out in front all of the time.”

Systems repair
A big part of Muth’s mission involved scrutinizing systems that already were in place to serve kids and their families. If the county was failing one kid, chances were it was failing many other kids for the same reason, the thinking went. So don’t just help the one kid. Fix the system.

“If an individual neighborhood or family says, ‘This is a problem for us,’ we often find through talking with other people that it is not just a problem for one neighborhood or one family,” Muth said. “Then we talk about it at the systems level. What are the things that could change? Where are those levers for change that could really make a difference in a big way?”

One problem that called for large-scale change was a lack of public transportation. Northfield had a dial-a-ride service residents could request if they called in advance. But it wasn’t a full substitute for a bus with a regular route and reliable stops.

The drive to upgrade the system is a prime example of Muth’s leadership tactics: plant ideas, bring the right people together, articulate problems and possibilities, lend support where it is needed and then stand back to let others achieve results.

In September 2008, Growing Up Healthy and partners sponsored a community screening of the documentary film “In Sickness and in Wealth,” which is part of the “Unnatural Causes” series created and produced by Larry Adelman of California Newsreel.

Falcon of Carleton College attended with a group of students and stayed for a discussion about the causes of socio-economic and racial inequalities in access to good health. The idea surfaced that one cause in Northfield was a shortage of public transportation.

It had been Muth’s mantra for a long time.

The discussion continued back on the Carleton campus, and some students decided to examine the transit issue as part of a quarter-long research project. Falcon connected the students with Muth and other local experts who could inform their research.

Buzz got attention
The findings, presented at another community meeting, generated enough buzz to get the attention of city officials, including Suzie Nakasian, a current city council member. Back then she served on a panel that advised the city on environmental quality issues.

“The paper was a catalyst for bringing together people who were interested in the community from various angles,” Nakasian said. “Janet had a big part in that.”

Nakasian encouraged the group to take their campaign to City Hall “so that this conversation could directly inform city considerations.” And she organized what’s called the Northfield Grassroots Transit Initiative.

Now — to jump several steps in the evolution of the project — Northfield is set to launch a new public transit system early next year. Residents still will be able to call for a ride if they need it. But they also will have the option of catching minibuses running on regular routes for $1 or $1.25 a ride.  

Through every step, Muth has been a consistent force pushing for the new system, Nakasian said.

“She has been shining her light on this need for a very long time,” Nakasian said. “Certainly, she was involved from the beginning.”

While many activists may pick up a bull horn and storm City Hall, that is not Muth. “She is not shrill,” Nakasian said.

Instead, Muth’s style is to educate and persuade.

“She helps people understand what the issues are,” Nakasian said. “We have a lot of people like that in Northfield. But she is very good at it.”

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