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Changing the conversation

A group of 11 Red Wing residents attended a Blandin Foundation Academy for Community Engagement training session last November. Participants identified local tourism as a topic for Red Wing’s World Café, a public discussion to be held March 22 at Minnesota State College-Southeast Technical. (Photo provided by the Blandin Foundation)

Discussions about economic development and tourism in Red Wing have been going on for years, but a new event later this month looks to take the conversation in a new direction.

Tourism will be the focus of Red Wing’s World Café, a community discussion 9 a.m. to noon Saturday March 22 at Minnesota State College-Southeast Technical. The catch is that talk of past attempts or failures will not be allowed.

“We want it to stay positive,” said Jill Prahl, interim program director of the local nonprofit organization Downtown Main Street. She is one of 11 area residents organizing the World Café as part of their involvement with the Blandin Foundation’s Academy for Community Engagement, or ACE, program.

“We want to leave the past at the door, so we won’t talk about who’s done what, is doing what or what’s been done,” she said. “That’s the old story, and we’re talking about changing the conversation.”

Open discussion

Attendees will be placed into groups of four and assigned to a table, said Scott Adkisson, chair of business incubator Red Wing Ignite and a fellow ACE member. Organizers will take care to ensure everyone is grouped with strangers or people they haven’t had much discussion with prior to the event.

The groups will be asked to discuss a single question pertaining to Red Wing tourism. After a time, the tables will be dismissed and new groups formed to discuss a different question.

The ACE team isn’t revealing the exact questions before the event, but Prahl said there will be a total of three and that they become more specific as they go.

Adkisson said the hope is that the small groups will foster a casual discussion that encourages people to chime in when they would otherwise feel embarrassed or intimidated.

“And with four people at a table, it’s really hard for one personality to take over,” said Ethan Seaberg, president of the AFSCME local 737 union and another ACE participant.

The team said it would like to see a couple hundred people attend the World Café in order to get a wide range of viewpoints. Invitations were sent out to a mix of residents — from Red Wing High School students to members of the Pier 55 senior center — but no registration is required and anyone is welcome to attend.

“The goal as much as anything is to engage people,” Seaberg said, “especially those who haven’t been engaged in a conversation about things that relate to the entire community.”

Leadership training

Founded by Charles K. Blandin in 1941, the Grand Rapids, Minn.,-based Blandin Foundation provides grants and leadership training to strengthen rural communities in Minnesota, according to its website. It is the largest such organization in the state.

Close to a hundred Red Wing residents have gone through the Blandin Community Leadership Program over the past couple years, Prahl said. The workshop teaches attendees leadership skills they can bring home and utilize locally.

Adkisson, who was among the first in Red Wing to go through the recent leadership program sessions, said it changed the way he manages his employees. “It was a major eye-opener, and probably the best week I’ve ever spent in a training seminar.”

A group of Red Wing leadership program alumni attended Blandin ACE training last fall at Breezy Point Resort in north-central Minnesota, Prahl said. They joined matching groups from Marshall and Hermantown, Minn., and the Red Lake Indian Reservation to identify community issues in need of fixing.

“Instead of jumping right to solutions and plans, we were asked to step back and really look at the issue holistically and get complete community involvement,” Prahl said. “So that’s where the World Café stemmed from.”

Ongoing commitment

Each table at the event will be covered with a paper tablecloth, and attendees are encouraged to write their ideas on it throughout the discussion, Adkisson said. The notes then will be collected by team captains and shared with the audience.

The local ACE volunteers have made a 12-month commitment to present the ideas from the World Café to community groups and organizations across Red Wing, he added.

The event also looks to help area residents build new connections with their neighbors, which “can be invaluable in small communities,” Seaberg said.

The World Café is free and open to all. For more information, email questions to

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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