Learning to lead: Blandin fosters growth

WORTHINGTON -- Brainstorming in small groups ... figuring out how to make friends with people both like and unlike you ... having animated discussions on wide-ranging topics until everyone tumbles, exhausted, into their beds ... going non-stop fr...

The Worthington participants and leaders for the 2015 Blandin Community Leadership Program are shown in a group photo taken in November 2014 at the Sugar Lake Lodge near Grand Rapids. Janna Salmela Photography

WORTHINGTON - Brainstorming in small groups ... figuring out how to make friends with people both like and unlike you ... having animated discussions on wide-ranging topics until everyone tumbles, exhausted, into their beds … going non-stop from sunrise to sunset …

Is this college?
No, it’s the Blandin Community Leadership Program (BCLP).
Early last November, a group of 20 Worthington residents - business leaders, non-profit employees, native speakers and naturalized citizens, among others - gathered for a five-day residential retreat at Sugar Lake Lodge in Grand Rapids.
It was the first time in roughly a decade that the Blandin Foundation, which works to strengthen rural Minnesota communities, had selected Worthington people for a BCLP experience.
“A colleague of mine in Pipestone had gone through the BCLP last year, and my boss, Greg Raymo, did it in 2005, so I knew a little about it from them,” said Mark Vis, a commercial loan officer at First State Bank Southwest, Worthington.
“We knew it would be a really good experience, but we still didn’t know exactly what to expect,” said Beth (Rickers) Namanny, Daily Globe features editor.
Now, having been through the five-day training retreat, plus a two-day workshop closer to home in February, Rickers confidently comments, “It involves both personal growth and watching those around you grow in leadership skills, as well as the small successes you see along the way.”
For over 70 years, the Grand Rapids-based Blandin Foundation has focused its efforts on helping rural Minnesota communities and their residents create strong visions for their futures while reinforcing bonds among key people in those locations.
The 20 Worthington representatives selected for the 2014-’15 BCLP cut across a wide and diverse swath of this town’s populace. That was deliberate, in an effort to acquaint each individual with other citizens also working for the town’s good - citizens they might not otherwise have encountered in their workaday lives.
“Ours is a diverse group,” confirmed Dave Hoffman, a detective with the Worthington Police Department.
“We built strong friendships and now have new people we can call when we may have questions about a certain area.”
That’s exactly the spirit the Blandin Foundation aims to foster in the groups it regularly leads through its BCLP.
Three main ideas are outlined in the BCLP plan: framing (engaging others to identify, choose and define issues that affect a community); social capital (constructing a healthy, diverse network of relationships); and mobilizing (involving enough people and resources to tackle the issues identified).
To achieve progress on those fronts, the BCLP trains its participants in interpersonal communications, conflict management, community power analysis, social capital/personality preferences and small group effectiveness.
“It was a full week of intensive training and discussion about community leadership,” said Thi Synavone, a Worthington resident since 1988.
Synavone, who graduated from Worthington High School before earning degrees at Minnesota West Community and Technical College and Augsburg College, was born in Laos. She is the program manager at the Southwest Crisis Center, Worthington, where she is an 18-year employee.
“When I think about what I have been doing in past years in my workplace, it really involved all of those things,” reflected Synavone.
“Framing ideas, building relationships and mobilizing our resources - I already do all of that, but I didn’t have a clear structure or fancy words for it.
“The BCLP encourages you to keep making and promoting those positive connections within your community, and to take action steps toward getting things done.
“Meeting the other people involved - from such diverse professional backgrounds and diverse ethnic backgrounds - showed us exactly how diverse a community Worthington really is,” Synavone continued.
“And yet we found several common issues to work on together.”
One exercise in which the BCLP candidates engage is an extensive Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment.
“I’d done a briefer version in the past, but this one was more in-depth,” said Vis. ”It confirmed some things, and really comes down to how you work with other people in your social groups.”
Vis identifies as an introvert - not a surprise to a man who already recognized his need to recharge his personal energy after a long day on the job by temporarily retreating from people.
One particularly helpful BCLP aspect, then, to an introvert like Vis was making new friendships and connections at the retreat.
Vis said he had been previously unacquainted with the bulk of the Worthington BCLP participants prior to the time spent in Grand Rapids.
“About a week after we got back, I went to a Chamber of Commerce mixer at Memorial Auditorium,” reported Vis. “When I walked in, the first four faces I saw were those of people I’d met at BCLP.
“There was an instant connection, and I realized I’d developed new personal relationships that I hope will last for a long time.
“It’s so nice having those connections,” he continued, “so when I sit on a local committee or board, there will be more people - and different people than I might have otherwise met - who I’ll be working with that I already know.”
Working in small groups, the BCLP members came up with a few issues Worthington faces that they could try to help address as projects.
The list encompassed the economic development potential of Lake Okabena; a new Nobles County library; collaboration among the ISD 518 school board, the city and Nobles County (to avoid duplication of efforts); and health care.
“I chose the lake group,” said Ashley Goettig, an administrative assistant and the Convention and Visitors Bureau coordinator at the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce.
At 27, Goettig was among the youngest BCLP members, and she said the program has helped her feel more confident professionally.

“In my position, it’s clear that Lake Okabena is one of our community’s greatest assets, so its improvement is very important to our community,” said Goettig.
“There is already a group working on lake improvements, though, so we reframed our approach as trying to improve recreational usage of the lake and discover ways to treat it as an economic development project.”
Rickers, another lake project person, said their group is striving to present some positive, lake-centered ideas around the time of the June 12-14 windsurfing regatta.
Vis, meanwhile, is meeting with the group that is aiming to boost collaboration among government units (school board, city and county).
“We want to offer support - not push an individual agenda, but help prioritize needs,” emphasized Vis.
“We’ve also been taking a look at the cost of ignoring needs and priorities - for instance, what happens if we vote down another referendum for a school or library?” posed Vis.
“How will that affect our community down the road, and what price do we pay for not facing these needs now?”
The 20 members of the 2014-’15 BCLP cohort have one more workshop day - April 21 - that will take place in Worthington.
That date will serve as a wrap-up of sorts to the principles on which the group was trained in November and February, and will take a look at the progress it might have made toward its community mobilization goals.
No matter the outcome of the group’s ideas, it’s the rare BCLP participant who doesn’t walk away from the process feeling it was a worthwhile investment of their time and the Blandin Foundation’s money (the Blandin Foundation spends about $4,000 for each BCLP member’s training).
Vilai Khanya, an Ameri-Corps Promise Fellow working with the Nobles County Integration Collaborative, delighted other local BCLP members with her spirit and enthusiasm when, after meeting with her mentor during the week-long retreat, she exclaimed, “I know what I want to do with my life now!”
Noted Vis, “If you don’t come back from this energized and ready to try to change something for the better, you weren’t putting yourself out there for the program.”
Hoffman concurred.
“The Blandin Community Leadership Program is about working together and bringing back our ideas to help make Worthington a better place to live and a stronger community.”

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