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University of Minnesota Extension

Emerging leaders bring new perspectives

Greater Minnesota is becoming more welcoming, and benefiting from the results

Claudia Gonzalez-George won a spot on the Northfield School Board. She is pictured with Jocelyn Hernandez-Swanson, Extension educator and Beth Kallestad, Northfield city coordinator.

When it comes to recruiting and welcoming new leaders from many cultures, risks and honest conversations are required. It pays off, but it isn’t easy. It’s human nature to feel uncomfortable at first when reaching out to people who seem different. “Extension wants Minnesota’s newcomers to lead in places where they know they are supported — and feel welcomed by their colleagues,” says Jocelyn Hernandez-Swanson, Extension educator in leadership and civic engagement.

The need is real

Each community is moved to act for different reasons. In Greater Minnesota, one of every 34 adults must take on leadership roles for elected offices, non-profit boards and committees, according to Ben Winchester, Extension’s rural sociologist.

“Communities that start new leadership programs often recognize that they need people to step up — whether their name is Anderson, Ahmed, or Hernandez,” says Holli Arp, who in 2018 led Extension’s leadership and civic engagement educators to explore ways to invite underrepresented groups into local leadership.

Workforce shortages are another issue, and welcoming newcomers isn’t just nice. It’s an economic necessity.

Extension’s programs, from Grand Marais to Mankato, use education, mentoring, assessments and a variety of other tools to help communities envision a future full of engaged and happy workers and leaders.

Northfield embraces diverse leadership

Veronica (Rony) Gamino, Extension emerging leadership program participant, serves on the Human Rights Commission in Northfield.

Northfield, Minn., has its desire to become a welcoming community written into its strategic plan. It may take time to have it woven into its fabric.

“One way to help our diverse newcomers feel comfortable here is to have local leaders who look like them,” says Beth Kallestad, Northfield’s city coordinator and a former Extension educator.

In 2020, Kallestad collaborated with Mary Ann Hennen, (now retired) Extension educator, and Hernandez-Swanson to launch “Growing Local: 2020 Northfield Emerging Leaders Program.”

The program attracted 15 Northfielders from a mix of gender, age, race and ethnicity groups that aren’t well-represented on local committees and boards. They designed six educational sessions to guide emerging leaders in how to communicate effectively, understand their strengths, consider what it is to follow and lead in vital communities, and motivate others.

Staff recruited 15 Northfield leaders to coach participants. These volunteers served as mentors and helped them form networks. “It was a great way to connect with emerging leaders in Northfield,” says one local coach. “It definitely gave me more hope about Northfield’s future.”

Since completing the program, participant Claudia Gonzalez-George successfully ran for and won a spot on the Northfield School Board. Northfield’s first Latina board member was also the leading vote-getter, as the community resonated with her vision.

“There is a great community here and I’m surprised we still struggle with issues of access,” she told KYMN radio. Gonzalez-George aims to be a bridge between families and the board. She also hopes to raise awareness of the strengths their Latino neighbors bring to Northfield that aren’t currently being put to use. “When we’re all participating, then our school — and our town — is better,” she says.

Blending experience and new perspectives

Claudia Gonzalez-George holds a walking meeting with Northfield Schools Superintendent Matt Hillmann to brainstorm solutions to the challenges of the 2020-2021 school year.

Kallestad often receives calls from local committee leaders who want to recruit program graduates for leadership positions. Two program participants serve on city advisory boards, one is on a task force for community and police reviewing policies.

“It’s exciting to see people who are already leaders in their circles take the leap into broader community leadership roles,” says Kallestad.

To prepare experienced leaders to make the most of their work with the new leaders, Hernandez-Swanson and Hennen delivered the webinar, “Navigating and Leading With an Equity Lens.”

Forty-one board and commission chairs, vice-chairs and staff liaisons came together virtually to consider strategies to create an inclusive culture and use decision-making processes that recognize the contributions of new members.  

One participant’s response to the training emphasizes what many Minnesotans are feeling during this profound time of change. “This is an extremely important subject in our community and our world.”

Elizabeth Yang (right), Extension emerging leadership participant and library board member, makes plans with the library director, Teresa Jensen.

Lessons from communities

When communities decide to address inclusion and racism, they are asking residents to change assumptions that have been part of American culture for centuries. Extension joined leaders of the Region Nine Development Commission project to consider what they learned from starting the initiative. Here are their thoughts: 

  • It takes time. Trust needs to grow. People need time to talk through concerns.
  • The process of starting initiatives is complex. It’s not linear. Be prepared to adjust your sails as you steer. 
  • School districts are strong partners for equity efforts. Schools are on the front line of creating welcoming communities for all students.
  • Partner with organizations and groups that are trusted in the communities that you want to hear from.
  • Be prepared to question policies and practices your community has relied upon to get things done.
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