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‘Driving Change’ panel: Timing, local focus aid GreenStep Cities

The MPCA-led project taps into the public’s increasing awareness of sustainability as a driving force behind successful, modern cities.

Jeff Vetsch, center, speaking to a group of Granite Falls residents.

MinnPost has assembled a panel of leadership experts and scholars, who are rotating in commenting on each of the examples of leadership profiled in our series, “Driving Change: A Lens on Leadership.” Today, Laura Bloomberg of the University of Minnesota comments on aspects of leadership presented in “Reaching sustainability in Minnesota, one city at a time.”

Laura Bloomberg has been involved in public life long enough to understand that, sometimes, when it comes to advocating change, nothing can beat timing.

“If we don’t think about windows of opportunity, we can bang our head against the proverbial wall,” said Bloomberg, the executive director of the Center for Integrative Leadership at the University of Minnesota. “We have to look for those times when things can get done.”

In that sense, the timing may be right for a project known as GreenStep Cities, which is tapping into the public’s increasing awareness of sustainability as a driving force behind successful, modern cities. The project, led by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency with the support of six partner organizations, is providing cities across Minnesota with expertise and resources as they strive to conserve energy, utilize renewable fuels and encourage healthy activities like biking and walking.

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A handful of organizers, led by Philipp Muessig, the program’s coordinator at the MPCA, have helped to sign up 47 Minnesota cities for GreenStep Cities, from Rochester in the southeast to several Twin Cities suburbs to Grand Rapids near the Iron Range.

Local focus

While Bloomberg is now part of the state’s largest research university — where she teaches courses on leadership, management and program evaluation — her roots in public education began at local levels. She once taught special education, worked for a time as a principal and served on the Mahtomedi School Board.

So she was encouraged to learn that GreenStep Cities organizers take stock of each community’s profile before pitching the program. The project also relies, ultimately, on local leaders to press forward with sustainability goals, whether those involve updating public lighting, renovating old buildings or designing more walkable space for pedestrians.

“Understanding a community personality is a key leadership function,” said Bloomberg, who has done research on community leadership. “Good leaders have done this for a long time. We might pull it out and label it with something now, but good leaders help other people find and develop their own leaders. They will then be the ones to motivate others.”

Jeff Vetsch, speaking to a group of community leaders in Granite Falls, said he likes to keep his presentations “at 30,000 feet” for a broad and low-pressure perspective.

Said Bloomberg: “I thought it is interesting that they know that we have got to take people and communities where they are at. We can’t come in with guns blazing, talking about climate change or something like that. It’s like the old saying, ‘Just tell me what time it is, not how the watch is built.’  It may be important to learn about the watch, but that can come later.”

Public-private collaboration

The Center for Integrative Leadership is housed at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, the state’s premier school for public policy development, but Bloomberg is quick to point out that the center is co-run with the university’s well-regarded business school — the Carlson School of Management.

Laura Bloomberg
Laura Bloomberg

She notes that, in today’s world, collaborative leadership —including business participation — is paramount. Her main concern with GreenStep Cities, as she began to read the MinnPost feature, was whether it included private sector collaboration. In fact, the project encourages the input of business leaders and holds economic development as one of its central tenets.

“That’s important,” Bloomberg said. “I can’t think of too many grand challenges that don’t require a multi-sector approach. Our problems are too complicated for just one sector to try and solve.”

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One workshop at the Center for Integrative Leadership led to the publication of an academic work, titled “Cross-Sector Leadership for the Green Economy: Integrating Research and Practice on Sustainable Enterprise,” that considers the role public, private and nonprofit sectors play in environmental-related economic development.

Buttressing economy

Granite Falls, a city of 2,900, is one of many rural Minnesota communities hoping to buttress its traditional agriculture-based economy with renewable energy, like wind and biofuels, smarter use of technology and better promotion of its natural outdoors.

That seems smart, Bloomberg said.

“We need the private sector to thrive in Greater Minnesota. The public and nonprofit sector in rural areas will never thrive if the private sector isn’t also thriving and supportive of that.”

She added, speaking of GreenStep Cities: “If they aren’t careful, the cynic in me says this could become another layer of hoops to jump through. But if it’s a nimble coalition that allows small communities, especially, to have access to some of these resources, then it’s a great thing.”