Archives for posts with tag: community action

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It is easy to move through life, living moment to moment, appointment to appointment, deadline to deadline, and never stepping back to look at where you have been and where you are going.  Life becomes a meaningless blur of unrelated events.  Compiling the information for this portfolio has afforded me the opportunity to stop and reflect upon a previous chapter of my life with perspective.  My year as a Minnesota Housing Partnership Americorps VISTA working at West Central Minnesota Communities Action as program coordinator for the Land of Lakes Group Workcamp was a defining moment in my life.  All my random life experiences up to that point in 2004 converged in that position, and the work and training I received that year shaped who I am and what I would accomplish later.

I have always had varied interests; more so than most people it seems.  My undergraduate training and early career was mainly in theatre, however I was one of those odd ducks that worked onstage, backstage, and in the box office.  Onstage I was considered a “triple threat” – someone who could sing, act, and dance – I was comfortable being in front of large groups of people.  Unlike many performers, I was also very organized, and utilized this skill as a stage director.  I could see the big picture and was able to communicate and motivate others in creating that vision.  I also had good business sense, something quite uncommon among the theatre crowd, and this led me to become involved in the administrative aspects of theatre – such as fundraising, volunteer recruitment, contracting, and event coordination.

Regardless of what area of the theatre I was working in at the time, it always involved building community.  It takes a multitude of people to come together and put on a show.  Good old friends and strangers somehow manage to gather together around a common cause and create.  During the month or so a show is in production intense relationships are developed.  You have to trust everyone is going to do their part to make the production a success.  My role consistently involved connecting people together, helping them communicate, and getting the resources needed to get the job done.

That was exactly what I was asked to do by Americorps.  The cause was not entertainment, the goal was not to put on a quality production without killing each other, and the venue was not a theatre space, but the building of community around something was all the same.  I had all the tools and experience necessary to help build a community of people around rehabilitating housing for modest-income, elderly, and disabled people in a five country region.  Even though I had never worked in social services, housing, or with local governments, God had prepared me for the work I was called to do.

I fully believe my involvement in the Land of Lakes Group Workcamp and time as an Americorps VISTA was part of God’s purpose for my life.  Besides all of the community building skills I had developed in the theatre world, God had provided me with other necessary “tools” for my “toolbox” in accomplishing this project.  At the time my husband and I owned an established computer business in the region.  Through that business people knew who I was and already had a level of trust in me – something critical in accomplishing any task in a close knit, rural community.  Had an “outsider” been placed in the position, they would have met with obstacles with which I did not have to contend.  I also was very active in the local faith community, especially in youth ministry and education. Once again, people from this community knew who I was and had a sense of trust in me.  I understood, and was comfortable with, what was important to people of faith and why they would want to be involved in this project.  I knew the “language of faith” and could communicate to this community in a way that someone who is not active in church life would find difficult and uncomfortable.  I was also familiar with local politics.  I had run for city council several years previously and was a frequent attendee of Elbow Lake city council meetings.  I had become involved in local politics out of boredom, but this experience helped me to be comfortable with the language and procedure of politics.  This was another helpful tool for me when coming to local governments for financial and legal support of the work we were doing in their communities.  None of this past experience was at all related, at the time it seemed just random life to me, but it coalesced in this particular work I found myself doing.  The only explanation I have is it was the hand of God at work in my life, shaping me as the potter does the clay into a tool to build His kingdom.

In much the same way that all this past experience formed me for the community building I did with the Land of Lakes Group Workcamp, I can hear echoes of the training I received through Americorps and Community Action in my life after 2005.  Four years later I helped our neighborhood form a community association in response to city infrastructure plans and policies we felt would be detrimental to our neighborhood.  Each project I did with the Westside Association, from organizing the neighborhood meetings, to putting together door campaigns to notifying the community of what was going on, to working with the city government to come to a just solution, I learned through the community organizing training I had received as an Americorps VISTA.  Even something as simple as purchasing our produce through a CSA (community supported agriculture), our staples through a community purchasing group (Fare for All; Angel Food Ministries), and our meat from local farmers, those decisions and relationships grew out of my broadening experience of working for the common good through the context of community cooperation.  God continues to shape me and I continue to try to respond to how He calls me to service.

It has been almost three years since I moved away from West Central Minnesota, where I was first initiated into community-mindedness, and returned to my hometown of La Crosse, Wisconsin.  I have been waiting, often impatiently, to discover the next chapter of my life, to understand God’s purposes for me in this community.  But much like I could not see the road unfolding ahead of me from theatre to Americorps to Westside Association, I cannot see past the horizon here in La Crosse.  I simply must trust that God is forming me right now for the next part of His plan, and be open and ready to respond when He calls my name.

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I had the awesome privilege of working with a true servant leader several years ago during my year of service as an Americorps VISTA.  Steve Nagle is the executive director of West Central Minnesota Communities Action where I coordinated the Land of Lakes Group Workcamp.  At the time, I was not fully aware of what a “servant leader” was; however, hindsight has revealed I was being mentored by an amazing leader who had a profound impact on who I am and how I work within the context of community.  Recently, Steve and I had the opportunity to discuss his role as a leader within the Community Action Partnership.

Steve began his career as an educator, however, he only taught briefly before he began working with the Community Youth Corps, a program for disadvantaged teens.  It was here that he discovered his passion for human services and after working as a community action case manager for several years began his graduate studies in public and human service administration at Moorhead State University.  There he said he learned three things that formed his leadership style today: 1) he learned how to use a computer, 2) he became more sensitive to harassment and discrimination issues, especially those directed towards women, and 3) he became aware of people’s “busy talk”, how annoying it is to listen to, and how he makes an effort to not feed into that mindset.

Admittedly, I was expecting to hear about profound leadership concepts that were conveyed to Steve at Moorhead State.  I was expecting to hear amazing theories that led to the development of an amazing leader.  However, now that I’ve had a chance to think about it more, my expectations were a result of my employment in an academic environment.  Steve is not that type of guy.  He’s your average Joe with a heart of gold that cares deeply for helping people lift themselves out of poverty.  That is what makes Steve a great leader.  He was born to organize individuals into teams and lead teams to organize communities in making change for the common good.  These skills cannot be learned in graduate school, only fostered and nurtured.

Even though you may have a natural gift for organizing people you can still have doubts or concerns about certain projects along the way.  I asked Steve to tell me about a project with a high risk of failure that he trusted would succeed.  It was the Group Work/Cares Camp program that WCMCA has been offering in their five-county region for the past 10 years, a housing program that I had the privilege of coordinating as an Americorps VISTA during its second year.  The program brings together over 450 youth volunteers from across the United States to West Central Minnesota.  They work alongside approximately 100 local adult volunteers to rehabilitate housing for elderly, disabled, and low-income individuals.  Steve was initially nervous about the program because he foresaw all these young people descending upon our communities and going bonkers.  It also seemed like a potential logistical disaster with the needed coordination of people, equipment, funds, and governmental cooperation over such a wide geographical distance.  The project would have an enormous positive impact on our communities if it was successful, so it was worth the risk.  Steve decided to trust his gut intuition that all would be well instead of listening to the fears his mind generated.  Everyone rallied together to make the project a huge success and it continues to be one of WCMCA’s largest volunteer driven programs.

While effective leaders experience the freedom of spirit that happens when things go beautifully right, they also experience those instances of feeling stifled in their leadership.  Steve related a situation that has been a tripping point for him for the last two years.  He asked the local director of a federal program hosted by WCMCA to research practices of a successful volunteer tax preparation program in another part of Minnesota.  Steve thought this would be a good fit with the local director’s duties as the majority of volunteers in the tax prep program are also participants in the federal program.  When the state office became aware that their local director had been asked to manage the tax prep program for WCMCA, Steve was told this was not permissible and found himself in a bit of hot water.  This has caused him two years of distraction – having to travel several times to the Twin Cities to answer to the program office, dealing with a mound of paperwork, and facing the possibility of having this valuable program taken away from their agency.  Steve did not feel his request was asking anything inappropriate of the director or the program, and is unsure why this particular instance became a stumbling point.  Shortly after the issue was raised the local director retired, leaving Steve with lots of questions.  It has caused him stress over the last two years, and has distracted him from supporting his agency team as fully as he would like.

Steve appreciated the support of WCMCA’s board of directors during the difficult process of the last two years, and their commitment to him and the agency over the last 13 years.  The board is comprised of one-third elected officials, one-third private sector representatives, and one-third low-income individuals elected by the people the agency serves.  This board make-up is set at the national level, and was proposed by President Lyndon B. Johnson during the War on Poverty.  Community Action is “dedicated to helping people help themselves and each other” (CAP, 2008), and involving the people they serve in leadership opportunities is an important aspect of the agency’s mission.  Board member selection is based upon what resources a member can provide to further the progress of WCMCA.  Steve attributes a good portion of the agency’s success to having a consistently dedicated board.

WCMCA has developed a dedicated board by making them feel appreciated.  Simple acts like having a light supper prior to board meetings, providing a kitchenette in the break room and monthly potlucks organized by each department help to create an environment in which people feel appreciated.  Outside the break/board room is a patio complete with a grill and picnic table that is well used in the summertime by the staff.  I can remember several instances of impromptu cookouts when Steve would show up with a package of sausage and buns, drawing people outside for a moment to chat and have a “snack”.  I asked Steve where WCMCA’s “food culture” came from.  He said he thought it came with him – food is important to him, it brings people together and most people enjoy it – and it just seems to work in rallying people together.

When I contacted Steve Nagle for this conversation he said he didn’t have a clue what servant leadership was about.  Even though Steve may not know the ins and outs of the theory and practice, he is a true servant leader to his core.  There are many points made by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader from Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power & Greatness (2002) that I see Steve understanding at a gut level.

But the leader needs more than inspiration.  He ventures to say, ‘I will go; come with me!’  He initiates, provides the ideas and the structure, and takes the risk of failure along with the chance of success.  He says, ‘I will go, follow me!’ when he knows that the path is uncertain, even dangerous.  And he trusts those who go with him. (p. 28)  This was my experience of Steve’s leadership style when I worked at WCMCA.  If he knew people needed help, and there was a program to help them, he would rally up support around the agency to join the cause.

Many attempts to communicate are nullified by saying too much. (p. 32)  Actually, this is one thing Steve said he did learn at graduate school.  This quote kept coming back to me as he was talking about the situation where he was feeling stifled in his leadership.  In his efforts to try to justify and explain himself to the state office things became messier.  Steve did not suggest that withholding information would have made the problem go away (lack of transparency) but perhaps just accepting the initial communication and moving on would have brought about a quicker resolution.

An institution starts on a course toward people-building with leadership that has a firmly established context of people first. (p. 54)  Steve’s number one priority is the people that WCMCA serves, not his position or anyone else’s at the agency.  Steve had started our conversation talking about having a difficult day because he needed to lay off a number of people at the agency.  He was distressed because not only did he not want to have to say goodbye to these employees, but it also meant they would not be able to serve as many people because of the staff reduction.  I recall the numerous times I had the chance to hear Steve speak to government officials about the work WCMCA was doing in their communities.  His stories were always about client successes and never a pat on the back for the agency.

The great leader is seen as servant first. (p. 21)  Of all the things that I learned from Steve, this is the most important aspect of being a great leader.  A lot of good work is accomplished by WCMCA not because Steve has his hand in all the projects, but because he trusts everyone on his team to get the job done well.  Steve is there to offer support.  He is there to offer advice or to lend a helping hand if needed.  He may recommend someone else’s assistance if he thinks they have something to contribute.  Otherwise Steve steps back and allows the project coordinators to shine.  He trusts the team he has assembled will be successful in their work.

I owe a deep debt of gratitude to Steve Nagle for mentoring me in leadership.  He modeled a people-centered style of leadership that I have adopted in turn.  Steve showed me how you can simultaneously have fun, get the job done, and build relationships that will serve you for future projects.  I learned the most work is accomplished when the leader is present to support the team in getting their jobs done, and trusting that they will do just that.  What I appreciate most is Steve never judged my abilities because I was a client of WCMCA before working there, in fact he saw my experience as a program client an asset in serving others through the program I coordinated.  My life is richer for knowing Steve Nagle and I hope to share that richness with everyone I serve as a leader.

References

Community Action Partnership. (2008). Community action partnership: The national

association, washington d.c.. Retrieved from http://www.communityactionpartnership.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=12&Itemid=41

Greenleaf, R. K. (2002). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power &

 greatness. (25th. anniversary ed., pp. 21-61). New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

Risnes Media, C. (2011). Community action partnership: West central minnesota communities

 action, inc.. Retrieved from http://www.wcmca.org/

Son of citation machine. (2010). Retrieved from citationmachine.net

 

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