Strengths in Ourselves and our Communities

On our final day of the Austin seminar, we met at Riverland Community College to discuss rural resilience and emotional health of the ag community.  We started the morning by sharing what we learned the previous day in our strengths of Austin discussion with local subject matter experts, sharing how each community capital plays a role in the ecosystem of the local economy. We discussed how we can take insights from the community of Austin back to our own communities and the impacts it can make.

After discussing strength in communities, Anna Claussen (Class VII), founder of Voices for Rural Resilience, discussed how she is helping rural communities come together to facilitate discussions about the social change necessary to shift the way people think about rural issues. She talked about her approach to build humanity, empathy and how she is starting conversations in a healthy, respectful dialogue. She has been doing this in numerous communities around the state of Minnesota, discussing the rural climate dialogue and hopes to keep this momentum in the future.

Following Anna, Cynthie Christensen (Class III), RN, LPCC discussed the emotional health of our rural communities and the simple tasks we can do each day to help those that are struggling. With one in five adults suffering from some sort of mental illness and one person dying from suicide every twelve hours, it’s up to us to watch out for each other. Cynthie talked about how mental health is like CPR, resuscitation is the first step in delivering help. As a class, we discussed some of the barriers in getting help and the stigmas that exist. We closed the discussion with one sentence that says it all, “Sometimes you NEED help and sometimes you ARE the help.”

The final discussion of the day centered around the Art of Hosting, focusing on Open Space Technology. Art of Hosting helps leaders exercise effective engagement and act as hosts while engaging with others to generate the conversation. Open Space Technology is a way to engage many kinds of people, in any kind of organization, to create inspired conversations. It creates a time and space for people to discuss a topic deeply and creatively. While there are no “rules” to how an open space discussion works, there are four principals; whoever comes is the right people, whatever happens is the only thing that could have; whenever it starts is the right time; whenever it is over, it is over. And there is one rule, if you find yourself in a situation where you are not contributing or learning, move somewhere where you can. The end result can be an engaged group where every single issue that anybody cares about enough to raise will be on the table and a healthy discussion for path forward to make action items and next steps.

As we closed out the session with our golden nuggets and a group picture for those who decked out in their best festive wear, we headed back home to spend the holidays with friends and loved ones. Wishing all of you a wonderful holiday season and a cheerful 2020!

Submitted by Stephanie Loch

We began our day at 7:00 AM at the Hormel Plant, where we were welcomed by Jeff Grev, VP of Legislative Affairs and Mr. Clint, Plant Manager.

We learned that George Hormel started the company in 1891, harvesting 610 hogs the first year.  The existing Austin plant which was built in 1982 is housed on the original site.  The Austin plant harvests 19,000 hogs per day and approximately 5 million annually.  Of the most interest to us of course was the amount of SPAM produced annually which was 95 million pounds! In Austin alone, Hormel employs 1880 people.

Food and employee safety are paramount for the Hormel Company and in 2018, the least number of safety incidents in company history were reported.  We were then given an extensive informational tour of the packing plant.

Our next stop of the day was the Hormel Institute, where we were guided by Brenna Gerhart, Development Associate for the Institute.  The Hormel Institute is a cancer research facility funded by the Hormel Foundation which focuses on alternative cancer remedies.  Each lab at the Institute works independently on their research projects and is fortunate to have the only Cryo computer in Minnesota to utilize for the projects.  Next, Gail Dennison, Director of Development and Public Relations Executive Director of the Hormel Institute discussed with us the research facilities, staff and fund raising for the Institute.  Dr. Morris who is focusing on stem cell research explained her use of microscopic imaging, tumor histopathy and the prediction of tumor metastasizing.

After a fabulous lunch at the Old Mill Restaurant, located along the Cedar River, we then met at Absolute Energy and were welcomed by Rick Schwarck, Founder and President along with Tim Hauge, Director of Purchasing.  They discussed with us the quantities of corn processed through the plant along with the products that are produced by Absolute Energy for use in the Ag sector.  Tim then took us through all the stages of the plant to observe how corn is processed to produce ethanol.

We then met up with our designated groups to discuss with an Austin community leader “Exploring Austin’s Strengths.”  We had on Monday in the same small groups done some brainstorming on questions we each wanted to ask our leader concerning the Austin community.  We asked questions concerning how these leaders have observed the Austin community has evolved in their experience, what were positive as well as negative impacts on the community, along with many others that were more specific to the individual and the responsibility they had in the community.  All of these questions were to assist us to work to improve our own communities by using the experiences and observations of others.

As a group we were very fortunate to be granted a private tour and Social at the SPAM Museum and shop.  We appreciate the effort Jeff Grev made to give us this opportunity to view this important historical component of the Austin landscape.  It was interesting to view the story boards and exhibits depicting how the Hormel plant began and has changed over the years. All of the food served to us used SPAM as an ingredient, including the cookies.  An opportunity was given to everyone to make a Christmas ornament using an empty SPAM can if we chose.  Amazing how a group of adults raging in ages of 25 to 60 can act like children when given glue, pipe cleaners, and ribbon….

The final event of the evening was for all of us to meet with our EQ-i coaching groups and have dinner together to catch up and further expand and grow our Emotional Intelligence.  We have all become closer in these groups and utilize our peers to assist us with difficulties in our lives as well as having them as cheerleaders.

Submitted by Angela Hopp

Strengths in Ourselves and in Our Communities

We got to start the eighth session of Class X in Austin on a cool morning.  Cold enough that the diesel at the fuel station didn’t want to pump into the pickup!  Starting our day was our hosts Dr Shoung Noy and Tov Reaksmey.  They were able to give a broad overview of the places we will be seeing and an insight of some of the cooperative work that is going on in Cambodia.  Dr Noy went over some of the basic phrases we will need while in country such as “hello”: សួស្តី Suostei and “thank you”: សូមអរគុណ saum arkoun.

Dr.  Noy also went over the proper way to bow when visiting officials in the government or some of the temples.

Over lunch we were able to hear from our fellow class members on their chosen international report topic.

We were privileged to hear from Steve Kraus, a Minnesota native who served as the Regional Director in South East Asia for the U.N. World Health Organization. Steve shared his experiences about his time living and working in the region helping refugees during the end of the Khmer Rouge in 1979-1980. One of his main take aways was how the Cambodians are able to move forward after the genocide. Their ability to forgive enables them to build up their society, instead of dwelling in the extremely painful past.

After a short break we spent a majority of the afternoon working on the results of our StrengthsFinder 2.0 results with Shelly Schell (Class VI).  My results were not surprising to me but what I was able to take away was how to better work with those that don’t share the same strengths as myself.  In doing so you build a better team.  Shelly’s closing remarks where a very good reminder to not be afraid to do what you are good at and don’t be afraid to ask someone for help.

Our keynote speaker at the Austin banquet was Minnesota House Representative Rod Hamilton (District 22B).  Representative Hamilton presented about his leadership journey.  Starting out doing chores on a farm that eventually resulted him to work at Christensen’s hog farms.  Working his way throughout the organization, followed by making his run for office.  He shared some of the high’s and lows.  One quote that will stick with me is on a particular hard day and after dealing with some health issues he was laying on the floor playing with his young son, who climbs onto his chest as he was laying there.  Grabs his face and tells him “Don’t give up Daddy, you can do this”.  One of the high’s he shared was when he was able to see directly the benefits of a bill that he co-sponsored.  It was not a universally popular bill but had huge outcomes for those that needed it.  That bill was the medical cannabis bill that Minnesota passed. Representative Hamilton has been leading by deeply investigating issues, sometimes resulting him in “flip-flopping” on controversial challenges facing Minnesotans.

Submitted by Aaron Vadnais

When we started on our MARL journey in Willmar back in November 2018, I’m not sure any of us knew how much we would grow in our first year. But, we all have and our second year of MARL will be no different. For our first tour of Season 2, we awoke to snow covered roads on our way to all of the locations on our agenda for the day.

We were met on the bus by Lynn Tchida and Nicolette Slagle who would be our guides for the day. Lynn, who is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Arizona, lived at Red Lake in her teenage years. She challenged us to be comfortable with being uncomfortable as throughout the day we would be wrestling with the sights, sounds and our feelings.

Nicolette works for Honor the Earth, a group who uses music, arts, media and Indigenous wisdom to create awareness and support for Native environmental issues and to develop needed financial and political resources for the survival of sustainable Native communities (

Nicolette and Lynn provided some background on challenges in Native communities that would affect us in Agriculture. For example, 45% live under the poverty level; 25% are enrolled in SNAP; 1 in 6 have diabetes. Land is key to economic development, and it was also fascinating to note that 35% of land in the United States is still owned by Native Americans.

One of the themes of the morning was what groups and individuals were doing to be sustainable stewards of the land. We were told the 7 Fires Prophecy where at the time of the 7th fire there will be two paths – one is well worn but scorched; and the other is new and green and will lead to the lighting of the 8th fire. Our first stop was a project they are partnering with, Akiing 8th Fire Solar Project and Facility.

We met with Ronnie, John and Pam, who described their operation and what they hope to accomplish. At the facility, Ronnie builds solar air heating panels.

We then visited the Honor the Earth shop, where they screen print their own designs on products they use to create awareness and support for Native issues.

Next up was Winona’s Hemp and Heritage Farm and the Anishinaabe Agriculture Institute where they are working on Hemp production for fiber. On the Hemp farm, Ronnie discussed the production of hemp and the retting process where they separate the fibers from the stalk.

On our way to our next location, Lynn discussed community mapping which is telling a story about a community. It allows community leaders to learn about services and resources available as well as history of that community. Lynn shared an example of mapping the Pascua Yaqui story, which included places of learning, parks and painting of historical events.

We arrived at the White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP), where we had lunch prepared by Janet from Native Harvest. We had Bison meatloaf, Wild Rice pilaf and squash with Sumac tea to drink. Our meal was actually an example of one of the meal kits that WELRP was preparing for White Earth members. After lunch, we visited with Zachary Paige who is the Food Sovereignty Specialist. Zach discussed the Indigenous meal kits initiative, food access and the mobile market they are setting up. We also visited with Joe LaGarde about Wild Rice, or Manoomin. Joe also provided some background on land ownership in the White Earth community.

As we got back on the bus to head to Itasca State Park, each one of us reflected on what we had seen, heard and experienced to that point.

We were met at Itasca State Park by Connie Cox, a naturalist with the park and a great friend of MARL. Her husband, Bruce, is an alum of MARL from Class II. Immediately upon meeting Connie you can sense a passion for the park and a passion for leadership and we all knew we were in for something special with this visit. Connie told us of the history of the Mississippi River headwaters as it impacted the creation of the United States and the history of the park. Then we hiked over to the headwaters across the fresh snow. Once we arrived, we were greeted by a pair of Beavers who were busy working and had no time for us. Having grown up 15 miles from the Mississippi River, it was impactful to see the humble beginnings of one of the world’s great rivers.

To finish up the day, we went back to the Jacob V Brower visitor center to reflect on the day. Many of us are planning on returning to the park. On our drive back to Bemidji, we couldn’t help but be happily exhausted and extremely thankful that we had Phil, our bus driver, to safely get us back.

Submitted by Curtis Mahnken

Meaningful Involvement and Emotionally Intelligent Teams

After a MARL break from June until mid-November, Class X met up in a beautiful lake-side setting on Lake Bemidji. While homework was assigned during this time off and EQ-i groups met, there was a lot of catching up to do. 

What role do we play within our families/work? 

We dug right back into self-improvement and building leadership skills with a session on Acknowledging our Roles with Program Leader, Mr. Toby Spanier. Moving to a group circle setting, we started with the reflection question, “What role do I play within my family/work.” A variety of roles were shared such as coordinator, leader and listener. Goal: Take time to reflect on your roles in your work and personal life and evaluate why those are your roles.

What makes our involvement meaningful?

The group sharing transitioned well into our next session on Meaningful Involvement also led by Mr. Spanier. We started by going through the four core competencies to be a good leader (Personal, Relational, Analytical, Strategic). Our learning and discussion focused around the question, “What makes involvement meaningful?” We looked into what our efforts/experiences with public participation has looked like through considering the what, why, who, how and when of public participation and utilizing the International Association for Public Participation Spectrum. A large blue sticky sheet was used to display our public participation activities such as listening sessions, press conferences and social media and the five areas of IAP2 (Inform, Consult, Involve, Collaborate, Empower).   Goal: Build on the competencies where we are not as strong. Use Stakeholder Identification Tool, Power and Interest Grid, and IAP2’s Public Participation Spectrum. 

How can we fund the work we care about in our communities? 

Our next session had us divided into two groups for sessions on Fundraising and Community Impacts led by Mr. Matt Musel of Metropolitan State University and Mr. Kyle Erickson of the Blandin Foundation. In our session with Mr. Erickson, we received information to better understand how foundations work. Their foundation makes funding decisions based on aligning with interests and values, relationships, communication, and community impact. Mr. Erickson brought a lot of past experience and helpful tips to the session. The session led by Mr. Musel taught us how to raise the most amount of financial support in the most effective way. This method starts with asking for help, identifying your needs and using your imagination. Mr. Musel had a great passion and energy for teaching and sharing his information. Goal: When fundraising, make the big ask. It is as hard to ask for $5 as is it $5 million. When applying for grants, know your foundation’s goals and values and build a path to where you want to go.

How can we exercise effective engagement?

The Art of Hosting was our final session of the day before our banquet. Mr. Spanier led us through this leadership approach using the World Cafe method. Several students were seated at each round table and we had a conversation topic centered on the question, “What are the needs in your community?” After a set amount of time, students moved to new tables with one host remaining at their original table. This continued the conversation and allowed for different perspectives on the conversation as we went through several more questions. At the end of the World Cafe, we had a whole-group harvest of information. Goal: Utilize World Cafe in our leadership/work settings. 

The evening wrapped up with a banquet featuring guest speaker Mr. Michael Meuers. Reflections were given by MARL Class X classmates Mr. Ben Mussehl and Mr. Grant Crawford and MARL Class V Alum Ms. Kari Howe. 

Submitted by Erin Spangler