Community engagement. Equity, diversity, and inclusion. Creative placemaking. Relevance. These concepts, ever present in Bolz Center curriculum, are what drew me to this specialized and special MBA program last fall. This is why it was such a complete joy to see them all come together so seamlessly in October, when fellow second-year Amber Porter and I visited Ellsworth, a village of just over 3,000 and cheese curd capital of the state, to accompany UW-Extension’s Design Wisconsin Team. We were there to observe the volunteer team of experts led by Todd Johnson to learn more about their community design charette process and how we might be able to implement it into our year-long consulting project. Understanding this model for community engagement will not only pay dividends this coming spring in Baraboo, but for the rest of our careers as artful leaders.
Imagine on the weekend that we were in Ellsworth that the local high school football team was to play in the first round of state playoffs. How many residents would you expect to attend the spaghetti dinner and public meeting that directly conflicts with the big game? In Ellsworth, the answer to this non-hypothetically situation was over 200. This was surely an impressive turnout, but I was more impressed by the other various data collection methods – including a bus and walking tour, Internet survey, drawings by local elementary students, and lunch at the senior center – used to gather feedback from those not in attendance. To best understand a community’s collective dreams, one must hear from a representative sample of the entire community. This means not waiting for opinions to be submitted, but rather seeking them out. For this reason, our Bolz Center team has been traveling to Baraboo regularly throughout the semester. Although we are focused on working with Circus World Museum, we cannot succeed in this process by working remotely 42 miles away and not engaging the local community. Exploring downtown, patronizing local restaurants, and visiting other local landmarks is helping us to understand the heritage of place, and what Circus World Museum means to Baraboo and vice versa.
48 hours after the planning and design professionals arrived at their host families’ homes in Ellsworth, they digested all the information that was gathered, and presented the community with 20-30 hand drawn illustrations representing a shared vision for the future of Ellsworth. Attendees were then asked to sign up to volunteer working on whatever ideas they find most inspiring. This process may not be exactly replicable with Circus World Museum, but having experienced it first-hand, I was reminded of the continued power of meeting individuals where they are. Thankfully, we have the entire school year rather than a weekend to accomplish our work and I am hopeful that we can inspire such momentum towards positive change.