Every society has its elite. That might not seem possible here on the Iron Range, where ore dust still clings to old company houses and Mich Golden Light cans dot the ditches like poor man’s glitter.
But even the Iron Range has its elite: the professional meeting-attenders, money-handlers and vote-collectors. They aren’t all bad people. In fact, they are no better or worse than the population at large. It’s just that they have better-paying jobs where people stick Post-it notes to the walls of hotel convention centers in the belief that doing so will alter the future.
Good work if you can get it.
I’m a college teacher, journalist and public radio host, which is an imposing trifecta of elitism to some. I walk freely into the halls of power. When I show enthusiasm for the right things, I am rewarded with more access. When I scowl and stomp my feet, I am seated at one of the far tables. So it goes. I still get fed and I’m a long damn way from the trailer house where I grew up.
I bring this up because the “in” crowd has a certain way of handling the economic crisis we now find in Northeastern Minnesota. They start synergizing and dialoging. They worry about feedback loops and information silos.
If these terms are foreign to you, well, to quote Johnny Cash: “Country boy, I wish I was you and you was me.”
It’s not that meetings are bad (they’re an essential starting point) or that planning for the future is silly (it’s actually the crisis of our time). It’s that the world of the elite in any society is often an echo chamber, where admiring problems is indistinguishable from solving them.
But there is hope that some real, actionable ideas could emerge from one upcoming event. The speakers aren’t elected officials or the usual names you see in Iron Range newspapers. They are researchers, community volunteers and entrepreneurs.
On Wednesday, April 13, MPR brings “Minnesota’s Iron Range: Ideas for the Future,” to the Hibbing Community College Theater. Hosts include MPR Morning Edition host (and co-host of public television’s “Almanac”) Cathy Wurzer along with MPR’s Northern Minnesota reporter Dan Kraker.
The format will include a panel of speakers. Each will pitch their vision for the future of the Range from their unique point of view.
Among the panelists are Anna Anderson, CEO of Art Unlimited — a web and marketing firm in Angora of all places. She’ll speak with Shawn Wellnitz of the Entrepreneur Fund about strategies for encouraging new businesses in Northern Minnesota.
Rolf Weberg from the Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) at UM-Duluth will talk about new possibilities in minerals. He’ll also talk about ways he thinks this controversial, polarized issue can be discussed without the rancor of the past decade.
Brendan Jordan from the Bioeconomy Coalition of Minnesota will talk about ways to make chemicals and fuels from plant material found in our area.
Aaron Hautala, volunteer president of the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew, will describe the Crosby-Ironton area’s success in attracting and retaining 21st century entrepreneurs and their workforce, as well as creating a vibrant local community.
Finally, the audience will hear from my colleague Jessalyn Sabin at Hibbing Community College. She is the cofounder of ReGen, a group working to build community and retain new talent on the Range. Sabin will speak to the role of young people in building quality of life and shaping the future of the region.
“It’s hard to pick one silver bullet that will solve the Range’s problems,” Sabin told me. “It will take multiple angles, so we need the viewpoints of more people.”
She stresses the ideas of positivity and inclusion. Existing institutions must invite and listen to new people if they are to succeed in our changing region.
“Minnesota’s Iron Range: Ideas for the Future” will take place Wednesday from 6-8 p.m. at the HCC Theater. Admission is free, but tickets are required. You can reserve your ticket at mpr.org/tickets.
This event certainly won’t solve the Iron Range’s problems in itself. Attending does not substitute the hard work all of us must do to improve our community’s future. But it will be refreshing to hear some ideas that don’t require us to wait for a permit or win an election. Time is short. Meetings are super-fun (not really), but people must leave with a to-do list, not just a free pen.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, April 10, 2016 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.