Brian Voerding Q&A

July 15, 2019
Brian Voerding of Engage Winona on community building

“The work I wanted to do didn’t exist in Winona — so I created it. Call it social entrepreneurship, but it was just something I couldn’t not do. I wanted something I could build and nurture and ultimately be responsible for shaping, while at the same time having it be entirely out of my control, dependent on the energies and desires of a whole community.”

What motivated you to start Engage Winona two years ago?

A desire to work at the source of community changemaking and organizing, combined with a wildly impractical but compelling vision of everyone in a community having a real voice and meaningful role in shaping their future.

I had been a daily newspaper editor for six years, loving the work of storytelling as a vehicle for change. But the industry is locked in a brutal battle for survival — I spent more time trying and failing to keep journalists employed than mentoring and publishing them. And results were mixed — sometimes a story or an editorial would spark a reaction and lead to change, but most often even the most powerful writing would disappear into some unknowable vacuum.

The work I wanted to do didn’t exist in Winona — so I created it. Call it social entrepreneurship, but it was just something I couldn’t not do. I wanted something I could build and nurture and ultimately be responsible for shaping, while at the same time having it be entirely out of my control, dependent on the energies and desires of a whole community.

How have you been able to engage the community?

Engage Winona is focused on two things: inclusive conversations and gatherings, and empowered changemaking. We bring people together in creative and authentic ways. That can look like dialogues to bridge divides, discussions to move forward on big issues, healing interactions in safe spaces — or bingo and a cookout to meet neighbors. Powerful ideas for community change come from those conversations, so the other half of the work is giving folks ongoing guidance, tools and resources to turn those ideas into reality.

How has the business community responded?

Business leaders here tend to be really engaged — they get that their companies exist within a much larger ecosystem, that the community’s health has a direct impact on their businesses’ health. They also understand that they uniquely have resources that can drive big community change; many are committed local philanthropists who allow employees to have lots of input on where the money goes.

A key part of Engage Winona’s funding comes from businesses and institutions, not as donations but as contract work — we help them engage with their communities, from employees to audiences, create what those communities seek, and design more collaborative structures to keep their voices at the table.

What was the need you identified in the community?

A deepening sense of social isolation and growing division around topics already so good at dividing us, coupled with a fear of not knowing how to deal with that. A hunger for new ways of coming together. And a cautious optimism that we have the resources we need to be a resilient community that can solve its own challenges.

The need to move from competition to collaboration, from scarcity to abundance, from fear to courage — that’s not just our community’s need, but our country’s need, our world’s need, a deeply human and universal need.

How often do you convene people in an ideal month?

Dozens. That’s everything from small project groups to community-wide conversations. Sometimes it’s three or four gatherings a day. We’re in bars, churches, parks, businesses, sidewalks, classrooms, galleries — you name it. The goal is to make this kind of coming together so natural and easy that it becomes Winona’s way. As anyone accomplished in anything knows, making something feel easy requires constant hard practice.

Have you modeled your work off of programs that have worked in other cities?

Our work and process is co-created by the communities we collaborate with. The same model never works twice, and we always have to feel our way through some darkness. It’s organic, emergent. Fun and fancy words, but put into practice they create messy, hard, complex work that’s full of conflict and frustration — and also revelation, transformation, and joy.

That doesn’t mean the approach is unique — just the process and outcomes. I have an always-growing list of deep influences, admirations, begged-and-borrowed practices, and outright envies for brilliance I have to be satisfied to, at best, copy in some diluted form. Just here in Minnesota: Blandin. Wilder. Bush. Nexus Community Partners. Marnita’s Table. Minnesota Humanities Center. Springboard For the Arts. Juxtaposition Arts. First People’s Fund. My collaborative partner Art of the Rural. The list goes on.

What advice do you give to business leaders who are looking to increase their engagement with their stakeholders?

Follow the energy. Meet people where they’re at. Listen. Co-create. Serve. Repeat. Trust that this process matters — not just to the bottom line (it does), but to the very soul and sustainability of the company.

What do you want to achieve in the future with Engage Winona?

Engage Winona is just scaffolding to build a thriving community that works for all. My ultimate vision is to see this process — coming together in inclusive conversation, staying together to collaborate on community change — become so common and collectively led that the existence of Engage Winona is no longer relevant.

How do you help guide people into turning their ideas in volunteer projects?

Patience and love. People are infinitely hard on themselves. Especially volunteers. As if the structures of the known world don’t make it hard enough already to step outside yourself and do a little good.

Sometimes, the biggest thing in someone’s way is themselves: the limiting behaviors and beliefs, the I’m-not-good-enoughs, imposter-syndromes, I’m-not-a-community-leader lines of self-defeating thought. We help folks with that. We do immersive workshops, but most often it simply means pointing out to them how great they already are and how hard they’re already working.

When structures and systems are what’s in the way, we see addressing those as Engage Winona’s work, even if it’s just being able to point to inequities and asking for help.

Practically, it’s important to keep folks focused: Is this meaningful? Is this achievable? Is this what you originally set out to accomplish? And ask: What do you need right now, at this moment? What is the next best step? And we exist as a vision-keeper. If someone starts something meaningful and has to walk away, we find someone else, or work it ourselves as we’re able.

How does your journalism experience help you in your role?

Journalism is the art of telling powerful stories that carry truths capable of moving minds, hearts, and ultimately bodies in pursuit of change.

Narrating and storytelling is so critical for community change work. Stories are the single best tool for bringing folks to a table and then keeping them there. Folks can only come together to build a thriving community if the vision for that future world is richly articulated, co-created, understood, and deeply felt. So we tell stories of possibility and hope about the future community we’re imagining, and share them as widely as we can.

What is your favorite part of your job?

Those moments in a room when folks in conversation are really getting after it, going deep, leaning in, vulnerable and courageous and entirely present, and this laser-beam coherence emerges to rough out a doorway to the imagined new world, luminous and bold in every promise and possibility.