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Kathy Annette speech to Minnesota Business Women annual meeting

The Hope Business—Lessons learned through 25 years in community leadership

Presentation by Kathy Annette, Blandin Foundation CEO, to annual meeting of Minnesota Business Women at Sawmill Inn in Grand Rapids on May 4, 2012


Hello, everyone! It’s great to have you all here with us in Grand Rapids today.  Welcome!

I’m especially excited to meet you because of everything we have in common as women in leadership positions.  I suspect we’ve fought some of the same battles and overcome some of the same obstacles.  Welcome!  I celebrate your success and congratulate you on your 91st anniversary.  Your founders must have been an impressive group: women running businesses before Congress got around to ratifying their right to vote!

Here at the Blandin Foundation we have a huge appreciation for the importance of the business community in creating better futures for rural communities.  And for the unique skills and perspectives that women can bring to community leadership. 

At Blandin we say that leadership is something you have to do yourself, but you can’t do it alone.  I know that as businesswomen who are active in your communities, you have a wealth of experience to contribute.  As women, we know what hard work is.  I love the quote about Ginger Rogers—that she did everything Fred Astaire did, only backward and in high heels.

Leaders are people who get things done.  It doesn’t matter if you are part of a big organization with many employees or your company has just one employee – you! You have an important role to play as communities become more vibrant, resilient—healthy. Economic success is part of it – and a big part of it, because it helps drive other progress. 

Is your community everything you hope it could be?

Here at the Blandin Foundation we’ve been in the “hope business” for 70 years.  We know that when rural communities are hopeful they claim their futures and make ambitious choices.  We also know that bringing people together to be hopeful and make those choices takes hard work and leadership. 

Last year, we marked the 25th anniversary of the Blandin Community Leadership Program.

Blandin has connected with more than six thousand people in 425 rural Minnesota communities and nine Minnesota reservations. I’m guessing some of you are among that number. Any alums in the group today?

So am I!

I participated in the very first Blandin leadership program specifically for native Americans.  I was a member of the White Earth tribe.  Also in the cohort were members of Leech Lake, Red Lake, Fond du Lac, and Upper Sioux reservations.  Personally, it is the best leadership training I have ever had (and I have been to many).  And I run into people all the time who tell me stories about their training, and the work they have been doing in their communities.

For those of you not familiar with our nationally-recognized leadership program, here’s how it works:

We are invited into communities to help build strengths in three major areas:

  1. Framing opportunities and challenges that lead to effective action
  2. Building social capital for collaboration and resource sharing, and
  3. Mobilizing a critical mass of resources to achieve specific outcomes. 

Recently, as part of being new to the Foundation, I have travelled to rural communities around the state to learn about their hopes, dreams and challenges,  

What I have been hearing is that the vibrancy of downtowns and availability of living-wage jobs is very much on people’s minds.  Families want to be sure their kids could have the choice to come home and build a good life.  Businesses want to be sure they have the skilled employees they need to grow.  Elders worry that without a growing economy they will bear more and more financial weight of the community, giving them fewer choices in their retirement years.

I come away from these meetings more convinced than ever of the importance of having business people like you at the table for community discussions.   In your own ways, and for your own businesses, you know how to 1) frame issues, 2) build social capital, 3) mobilize resources.  Again, these are the bread-and-butter skills of leaders.  You are leaders!

I appreciate the commitment you all have made to being together today.  In my time with you, I’d like to give you a little background on the Blandin Foundation, and share some of our most recent research on rural Minnesota communities and the perspectives of women specifically.  Finally, I’ll share  our Top Five Lessons of Leadership. 

If we have some time at the end, I hope you will share with ME what you have learned about building vibrant, resilient communities. 



For those of you who aren’t familiar with us, a few words about the Blandin Foundation, now in its 70th year strengthening rural Minnesota communities, especially the Grand Rapids area.

Like your organization, we were founded by an astute business person.  The Blandin Foundation was established in 1941 by Charles K. Blandin to promote the well-being of his adopted home, Grand Rapids, and do work “for the betterment of mankind” in the region.  Assets at Mr. Blandin’s death in 1958 were roughly $1 million.  Fifty-plus years later, the trust is worth $372 million.

Mr. Blandin was born in 1872 on a Wisconsin farm. Times were tough, and young Charles learned to work hard and seize every opportunity.  Self-educated and resilient, Blandin was an entrepreneur before he was shaving. He turned a part-time job at a weekly newspaper into apprenticeship and ultimately, a career as publisher of what now is the St. Paul Pioneer Press and owner of a paper mill that became the Blandin Paper Company.

Since 1977, when the Blandin Paper Company was sold, the Foundation has been an entirely separate organization. The Blandin Paper Company is owned today by a Finnish paper company and remains one of northern Minnesota’s largest employers.

The Blandin Foundation is the largest rural-based and rural-focused foundation in Minnesota, and one of only a handful nationally.



So what do we know about the state of rural Minnesota in 2012?

As many of you may know, the 2010 census captured a snapshot of rural Minnesota that is older, and more diverse.  One of our staff joked that 25 years ago, when our leadership training programs were started, the prevailing definition of diversity around here was four different kinds of Lutherans.  We’ve come a long way since then.   Rural Minnesota is changing.

Blandin Foundation conducted its own survey of rural Minnesotans in 2010 – we call it our Rural Pulse report.

What we learned is that while rural residents are quite optimistic generally, they are VERY concerned about a couple of changes:

  • Change in the condition of the economy, and
  • Change in their quality of life.  

On the positive side, rural Minnesotans feel confident about their ability to influence change.  87% overall and 91% of  women believe they are able to help make their community a better place to live.

Statewide, men are more likely than women to see high-quality jobs as a critical issue for their community to address.  Women are more likely than men to cite educational opportunities as an issue to address.

We also found—in varying degrees by community—that women are more concerned about their communities.  Here, in Itasca County, for example, women are:

  • More likely to say that their incomes have decreased.
  • Less likely to feel that there are adequate job

opportunities that pay household-supporting wages.

  • Less likely to believe people from different backgrounds fill leadership roles within their community.
  • And are much more likely than men to say they have considered a move to a larger city or metropolitan area for better job opportunities (63% of Itasca women have; only 40% of men have).

We know the many challenges facing our rural communities. At the same time, we see that rural communities have many of the answers—the natural resources, the knowledge, the staying power, the optimism—for our state and our country.  And with the explosion of technology, which allows people to work virtually anywhere, quality of place is an even bigger draw for some to rural communities.  We believe there is plenty of opportunity outside metro areas.  Rural Minnesota communities will have a dynamic, prosperous future, but nobody is going to hand it to them.  

One thing we know for sure: community work, anywhere, is very complex. 

Community, after all, is not a thing.  Community is a system – or more accurately, a web of inter-connected systems.  Community is the PTA, and the town council, and the Chamber of Commerce.  Parents raising their kids. Business people serving their customers.  Artists and religious communities. Bowling leagues.  Book clubs.

Every community is different. A community is shaped by its geography, its history, its resources and the cultures of its people. I am continually reminded that diversity is not just about skin color. When I first came to Grand Rapids, I was clueless about the higher status accorded longer-term residents.  Someone came up to me and said, “I’m native, you know.”  And I said, “Really? I am, too!”

We were not talking about the same thing!

At Blandin, what we’ve learned is that real communities are built through hard work – the hard work of leadership, of genuine inclusion, of reaching across boundaries and building lasting connections.

That’s the fertile soil we see resilient, vibrant communities growing from.  And that’s what we are all about – resilient, vibrant communities.

As a partner with rural communities and leaders, Blandin Foundation works to support existing and emerging leaders.  We offer grants and scholarships and other resources that support innovative work of rural Minnesota organizations.  And we convene diverse stakeholders and promote discussion of policy issues so that the voices of rural Minnesota are heard in the halls of the state capitol and wherever else decisions are made.

As I mentioned, since joining the Blandin Foundation, I have been visiting communities to get to know them better.  Before that, I spent 25 years travelling the country as part of a federal agency, the Indian Health Service.  I’ve spent my career in some of the smallest and poorest places you could imagine.

My approach – and Blandin’s approach – is to listen. To ask questions and listen some more.  We don’t roll into town with a big agenda and list of initiatives and action steps.  We ask residents where they see their community headed, and where they want it to go.  What do they consider a vibrant community?

Close your eyes and ask yourself:  What images would say to YOU that a community is vibrant?

This is a sign I see every day driving to work.  It’s on Highway 38 just north of Grand Rapids. To me, it’s a larger- than-life reminder of the power of community leadership in creating change. 

The Edge of the Wilderness regional identity and brand was created in 2002 by a group of 25 community members, including business people, together at a Blandin leadership retreat for a week.  They were from Bigfork, Marcell and Effie—three towns north of here with a combined population of 900.  Inspired by their week together, they were able to imagine a far better future for themselves through collaboration.  They – with others– were able to accomplish amazing things.  They raised money and hired a tri-community coordinator.  They pushed for a major highway improvement.  They raised money and built the Marcell Family Center.  They created a joint marketing initiative to boost tourism and economic development. 

Their story is a fabulous example of our first Top Five Lessons of leadership:

Lesson Number One:  The healthier the community, the more its residents are able to solve problems and create new trajectories

In our experience, community “health” can be understood and assessed through eight lenses, or dimensions:

  • Economic opportunity 
  • Life-long Learning
  • Inclusion 
  • Spiritual, recreational and artistic opportunity 
  • Environmental Stewardship
  • Services and Infrastructure
  • Safety and Security  and
  • Community Leadership

It’s easy to get fixated on one of these, but it’s the balance that creates a healthy community.  For example, when we start talking about economic opportunity – the kind of benefit those of you here today can offer your community – we can’t talk very long before we have to consider education and inclusion.  Without viable educational opportunities to prepare the workers of the future – or retrain older workers – work goes undone.  And when we aren’t acknowledging and leveraging our differences, we’re wasting resources. 

When the leaders of the Edge of the Wilderness Communities tackled these eight components, one by one, their communities grew stronger… and better able to see and create new possibilities for themselves.  They are energized and hopeful. There is a natural momentum that occurs when leaders see their work improve their communities.   New jobs mean more families can afford to shop on Main Street – buy a new car, eat out, invest in landscaping or a new roof.

The second lesson I’d like to share with you is that Change can happen from anywhere.

A leader does not need the power of position to make things happen for their community. Anyone can frame issues, build social capital and mobilize resources.  In fact, one of the hallmarks of healthy communities is that engagement and power are widely distributed with multiple stakeholders.

What would it look like if an entire community—and I mean everyone—was invested in the success of its children?  We see student success initiatives springing up all over rural Minnesota. 

Fifteen years ago, Blandin Foundation convened the Grand Rapids Area Community Partnership, including business people, to look at the needs and opportunities in this community.  They told us that early childhood should be a top investment priority. 

What followed was a ton of hard work – years of conferences, action teams, research and meetings — by leaders from across this region.  All kinds of leaders.  It turns out that a lot of people care about our kids! 

Today the Invest Early initiative is led by a coalition of people from many perspectives–four local school districts, Head Start, public health, Itasca Community College and Bemidji State University.  The Blandin Foundation provides support through staff participation and some $1.5 million a year over ten years.

Who could have known that a small county in northern Minnesota could be a leader nationally, could break through barriers in government and culture to focus on getting even the most at-risk children ready for Kindergarten?  They have done it. They are doing it.  Results show that the children are thriving – the readiness gap has closed for those children involved in Invest Early – and families are beginning to lift themselves out of poverty.

And now, to stretch the connections and relationships even more: the whole Itasca area is rallying around not only success for every at-risk preschooler, but around every child, from “cradle” to “career.”   

Change can happen from anywhere, change will happen from everywhere.

Closely related to that lesson is our lesson #3: Leadership is an unlimited resource

Interestingly, leadership is even more important in rural communities than in larger cities.

At University of Minnesota Extension’s Center for Community Vitality, Ben Winchester has been measuring rural leadership.  Ben will tell you that in urban areas you need one in every 138 people involved in non-profit organizations.  In rural areas, you need one on every city block to be a leader.   

Rural communities are far more dependent on leaders than urban areas—there’s still a lot of work to do out here, even if we have fewer residents.   So it’s a good thing we can make more! 

In our Rural Pulse survey, 41% of respondents told us they had never been invited to play a leadership role.

Your own president, Susan Jordahl Bubatz, has been out inviting new leaders.  I’m sure within your organization, but also among youth in her community.  As executive director of the Bovey/Coleraine Youth Center, just down the road from here, she is reaching out through after-school enrichment and life skills training to invite youth—some of whom are in a pretty tough place—to see themselves in a broader context, and to claim a future for themselves that involves leadership. I bet if you asked her, she’d tell you what a thunderbolt that idea is for some of these kids.  And how many of them rise to the invitation to lead.

Where do you have the opportunity to reach out and invite someone into a role of leadership, someone who just needs to hear, “You are the leader we have been waiting for?”

I am Ojibwe.  And as a girl, I was given the name “Anna KOO ba day” by an elder.  Some girls are given names that mean “beautiful flower” or “rising sun.”  But not me.  My name means “to tie to together.”  From the day I was named, I was invited to be a leader.  Not just any kind of leader, but one who ties together—what an honor. 

As someone whose Ojibwe name means “to tie together,” I especially love Leadership Lesson #4: Sustainable community action is anchored in the quality and diversity of its connections

Simply put, the quality of our relationships defines the quality of our community. 

For Aaron Wenger, the quality that he wants for his nationally recognized engineering programs at Itasca Community College, again down the road, cannot be achieved without seeking difference. 

Aaron says that the field of “Science, Technology, Engineering and Math”–or STEM–really needs to represent ALL people, all histories, all communities, but it cannot until it reaches out and brings this intellectual diversity into its midst.

Itasca Community College Engineering already has demonstrated that the whole program is better with women in it.  And now they are demonstrating that all students succeed better when people from a wide, wide range of perspectives—wealthy and poor, Native Americans, Vietnamese, Hmong, white, men and women—participate.

I can tell you—Itasca Community College is working hard to not just manage difference, but to seek it. 

As women in business, sometimes you are the difference, so you know what that intentional invitation into a community relationship feels like.  In what ways can you invite quality and difference into your relationships?

Quality and diversity of connections lead to quality of community. 

Finally – lesson number five:  In order for a community to change, it has to have hope

As the poet Emily Dickinson wrote: Hope is the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul/ And sings the tune without the words/ And never stops at all …

Hope is believing that a different future is possible.  Hope is being able to imagine what that future might be.  Wise leaders know that creating a shared vision for the future, a vision arising from and embraced by the community, is the engine that powers change.  When people have hope, they can accomplish amazing things.

Sometimes hope emerges from unlikely places.  From tragedy. 

As many of you may remember, just a little over 7 years ago a 16-year-old student at Red Lake High School went on a shooting rampage that left 10 people dead and seven injured. He killed his own grandfather, a teacher, a school security guard and five other students before killing himself afterward. Another dozen people were injured.

Because of my role at the Indian Health Service, I was assigned to coordinate the federal Department of Health and Human Services response. At the time, I was the most senior federal official who was geographically close. Plus I happened not only to be Native but was raised on the Red Lake Reservation.  That was my high school. I knew the teacher who was killed.  Being a physician and having worked with the reservation leadership for years helped.  I trusted them and they trusted me.

There was so much to organize, but my most immediate role was to be there, to be home.  I remember being so very sad, attending so many funerals. I saw leadership from so many– I remember a nurse at the hospital who stepped forward to tell me about colleagues who’d been up for days, who had tended to the injured and made a makeshift morgue at the hospital.  “Send them home,” she said, and I did.

Even in those days of terrible tragedy were the seeds of hope: the absolute commitment to protect the children, the urgency to get the school back together, to create a promising future. Communities established youth leadership councils and we strengthened the local Boys and Girls Clubs. We used what we’d learned about leadership to help the community heal and emerge stronger than before—resilient and hopeful.

You are out in your communities, working to build your businesses and make your neighborhoods and communities better places to live and work every day, so you already know this, but it bears repeating: nothing truly worthwhile was ever easy.  There’s a lot of hard work ahead to make our communities what we want them to be.  Years, decades probably. 

I hope that my stories and these Five Lessons of Leadership I’ve shared here today will be of value to you in your own leadership journey:

  1. It takes a healthy community to move forward.
  2. Change can happen from anywhere.
  3. Leadership is an unlimited resource.
  4. Quality and diverse connections sustain progress.
  5. Hope leads to change.

When people arrive at our leadership training retreat, some of them are still frankly surprised to have been included.  When we tell them “YOU are the leaders we’ve been waiting for,” we see them blink.  But by the end of the week, they fully claim that role, and they are excited!

I suspect that when I started this talk, some of you were thinking – I’m a business person; I didn’t sign up to be a leader!     

If that’s the case, I hope I’ve changed your mind, or at least opened it to consider what you have to offer in your communities.

You ARE the leaders we’ve been waiting for.  As business women you have what it takes to 1) frame issues, 2) build social capital, and 3) mobilize resources.

Your home community needs you.  Minnesota needs you.  Your organization needs you.  Being a leader doesn’t mean that you need to agree to every request and take every assignment.  But it does mean daring to dream about what you want your community to become, and then joining with others to make possible that future.

You’ve been a wonderful audience. Thank you!


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