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Toward a common civic vision in Greater Minnesota

BISCAY, Minn. — Extension educator Catherine Rasmussen helps develop rural leaders.

Catherine Rasmussen, a University of Minnesota Extension educator who helped to create the agency’s county bridging programs, is pictured May 17 at the Major Avenue Hunt Club near Biscay.

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 this 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.

BISCAY, Minn. — The easiest way to get to the Major Avenue Hunt Club is to drive northwest on state Highway 22 to this tiny hamlet and take two lefts – the first at the liquor store and the second at the old creamery. From there, it’s a straight, dusty drive into the heart of McLeod County, where the club emerges amid a cluster of trees and green lawns.

On a windy May morning, 18 people from throughout the county are gathered around long, rectangular tables in the dining area of the game hunting reserve.  It’s the last of nine daylong meetings of leadership training sponsored by the University of Minnesota Extension – the school’s longstanding rural outreach branch.           

The group has already met in eight other towns in McLeod County – the program is spread out over nine months – and today Biscay (pronounced BIS-kee), population 113, gets the spotlight.

Midmorning, a McLeod County historian briefs the group on local Native American history – just one of several sessions in the day. For fun, and before a lunch of pork sandwiches, potato salad, pickles and fruit, a DNR officer teaches the group how to climb trees to set up a deer stand – even sending a few embarrassed participants, in full harness, scurrying up a tree.

Brad Martens, the Winsted City Administrator and a participant in the McLeod County bridging program, climbs a tree during a DNR demonstration May 17 at the Major Avenue Hunt Club near Biscay.MinnPost photo by Gregg AamotBrad Martens, the Winsted city administrator and a participant in the McLeod County bridging program, climbs a tree during a DNR demonstration May 17 at the Major Avenue Hunt Club near Biscay.

In the meantime, the woman charged with running the program – a former English teacher with small-town roots and infectious enthusiasm – arrives from a winery near Hutchinson, where the group will meet later in the day to “graduate” from the program.

“How are we doing here?” Catherine Rasmussen says.

Building civic bridges

Rasmussen is the point person for an Extension program that seeks to draw out and develop leaders in rural Minnesota regions that desperately need them – young people who, in Rasmussen’s view, “are looking for the professional development and tools for their own futures.”

Rasmussen helped to create the “bridging” program about a dozen years ago, shortly after she left Cathedral High School in New Ulm and began working for Extension (formerly, and more popularly, known as the Extension Service).

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She initially signed on with the university to work with rural youth in Brown County in southern Minnesota; Extension has long supported and promoted rural programs like 4-H. But it wasn’t long before she came to believe that the adults needed some mentoring, too, having erected their own barriers that kept them from collaborating on ideas and developing projects.

“I spent the first five years in Brown County working with youth, working with 4-H and then with schools and youth mentoring programs. But at the same time I began to realize that adults need this just as much as kids,” she recalled. “There were issues of misinformation and some communities not really wanting to work with other communities. It was almost like high-school sports rivalries were alive and well.”

“I said to myself, ‘We need to do something about this and get these people in the same room.’”

The result was the Bridging Brown County program, a precursor to what has become a broader effort by Extension to help rural Minnesota communities develop leaders and ideas that will enhance civic ties and development.

Rasmussen is credited as the primary designer of the bridging program, which has now been conducted in Brown, Nicollet and McLeod Counties; three more counties are working with Rasmussen on programs of their own.

“Each program is unique to the county,” she said. “I develop it with local design teams” – a local diverse steering committee of public and private partners with everyone from elected officials to retired business owners.

A modern Extension service

Rasmussen, who grew up on a farm five miles outside of New Ulm, remembers calling her father after she had decided to give up her teaching job to become an Extension educator. The independent-minded German gently teased her, saying: “You’re going to teach farm ladies how to can?”

Indeed, Extension operates in such an unconventional way – its educators are present in each of the state’s 87 counties but work outside traditional campus or classroom settings – that its contributions can often go unnoticed. Moreover, its reputation as a supplement to the state’s agricultural economy can obscure its 21st century mission of deepening and elevating the state’s rural culture in all of its forms. 

Rasmussen, for instance, actually works for Extension’s Center for Community Vitality – a branch devoted to the economic and civic health of rural Minnesota communities; a 2011 MinnPost article considered the center’s research on the “brain gain” – evidence that midcareer people are choosing to move back to smaller, rural areas. Even Rasmussen’s title, “community vitality educator,” suggests the modern view and reach of Extension.

The agency, essentially a partnership between the university and government, has been around for a century. Its unusual name means just what it says; it “extends” the school’s expertise into those nooks and crannies of Minnesota that are – geographically and culturally – far from the university’s intellectual hub in the Twin Cities. 

18 years of teaching English

Rasmussen came to Extension from Cathedral High School, a private Catholic school where she had spent 18 years teaching English composition and literature. She and her husband, Glenn, who have three children, had settled in comfortably, living three blocks from the school in the town of 14,000 where she had grown up.

“I loved teaching English – love the language,” she said. “And then I opened a newspaper one day and saw an ad for an educator of leadership and citizenship for youth in the Brown County area.  And I thought, ‘Interesting.’ ”

Later, in discussing her career as a high-school teacher, she added: “That was going to be my life. I was going to be one of those English teachers who die behind the desk. I loved it. But I always wanted to stretch and challenge myself, too.”

Extension hired Rasmussen in 1997. Eventually, as Extension shifted its decades-long focus from county-by-county services to regional activity and training, she was supposed to turn the project over to local facilitators.

“When we went regional, I was supposed to let go of this work and only offer these regional workshops and training. I was eventually supposed to walk away. But as Extension has evolved, we learned that working directly with local communities and doing long-term leadership in specific communities has had the greatest impact.  That is where we saw change.”

She added, with a smile: “I wouldn’t let go.”

A new generation of leaders

Kerry Ward is one of the participants at the Biscay event.  The county health educator recently returned to her hometown of Glencoe after living and working in Gaylord, in nearby Sibley County, for about five years.  She was glad to be back home but realized, to her surprise, “that you think you know your community and the people who live there, but you don’t. New people arrive and things change.”

In learning about McLeod County, participants in the bridging program toured tiny Biscay, including the old Biscay Creamery. The creamery, built in 1889, is believed to have been one of the first dairy cooperatives in Minnesota. MinnPost photo by Gregg AamotIn learning about McLeod County, participants in the bridging program toured tiny Biscay, including the old Biscay Creamery. The creamery, built in 1889, is believed to have been one of the first dairy cooperatives in Minnesota.

As part of her job to promote exercise and healthy living, Ward was charged with helping to develop a public trails and parks map of the entire county. To do that, she needed to work with both the county and the Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP), which provides money for such initiatives.

“I think the biggest thing is that Catie makes this program fun,” Ward says. “Through her story telling, she relates things to you, personally. She gets people motivated and makes you want to be engaged in your community and to learn more.”

Another participant, Jason Just, who works as an accountant in Glencoe for the Twin Cities & Western Railroad Company, recalls one training segment that included the famed Myers-Briggs psychological assessment, which helps people understand how they see the world and make decisions. An important part of the assessment is helping people to determine whether they are introverts or extroverts or – as is the case with many people – somewhere in between.

After the participants took the assessment, Rasmussen began by putting those who had scored as introverts on one side of the room and asking them whether they thought they were introverted or extroverted. Of course, nobody said anything. Then she put those who had scored as extroverts on the other side of the room and asked them the same question. Nobody would shut up.

Point made.

“That was fun. That was enlightening,” Just says. “She’s a teacher, that’s for sure.”

Rasmussen, dressed in teacher-casual tan skirt and white shirt at the Biscay event, insists that everyone must take part in the program, an instinct perhaps honed from her years spent in front of students at Cathedral High. 

Can anyone just sit in the back and blend in?

“No,” she says. “I’ll find them.”

Developing human and social capital

Chambers of Commerce, fraternal clubs, economic development commissions – groups like these have been running civic workshops for decades. Indeed, a staple in most small communities is the networking initiative – the seminars, tours and chicken dinners that bring people together, mostly to talk shop and learn names. 

What’s different about the bridging program?

For Rasmussen, it stands out by recognizing a few 21st-century realities, including the changing economies of rural areas – which create fewer agriculture-related jobs but more opportunities for niche businesses – and the demographic challenges that have brought Hispanics, Somalis and others into mostly white communities. A core point of the program is to broaden the knowledge of all of the industries that make small towns click – local government, small mom-and-pop shops, larger manufacturers, schools.

Deanne Bryce took part in the Brown County bridging program after moving to Springfield with her husband, Steve, to run the Solar Drive-In. They had previously worked in Marshall at the Schwan Food Company and, before that, in Philadelphia.

“For me, (the bridging program) was a lifesaver because I wasn’t from Minnesota or Brown County,” she recalled. “I had just moved to the area and didn’t know anyone. The way it is structured, you really get to know the other people in the program – not simply information about them but their personalities.”

Specifically, Bryce mentioned a book program at the Solar Drive-In that she started with the help of the county’s United Way chapter. The group helped Bryce find local partners to donate books;  now, parents can read the books – as many as 40 sit on the shelves – to their children at the restaurant. The children can even keep the books. 

Asked why the bridging program is needed, she said: “People out here are less likely to work for a large company that provides this kind of training; in the Twin Cities, you would get this in-house. I think it provides a sense of professionalism and compassion and skills for figuring out how to talk to people to get whatever you are trying to accomplish accomplished.”

A broader vision

The idea, ultimately, is to send participants back to their communities and work environments with better skills, more confidence and a deeper understanding of their surroundings.

So promising is the program that University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler paid a visit to Rasmussen earlier this year while on a trip to Hutchinson, asking her specifically about the bridging program. “He wanted to know about outreach. He’s very interested in it,” Rasmussen says.

For Ward, the McLeod County health educator, the biggest thing about the program is that it has enabled her to pick up the phone with confidence and call someone to get something started. “I have met a lot of people outside the county system now – people in business – and I have a comfort level with them,” she says.

Adds Rasmussen: “When the (program) evaluations for (the) McLeod (program) came back, self-confidence was through the roof. It went way up for many of them.”

The need to adapt

Part of that self-confidence is the ability to recognize and accept change and to adapt to it accordingly.

“You know, when I was young, growing up on a farm, we picked up eggs every day. We had pigs. We farrowed. We had sows. It was one of those diverse family farms where we did everything. And mom stayed home,” she says. One of her brothers still runs the farm, though differently from before.  He raises crops now – no livestock.

“Back then there were clothing stores on Main Street in New Ulm; there were two or three bars on a block,” she says with a laugh. “It’s different out here now.  But there are still people who want to live here. There is a future here, but it’s going to look different. People want space, the comfort of knowing their neighbors.”

It was time to leave.  The group was going to tour a waste-management and renewable-energy plant in Glencoe before leaving for the Crow River Winery near Hutchinson for the culmination of the program.

Rasmussen wanted to make sure this article focused as much on the bridging program and the people taking part in it as it did on her, insisting that she was simply the caretaker for a program that now has legs of its own.

The wind had only grown stronger since the morning, blowing dust across the lawns of the lodge and the prairie grasses in the distance. 

Putting on a pair of large, brown sunglasses, she says: “It wasn’t until I got into Extension that I saw the need for people to open their eyes and see what is happening in their communities. I want people to have that shared vision of doing things together.”