Our View: Community Building in 2024

A version of this article originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on January 22, 2024. You can view the column here.

Multiple refugee and immigration crises, mounting political tensions, and escalations in violent clashes dominate the world news early in this new year. Reading the headlines, we can find ourselves experiencing sadness and frustration on one end of the register all the way up to horror and hopelessness on the other.

What can individuals hope to achieve in the face of massive problems like these? Though these global challenges develop on a scale that can feel far removed and inexorable, they nonetheless end up having a very real and tangible impact on our day-to-day lives.

We can hope for — and contribute to — successful cooperation on the international scale. One way is by focusing on related problems that we might be able to solve right in our backyards. At the community level, change is not only possible, it’s inevitable.

Northern Minnesota and northern Wisconsin are experiencing a number of interrelated trends. Changes in population and demographics are taking place against the backdrop of severe shortages in workforce, child care, housing, and other essentials. These issues are slow-moving trains, and our best tools for addressing them fall under the umbrella of what we might call community-building efforts.

Specifically, we recommend a renewed focus on three cornerstones of community-building. Any individual anywhere in the world who wants to see ripple effects at home and abroad can make significant contributions to these three areas.

The first cornerstone is safe, affordable, and accessible infrastructure. The lines between our homes, offices, and other dwellings continue to blur, and zoning and regulation need to catch up in order to support creative approaches to revitalization like hybrid live-and-work spaces. If you’d like to explore the regional markets, free data is available at NorthlandConnection.com, which just relaunched with an updated website.

The second is fulfilling vocational opportunities and viable avenues for entrepreneurship. The community program NORTHFORCE recently celebrated a decade of providing a platform for local employers to connect with job candidates. And this year we will see DAWN, which stands for Driving Access to Wealth & Networks, doing just that for entrepreneurs and aspiring business owners.

The third is a sense of belonging. Inclusiveness is essential for every individual to feel at home, whether they’ve lived here their entire lives or are brand new to the neighborhood. To that end, the Welcoming Community program fosters diversity, equity, and inclusion by promoting and uniting groups and initiatives that are dedicated to building mutual intercultural understanding.

We hope that in 2024 you will join in the wide variety of work underway throughout the Northland and around the globe to build stronger communities and ensure a more prosperous future for all. The actions we take in our communities have a cumulative effect that translates to the state and national levels. Inevitably, it’s not an exaggeration to say that they will even change the world.

Elissa Hansen is president and CEO of Northspan, a Duluth-based nonprofit consulting firm which powers the Northland Connection, NORTHFORCE, Welcoming Community, and DAWN programs.