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‘Driving Change’ panel: Rice County, Carleton students leveraged strength by working together

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 Marcia Avner of Avner Consulting comments on aspects of leadership presented in “Building coalitions, fixing systems: “Janet Muth’s fingerprints are all over Rice County initiatives.”

When Janet Lewis Muth and her coalition engaged Carleton College students in their push for improved public transportation, Northfield got far more than an expanded transit system.

Janet Lewis Muth
MinnPost/Sharon Schmickle
Janet Lewis Muth

The project’s impact was multiplied significantly by the added understanding on the part of the students that “their work is not abstract but has real value in the community,” said Marcia Avner, whose company, Avner Consulting, advises clients on public-policy advocacy.

“Our young people are our future leaders, and for them to understand the connection between what they are learning in theory by applying it in a practical — and, in this case, successful — instance  is a terrific way to enhance their education and their own thinking about their work in the future,” Avner said.

Many college towns struggle with the “town and gown syndrome,” with distance or even friction between academia and ordinary folks. In this case, though, “the students understood the value of their work to people in the community where they live at least part of the year and interfaced with the community in a shared effort,” Avner said.

In that sense, Muth and Adrienne Falcon, the Carleton faculty member who connected students with Muth, were continuing the tradition of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, who also taught at Carleton.

“He and his students did organizing in efforts to alleviate poverty in Rice County,” said Avner, who later served as Wellstone’s communications director.

And these modern-day leaders demonstrated in this case “how critical it is to meld theory and practice if we are going to effectively work for change in democracy,” Avner said.

Strength in numbers
More broadly, Muth applied key principles of public-policy leadership by engaging others in the transit cause.

One principle is that “it’s important to build as broad a base of support as possible,” Avner said. 

Marcia Avner
Courtesy of the MN Council of Nonprofits
Marcia Avner

Another principle, she said, “is that good policy work has to be grounded in good research and informational materials.”

So the fact that Carleton students were interested in looking at a policy issue for their research projects set up a great opportunity.

“The leader’s role is to make that connection, to see the moment to seize the opportunity,” Avner said.

In all, Muth and the coalition behind the transit improvements leveraged leadership strength by working together.

“In working as a collaborative, they muster the information that they need, the many voices that they need, the numbers that they need, the leaders that they need to have a compelling influence with the decision makers in the community,” Avner said.

The right kind of ego
Another, more subtle aspect of leadership was illustrated by Muth’s work to improve community life — for example, by organizing parents to cook tamales for teachers at a school.

“Leaders need a certain amount of ego strength, because this is hard work.” Avner said. “So they need a level of confidence that allows them to move into public arenas, to move into groups in the community and to engage them.”

But having ego strength is different from being egotistical or driven by ego, she said.

Muth’s leadership power in that regard was in her genuine interest in the communities she served and in the way she engaged with the communities. She helped bridge gaps in communication or participation by meeting people at the level of their own interests, by learning from them and building on that knowledge.

“That is the kind of leadership we need more and more,” Avner said. “We need people who don’t need to be supported by public acclaim, but who are committed to working on policies that improve people’s lives, working with people, building relationships within the community, building leadership within the community, making connections that last well beyond any particular policy achievement.”

When that happens, people identify with their community and its public life in a new and hopeful way, she said.

“When you say her style is to educate and persuade, I would only add … to convene and facilitate because that’s the effective way of building lasting connections and working together for community improvement,” Avner said.

In other words, an effective leader is one who can organize and develop new leaders.

“For me the fundamental gift of a leader is the ability not only to be the person with a vision, the person who can bring people together in support of strategic goals,” Avner said. “It also is to be the person who nurtures the movement, the coalition … and provides pathways for many levels of leadership to develop.”

Model for tough financial times?
Avner is a Senior Fellow at the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. And she is on the faculty of the Masters in Advocacy and Political Leadership Program at University of Minnesota-Duluth.

Because she has long worked at the intersection of the public and the private, nonprofit sectors, I asked her to comment on Northfield’s new LINK Center. Muth and other civic leaders stepped into Northfield’s budget struggles and helped the city save tens of thousands of dollars while also maintaining a service that had been valuable to newcomers.

Is that a leadership model for other cities in these tight budget times?, I asked.

“The issue is how do we approach what a lot of people are calling service redesign so that we can … be most efficient and most effective with limited resources,” Avner said.

“I am the first one to say that at the state level we have made bad decisions in the past to make deep cuts in support for programs that people count on,” she said. “Not every problem that needs to be addressed in our society can be met with volunteers, part-time staffers and that extra measure of creativity.”

Minnesota will need to look for adequate resources to invest in its priorities, she said.

“Having said that, this exemplifies the many ways that people in a community help to determine the real priorities,” she said. “We need to be intelligent and strategic in asking, ‘What are the best ways to meet a need in a community?’ “

Expansion, while saving money
Muth and others invested their own time and redesigned an older city program. Indeed, they expanded it while also saving the city money.

“We should always be reassessing the way we do things because the way we did things 10 years ago may have little relevance to the needs and opportunities now,” Avner said. “And while this isn’t a solution to every cut in services, it is an example of how we have to think about service delivery at the local level in terms of pulling together a variety of types of human and financial resources.”

The question now is how long alternatives like the LINK Center will last, with their dependence on volunteers, part-time workers and the will of individual community leaders.

“Minnesotans are generous people,” Avner said. “If a program is meeting needs, I think it will continue to get the kind of community support that it needs. Money alone doesn’t solve problems. … If this is sustainable, it is a great example of how we can redesign services in some instances to meet the needs.”

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