‘If you want to predict the future, listen to the future’

Panelists Brendan Jordan, Rolf Weberg, Jessalyn Sabin, Sean Wilenz, Anna Anderson and Aaron Hautala interact with co-hosts Cathy Wurzer and Dan Kraker at the April 13, 2016 forum at the HCC Theater in Hibbing.

Panelists Brendan Jordan, Rolf Weberg, Jessalyn Sabin, Aaron Hautala, Anna Anderson and Sean Wellnitz interact with co-hosts Cathy Wurzer and Dan Kraker at the April 13, 2016 forum at the HCC Theater in Hibbing.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Last week, students delivered informative speeches in my class at Hibbing Community College. One student spoke of the generational divide in how we communicate. He referred to Generation X, those of us born between 1965 and 1985, and said, “You know, like our parents.”

Now, Gen Xers have been parents for some time. I’m 36. I’m a parent. I’m cool with this. Mortality. Blah blah blah. But only then did I realize that I am technically old enough to have a child in college. My boys are still in elementary and middle school, but some of my high school classmates actually have kids who can vote. Never mind that I’m “kinda close” to being a millennial; I’m a grown up.

Whew. Looks like I got away without having to try on skinny jeans. Nice.

But the experience taught me something. All of a sudden I realized there’s a whole group of people I see every day who have an entirely new way of looking at the world than me. I’m not the hip older cousin. I’m not the cool uncle who hands out beer. I’m dad. I’m lame dad. And lame dad has a lot to learn if he’s going to make it on the street, yo.

That very evening, last Wednesday, April 13, Minnesota Public Radio held an Ideas Forum on the future of the Iron Range at the HCC Theatre. “The future of the Iron Range” is an enormously broad topic. Themes that emerged from the MPR event came down to a simple question: What are we doing to build a world for the next generation to thrive?

As I wrote last week, these sorts of discussions can be repetitive and contentious as people jealously guard their own institutional turf. A panel discussion is no solution to our problems, but hearing from new voices was a good start.

My colleague Jessalyn Sabin is an HCC biology instructor and co-founder of the young professionals group ReGen, a group dominated by millennials. She spoke about the three tools she suggests for recruiting a young, diverse workforce: creating social roots for people who move here, involving new people in communities, and educating young people about opportunities available locally.

Another speaker was Aaron Hautala, President of the Cuyuna Mountain Biking Crew and one of the most exuberant volunteer community boosters I’ve ever met. On the Cuyuna Range, the end of mining in the early ‘80s left a wake of economic damage in Crosby and Ironton. A group of dedicated, community-minded volunteers began working to turn something unexpected — outdoor recreation — into a tool for economic development.

Things are different here on the Mesabi in that we’re dealing with the reduction of mining jobs, not the end of mining. In Hautala’s vision of economic diversity he explained, “when mining needs some quiet time, it doesn’t bring the whole region to its knees. It’s going to hurt, but it’s not fatal.”
That’s what most any Iron Ranger says they want, but how do we get there?

“The best way to predict the future is to ask the future,” said Hautala. “The future is here. There’s 90 million of them — millennials. There are more of them than the [Baby] Boomers. They are what’s coming.”

Hautala said what they did on the Cuyuna was listen to the visitors to their area, from tourists to the professional recruits for the local hospital or schools. They listened to young people, whose thoughts and desires for the community were dramatically different than the previous generation’s. Then they worked over many years to implement the new ideas as they were presented, despite initial resistance. The results don’t replace mining, but they have created activity and economic growth where there was none.

Among the most inspirational stories of the night came from Anna Anderson of Art Unlimited in Angora. She detailed her father’s seemingly insane quest to use early computers and coding as a marketing tool. She now runs the business he started, employing 15 professional tech workers in the almost-literal middle of nowhere.

The event also featured talks from Rolf Weberg of UMD’s Natural Resources Research Institution and Brendan Jordan of the Great Plains Institute, both talking about innovations in mining and biofuels, respectively.

It’s not one thing that will lead us to a more sustainable economic future. It’s many. Nothing has much chance, though, if it depends more on nostalgia than creating opportunity.

People through the ages have come to Northern Minnesota for opportunity. They have endured harsh climate, cruel working conditions, and cultural upheaval — all in pursuit of opportunity for the next generation.

We cannot simply graft a handful of millennials onto decaying institutions and hope for magical results. We must actually listen to this new generation and work to create a world that serves the future, not some idealized version of the past.

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 17, 2016 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


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