Working together is goal to make a difference

Published 9:34 am Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Guest Column by Tim Penny

In the midst of the holiday season, a shared table is one of many blessings. Sitting around the Thanksgiving table with family, I couldn’t help but reflect on the many roundtable conversations Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF) has been part of in the past few months. At some we were the host, others the guests, but at all, a fellow collaborator. It’s a nice counterbalance to the political divide that, a year out from our next presidential election, already seems a frequent discouragement. From a listening session hosted by Minnesota Department of Education to focus on early childhood care issues to an economic summit in Rochester to launch a new equity fund for our region’s entrepreneurs, there are countless examples of southern Minnesota leaders coming together for a common good.

Tim Penny

Tim Penny

With ever more meetings to attend, a focus on feasible action items and outcomes is important. However, the process of how we come together — across sectors, geographies, political backgrounds, ages, races, cultures — should not be overlooked. One aspect I appreciate most about Minnesota is the culture of practicality and a willingness to set aside differences for mutual gains. This culture of collaboration is also embedded in how we approach our work at the foundation; we see it as our role to equip those willing to lead, then step back to listen.

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SMIF utilized this grass-roots, asset-based approach last year when we hosted our first regional Community Growth Initiative. One pressing issue that’s affecting the state at large and Greater Minnesota in particular is the looming workforce shortage. Southeastern Minnesota alone is facing a shortage of 45,000 workers in the coming years, and the overall labor force is growing at a fourth its previous rate, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. The Community Growth Initiative grant we gave to SE MN Together has resulted in a series of community conversations in southeastern Minnesota to address how we combat this issue.

These meetings have been well attended by business owners, EDAs, chambers of commerce, education leaders, real estate folks, representatives from Rochester’s Journey to Growth initiative and other engaged residents. The meetings use a world café format to ensure that all voices are heard. When Sen. Amy Klobuchar was doing her annual visit to our region’s communities a couple weeks ago, having a shared voice about labor needs across our smaller communities gave our message more weight.

A recent MinnPost article highlighted how the business community in the Twin Cities is also coming together to address the pending metro’s workforce shortage, estimated to be a 100,000 worker shortfall by 2020. As SE MN Together’s efforts continue, there is an opportunity for southern Minnesota to learn from the Twin Cities’ “Make It. MSP.” campaign. Their metro-focused initiative is focused on how to attract younger workers and plug them into a welcoming community. As Ben Winchester of the University of Minnesota-Extension reminded a group of community members at yet another recent roundtable setting: “If we’re not marketing ourselves regionally, we’re not marketing at all.”

While coming together around a shared table is a necessary first step, it’s wise to keep Henry Ford’s words in mind: “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.” As we start looking toward 2016, I am hopeful that the conversations sparked at these many collaborative events will translate into cooperative projects. This collaborative, consensus-seeking approach can be slower, and sometimes frustrating, but ultimately, the outcomes from an inclusive approach are richer and longer-lasting.

I welcome your comments and questions. You can reach me at or 507-455-3215.


Tim Penny is the executive director of Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation.