Dave Hengel, Executive Director of Greater Bemidji

July, 2023

Margaret Wheatley in her book “Turning to One Another” said, in part, “There is no greater power than a community discovering what it cares about.”

In my previous work with the Headwaters Regional Development Commission, I led our Center for Community Stewardship.  My role was to guide diverse community leadership teams as they worked to identify a shared community vision (we called it the community destiny) and lay a course to community success.  It was some of the most rewarding work of my career as I saw passionate community members voluntarily come together to build their communities.


In our model of community strategic planning, we always started with a discussion of values.  We focused on questions like: 

  • What do you as individuals value about you community?  
  • What about your community do you care about and truly love?
  • What are you not willing to lose about your community as you change, grow and prosper?


The resulting conversations in response to these questions from diverse community members were incredibly powerful.


So why did I put such focus on shared community values?  Why not just jump into a discussion of the issues facing their community, or even ideas and initiatives to support their community?


Because I wholeheartedly agree with Margaret Wheatley – there is no greater power for a community then it collectively agreeing on what it cares about – what it values.  


Shared values do two very critical things, both of which are essential for effective community-building.  First, they bring people together.  Secondly, they motivate people to act.  Let me dive into both.


Without fail, in community after community the dialogue around values went the same.  Regardless of age, or race.  Regardless of income and wealth.  Regardless of whether the community members had grown up in the community or were new to town.  One after another, community members would share the very same reasons for loving their community and what they truly valued about their community.  


I would watch the light bulbs turn on as people began to realize that they cared about the exact same things as those who they assumed they would disagree with. I watched as good people realized that those not sharing the same age, or race, or lifestyle could actually share the same community values as them.  


Ultimately what these conversations did was quickly tear down artificial walls built up by assumptions about people and groups we don’t know.  By acknowledging we all care about the same things, we stop questioning each other’s intentions or motives.  People still disagreed on projects, but their disagreements no longer led to personal attacks or character assassinations -something I am seeing more and more in our own community.


Shared values bring people together. 


In addition, addressing what community members care and value motivates people to act.  If someone disagrees with a project or an initiative, typically they will send the proverbial letter to the editor or complain at the community “Chatterbox Café” (every town has one) and be done with it. Ultimately, it didn’t rise to the level of actually trying to do something to make a difference. 


Yet propose an initiative or project that positively affects what people truly care about in their community – they act.  They volunteer.  They join action teams. They find place where they can make a difference.  They actually work to bring about positive change – because it is something they care deeply about and value.


I am sharing the importance of shared values because I am concerned our communities have lost their sense of shared community values – including Bemidji. Without generally accepted shared values, it is impossible to agree on a shared community vision.  Without acknowledging that we have shared values, we get caught in the death spiral of negativity and bashing of ideas and leaders.  


So Bemidji - What do you value about the Bemidji community?  What makes you love this place we call home?  What don’t you want to lose as we build into our future?  I’d love to hear from you.  Even more, I’d love you to ask others you know (and some you don’t) the same questions to see how what we all have in common can bring us together.

I’d like to close by sharing the rest of the passage by Margaret Wheatley I began with:


“There is no greater power than a community discovering what it cares about.  Ask “What is possible?” not “What’s wrong?” Keep asking.  Notice what you care about.  Assume that many others share your dreams.  Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters. Talk to people you know. Talk to people you don’t know. Talk to people you never talk to.  Be intrigued by the differences you hear. Expect to be surprised. Treasure curiosity more than certainty.  Invite in everybody who cares to work on what’s possible. Acknowledge that everyone is an expert about something. Know that creative solutions come from new connections.

Remember, you don’t fear people whose story you know. Real listening always brings people closer together.  Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world. Rely on human goodness. Stay together.”


Thanks to all those community members who passionately work to make Bemidji the special place it is.


Dave Hengel

Contact me at (218) 444-5757 or dhengel@greaterbemidji.com.