Ask The Expert: What Makes a Vibrant Community?

What makes a community one where people want to live? United Way of 1,000 Lakes spoke with Dr. Kathy Annette, President and CEO of Blandin Foundation in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, to learn how we can cultivate a more vibrant community through expanding opportunities to all Itasca area residents.

Discuss the importance of education, health, and income in helping Itasca area residents achieve a better quality of life.

Here at Blandin Foundation we often reference the nine common dimensions of community health. These interconnected facets contribute to a healthy community system. Education, wellness, and economy are three of them.

One of the dimensions of a healthy community is lifelong learning. Education—from early childhood to after high school and beyond — is often the key to economic opportunity and earning a livable wage. Not only is education linked to an individual’s health and prosperity; it also contributes to the collective economy because education is a factor people consider when choosing a community to live or work in. I’m so impressed with the importance our community is giving to education. The community has come together under an umbrella called Spark to support learning from preschool all the way up to postsecondary.

Health and wellness goes beyond tending to physical health. This part of a community supports and respects all people’s efforts to be sound in body, healthy in mind, and grounded in values. Nonprofits funded by Blandin Foundation, United Way, and so many others exemplify partnerships engaged to support health and wellness here. From our healthcare campuses to Keisler Wellness Center to Second Harvest Food Bank and the Farmer’s Market, we stand with the community on being well.

Like education and health, the economy is also part of a system. Housing,  transportation, business recruitment and development, and workforce development are separate yet interconnected. When they function well, they bring a multitude of community benefits. For us to have a strong economy, we need to look at all of these components and consider how can we, together, work on them. We can accomplish so much when we choose to work as partners.

When it comes to local economic challenges, what are some common solutions we should be working towards?

One of the things small rural communities must work on is making our communities attractive places where people want to live. There are common solutions we should consider. First, we have to believe that we have strong assets—and I believe we do. And we have to also believe that we have the power to seek and get whatever else we need in order to address any missing assets.

Small communities like ours also need to do a better job of coming up with a vision for the future. One of the challenges we face in the future is a labor shortage. There aren’t enough people to fill jobs. From an economic standpoint, it’s apparent that we will need to recruit help. That requires us to set a vision for how we will make our communities attractive and welcoming to a variety of people so that newcomers will want to live and work here. We need to commit to working individually and together to make this vision a reality.

How can we develop strong local leadership?

We’ve had a Blandin Community Leadership Program for over thirty years now. During that time we have trained more than 7,000 community members in Minnesota – more than 500 of them are right here in the Itasca area. It’s important to remember that all of us are capable of developing leadership skills. Some of us already have talent for leadership, and others can become leaders with the right training and opportunities.

Many people don’t see themselves as leaders, even if they are already acting as leaders, so we have to reach out and help people get involved. They will step up to the plate if asked. While we are recruiting leaders, we need to get into the habit of tapping people who aren’t usually invited to share their ideas, so we can learn how the community looks to them. Truly strong local leadership comes from all sorts of people with different ideas.

Why is it important that rural Minnesota communities champion diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Minnesota communities are changing, and we have to be ready. Demographics are changing, and it’s not just race. The population is aging, for example. Folks from the LGBTQ community are taking stronger and stronger leadership roles. I see that, overall, people are emerging to make communities stronger for all people. It’s a needed and wonderful thing.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion impact so much in terms of our economy; it’s all part of the community system. As our community grows, so will our need for people to fill jobs. With our aging population, it’s clear that we are going to have to recruit help from outside our area. The face of our workforce is going to change as people are recruited to come in and fulfill some of these jobs. The key economic question is how are we going to be a welcoming, quality place for all to live? Once we do that, other things will start to fall into place.

Change is difficult, but I believe it is going to come from the local level and work on up. If change is going to happen, it’s going to happen in small communities. We will learn to be neighbors. We will, together, imagine how we want our communities to be for us and our children. I’ve met with rural communities throughout the state, and I see that the ones that are growing strong and moving in such a positive direction are embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion. They are all made up of unique differences, and they use the differences to make them stronger, not to divide.

What is the role of nonprofits like United Way in creating and maintaining healthy, vibrant communities?

Nonprofits excel in building relationships. I really love our local United Way by the way. They are so uniquely proficient, and they bring people together to build relationships and trust. They work hard to identify community needs, to prioritize. And they benefit all people here in Itasca County and our local giving area. Of course, you can’t forget that they fill key gaps in services and they promote community engagement.

In Minnesota, the nonprofit sector employs 15% of the local workforce and generates more than $66 billion in annual revenues. Nonprofits clearly contribute significantly to our economy, while fulfilling missions, doing good, and providing much-needed support in our communities. The importance of nonprofits simply cannot be overstated.