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Note: Our Vital Connections On Air episodes are audio-based interviews. Written transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before referencing content in print.

Christy Kallevig: Welcome to Vital Connections On Air, a podcast brought to you by University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vtality that explores the trends and topics important to communities and leaders throughout Minnesota. My name is Christy Kallevig and I am an Extension educator with the Center for Community Vitality. Today I am joined by Sharr Konger, Jessalyn Sabin, and Desiree Yourczek, who are members of ReGen. ReGen is a grassroots organization on the Iron Range of Minnesota that is focused on building networks across communities on the range and helping newcomers develop their social roots within the region. Welcome to Vital Connections on Air. Before we start talking about ReGen and how the organization came to be, why don't you each introduce yourself and tell us what brought you to the Iron Range?

Sharr Konger: My name is Sharr Konger. I work for Pehrson Lodge on Lake Vermillion. It is on the Cook end of the lake and I live in Eveleth Minnesota. I actually grew up in Brainerd, Minnesota and relocated to the Iron Range four years ago this summer with a job transfer.

Jessalyn Sabin: My name is Jessalyn Sabin. I work at community college as a biology instructor and live in Chisholm Minnesota and I work in Hibbing. I grew up in Side Lake, Minnesota and then I left and lived in Duluth for six years and then returned to the Iron Range four years ago.

Desiree Yourczek: Now my name is Desiree Yourczek. I actually work at an online marketing company called Art Unlimited which is located near Cook, Minnesota. And I live in Britts, Minnesota. My story is pretty much the same as Jessa's, I ran off to Duluth and came back.

Christy Kallevig: And so what made you come back? We know that that's a trend that Ben Winchester who we heard from previously talks about a lot in this research but what was the draw back to the range for you from a larger metropolitan area.

Jessalyn Sabin: For me it was I had received a job offer to work at the college. And my fiancé's (at the time) family is up here. And so my family was also up here. And so my husband and I decided to move this direction for all those reasons combined.

Desiree Yourczek: Yeah very similar again. I came back because of family and stayed because I found a really fantastic job.

Christy Kallevig: Sharr, what drew you from Brainerd to the range?

Sharr Konger: I was relocated to the area. I guess not by choice. (Laughter) It was a job transfer, that they said you need to go to this store. I was working for Target at the time. And I stayed because I married a local. He teaches at one of the local high schools and we just decided to make our home here. He has a good job and I have moved on from Target but now have a new job locally and really enjoy where I work.

Christy Kallevig: That's wonderful. So definitely the quality of life or something that maybe drew you in and has kept you there. So as I said you're part of an organization called ReGen. Tell us a little bit about what ReGen is and how you got it started.

Jessalyn Sabin: So ReGen is a nonprofit that's focused on attracting and retaining talent to the area. And we do this through encouraging the economic, social and cultural vibrancy in the area. Because we were aware that there is going to be a large generational turnover in the workforce with massive retirements happening. I'm observing the place that I work just anecdotally right now. But businesses across the area are observing this and in the next 10–15 years there's going to be big changes and so we are losing institutional knowledge and talent that's been in the area forever so we need to be really conscious about attracting talented folks and then keeping the ones we have. And a lot of times that has to do with that quality of life. And with those additional things beyond your normal nine to fives. So we're really focused on making people feel welcome and included and feel like they have opportunities to engage communities and so they can develop grit and stay here.

Christy Kallevig: Did your experiences as being newcomers. I mean Sharr being brand new to the area or Jessalyn and Desiree coming back. Did that make you want to work on this and be involved in this initiative more?

Sharr Konger: For me having not lived in the area I was a total newcomer, it definitely is why I'm involved with ReGen because when I moved here four years ago I [had] lived in various communities across the United States and in Minnesota. And I found that moving to the Iron Age was kind of a different ball of wax, so to speak. I had trouble making friends, just figuring out how to get involved in things that I'm passionate about. You know laying down on social roots, finding things that are constructive to do with my time in the community and really feeling like I was connected to the community. It wasn't until I finally just started Facebooking different groups or through my job just trying to make connections with younger people and I found out about ReGen and applied to be a board member because I think it's very important. When you're a newcomer to the area to feel a connection. I think maybe if I hadn't met my husband up here and started dating and had that that connection that I probably would have really moved on if I hadn't found that connection. So it's incredibly important when you move to an area to feel welcome and to find things to do and people who are like minded.

Christy Kallevig: And I think that it's easy for us to think about those brand new folks that have never lived in an area that we need to find ways to connect them in. But how about coming back home if you will. Was there a need for you to reconnect or did you feel like there were ready made social networks for you guys?

Desiree Yourczek: Yeah I think that's that was one of the biggest reasons that Jess and I connected and went on to start ReGen, because coming back I know personally many of my friends had moved away and I no longer have the social connections in my community. And I felt a little isolated on the Iron Range because you know it's a vast area. And the communities don't always … there aren't many opportunities for me to just reach into the different communities to find other connections or groups or people to network with. So that was there was I definitely felt the need for it when I came back.

Christy Kallevig: I think it's so interesting. You said it Sharr and I read it on your website which is great. Social roots. What's that? Tell me a little bit more about how you really focus on social roots and why your organization believes that that is really vital to helping newcomers whether they're brand new or returning?

Jessalyn Sabin: So I think that the focus has to be on social roots because when you're dealing with a new workforce you typically dealing with folks that are millennial generation or even younger now. And these are when you look at some of the data about how young people choose places to live. It's beyond the 9 to 5. They're more interested in finding a place that they feel welcomed and concerned about and involved with and then they will make the career there. It's kind of interesting some of the conversations that happened about millennials moving to an area before they necessarily have a job there. And creating or crafting that sort of space for themselves. And so we really want there to be an opportunity for people to choose the Iron Range. We feel really strongly that this is a vibrant place. It's got an amazing history and there's a lot of opportunity here. And so with those social roots we're hoping that people can do Sharr did and hear and feel a connection and feel that they have some stake in the community because if you don't have a stake in what's happening in your community it's a lot easier to pack up and leave.

Christy Kallevig: What are some of the strategies that you use to draw people in and build those social groups.

Jessalyn Sabin: We do this a few different ways. We have opportunities for networking so we'll do casual get togethers here and there. We will highlight local businesses to show that there are some really interesting, fun funky things happening in the area local arts scene. We have a mentorship program where we try to show young folks in college that you know, once you're done you don't have to leave. You can actually have a job here and maybe in a field that you didn't think it was available to you up here. I know when I was going to school I it was mining and healthcare and that's it. And those are two big industries here, but there's a lot more at play so I know the narrative is you get out of school and you leave. I mean that was the narrative when I was going to school and I think we're hoping to change that. We're hoping to show that there is an area of opportunity here.

Christy Kallevig: Absolutely. What is you see is some of the benefits or successes that you have seen through your efforts with the ReGen?

Desiree Yourczek: Well I think one great thing about ReGen and building the network is that many times if someone is looking to get involved in their community, or there's something new to our Iron Range community, they are referred to us. So we're able to kind of just loop them into our events and some opportunities you know maybe if they don't have time we come to our events. We can identify their need and hook them up with an organization or person or community that can help them out.

Christy Kallevig: So it sounds almost like you have a very one-to-one approach. Yeah.

Desiree Yourczek: So yeah that's part of it. I mean we do enjoy doing like Jess mentioned the networking kind of get together events and also having the connecting businesses with students mentorship program. Yeah, I think the one-to-one approach works quite well, especially for people using isolated in their communities sometimes it's sometimes pretty overwhelming to try and just walk in and introduce yourself to a whole group of people that are already established. So reaching out and trying to build those relationships seems to be the best way to keep people involved.

Sharr Konger: It's just going to say I think that's very important coming from outside. A lot of the communities had felt siloed. So if you're from Eveleth you're from Eveleth and if you're from Hibbing you're from Hibbing. I don't have any history in any of those communities so I think to change it you know an experience from when I had is just letting people know that are new to the area or even coming back that that doesn't have to be the way you know like it has always been. With ReGen, when you come to our social events or any networking event is that everybody's welcome, whether you're a single person moving to the Iron Range, or whether you're family with children or you're a married couple. We want everybody to feel welcome. And I think that's really important. That's very important to me and I think it's important to a lot of people to really feel like you're accepted and welcome in an area.

Christy Kallevig: So somebody who's listening to our podcast might be thinking this sounds amazing. How do I do this where I live? Can you share with us how you moved from being an idea to being an organization?

Jessalyn Sabin: We started off as sort of a focus group at the time the actual RV was looking how to engage young folks and looking at this problem of workforce development and how the workforce is rapidly changing in our area. So about 40 people got together, Des and I were two of them, and we brainstorm what we liked about the area that we wish was a little bit difference and so looking at all that we wanted to be part of a solution be part of changing how things were and how things were perceived on the Iron Range.

So we as a small group of us decided to create a board and we spent several months just trying to figure out how exactly we are going to approach this because we wanted to be inclusive. We knew we wanted to do something tangible, but yet we knew that our task was really broad, because what we're trying to do is change a cultural mindset. So that's like no small thing.

You know there are several ways that and it took us a while to figure that out. And I think those early conversations about what we were willing to do and what we knew we'd have time for him we knew what we thought would be most effective. The fact that we took the time to have those conversations I think was really important because after that, we recruited more folks. We got a more established board, we applied for nonprofit status and then we started picking away at projects that we thought were going to align with our mission and vision. Now we took quite a while to figure out. And so we've been lucky that there's been a lot of ground shifting around here. I think multiple communities have been engaging in a lot of different events because there's been this mass realization that there is a big change happening here in the workforce and age dynamics in the world in general and the economy. There was a mining downturn about a year and a half ago and that was one of the impetus for the conversations that were taking place. So we kind of were having some really strategic conversations about what we wanted to do that led to our I would say our success or our establishment. The other thing was just timing. I think there was the time to start having these conversations and people are open to it folks have been really supportive. Local cities, government organizations, have all been really welcoming to us and I think if we can engage with those players it'll be a lot more successful and I think part of that has to do with your approach. When you come in as a millennial and say hey I want to do something a little bit different he'd be perceived as can be perceived as using you know you're doing your own you're only in your 20s, what are you doing? And you have to be really conscious that you're respecting what's been done in the past and asking how can I help that? How can you be doing this differently.

Christy Kallevig: So you've had to do a lot of reframing. I also heard some snickers when you mentioned a changing culture. Did you deal with a few roadblocks as you brought in those cultural changes?

Desiree Yourczek: Yeah I mean I think with any endeavor like this such as trying to form a nonprofit that will help you know create change you're going to end up against some roadblocks. We've been very lucky that nothing none of the roadblocks we've been presented with have been able to have been big problems. You know I think we've encountered things that any nonprofit encounters, challenges around capacity or member's involvement and you know finding funding et cetera. But the one thing that I'm most proud of about ReGen is that we've been able to do this very bootstrapped and with a very innovative mindset. You know we're not sitting down and saying like, "OK well this is how everyone else has done it." And so that's the way we have to do it. You know we're thinking creatively about how do we rebuild these relationships and how do we create the framework that can help this succeed in our area.

Christy Kallevig: And you're approaching this from a regional standpoint you're not trying to just do this with one community you're looking at your entire region. How do you help people feel that their community is important in the overall region? Because Sharr, I think it was you that said you didn't have connections to any one community. So how do you do that that you get people to realize that their community is part of this that it's not just Hibbing or it's not just Eveleth?

Sharr Konger: One of the big ways—and I'm new to the region, but one of the ways I feel that we do that is through making sure that our events and or any activities we do we try to spread them out throughout the Iron Range. It's not just a Hibbing event it is not just an Eveleth event or a Virginia event. Everybody is welcome. Scatter them out throughout the Iron Range. And I think one way that we also encourage your community is important is each one of us are involved in other capacities; so yes, we are board members of ReGen. That is our focus, but we are also involved in other organizations in the community of Eveleth, and Jessalyn and Desiree are involved in their communities and grassroots projects you know throughout the Iron Range. And each one of us can bring something unique to community in which we live in. And I think that's that's the beauty of ReGen that we are we have different backgrounds. We are young adults, but we're definitely tied into the communities that we live in.

And I think the other thing that happens is we were actually we were a little tired of people saying things … that there was nothing going on on the weekends in the area. We started making these Facebook posts, "Here's a list of all the things going on on the Iron Range." We made sure that that's a pretty good spread from east to west to try and highlight all the way up to Cook, all the way over to the Rapids (Grand Rapids), wherever we can, because it is a community it's not just these small towns. And when you leave the area you don't say I'm from Chisholm, you say I'm from the Iron Range. And so it's funny when we leave the area, and one of our other board members pointed this out. We self-identify as Iron Ranger. If we just usually talk about ourselves within the Range, and then we'll hopefully identify as a cohesive unit and really be able to get past the city barriers or town barriers or township barriers that we haven't come together as one identity or group.

Christy Kallevig: You're definitely working to change the narrative overall from your mentoring program to how you are talking about the range when you're not on the range. So how do you feel your narrative is changing? Is it shifting. And what do you hope for the narrative to be?

Desiree Yourczek: So I know my own personal narrative has definitely changed since I became involved with ReGen. I was very young. I wouldn't say negative but you know it is tough coming back here. Moving back and not having the social support that I had when I live somewhere else. And so I was kind of in the same vein of oh there was nothing going on and there's nothing to do. Why am I here? And then I got involved with ReGen. And I think that that helped to prove that if you shift your mindset. Or for me it was being around other people that have already had that mindset about The Range and saw the opportunity. You know, I just didn't see it until I became more involved. And so my personal narrative has definitely shifted around the way I think about the range and the opportunities and the future that I see here. So I don't think, like Jess had said earlier, just had said earlier it's a very big task to try and make any overarching claims that we can change how everyone thinks and talks about this area. But we've definitely been able to achieve a lot of the small wins of getting people to talk a little bit different.

Sharr Konger: And I think in my experience, I will be 100 percent honest. I was very negative about the area. Having lived here two and a half years not really made any friends, and was struggling to kind of find my social roots. Obviously my husband is from here we have his friends but it's really important as an individual to have your own sense of purpose and own social roots. I think being involved with ReGen has changed my narrative of the Iron Range. There is an abundance of outdoor recreation which is something I love. And there is an abundance of things to do whether people believe that or not. And I think the region has really given me the confidence to seek out some of those things that there are young people on the Iron Range who want to get involved and who are here to try to change that narrative.

It's helped me be bold and really try to dig into my own community. And be the person that I was in other communities. I think it's really really important. I've lived in many communities over the past and I'm in my early 30s. So I'm a little bit older on the ReGen side, but I think that it's really important to have a good frame of mind about the place and ReGen has really helped with that.

Christy Kallevig: So how many members does ReGen currently have and what is the next big thing for ReGen?

Jessalyn Sabin: Oh we actually operate in kind of a different M.O. We don't have numbers, we have a network and we did this to maintain flexibility and the ability to be nimble as an organization and change as things change. And so instead we end and we find that it's really hard when you're dealing with folks of a certain age group that are starting their careers or working you know either 9 to 5 jobs or shift jobs many hours, starting families. It's really hard to get people to commit to attending this many meetings at this time. And so instead of having a membership we have a more flexible way of approaching this. And so we like to call it a network and what drives the network is the board members. Now we have eight members on the board? I'm sorry 10 members on the board now. And so use that as the driver of the network. We are have a limit. We don't have a limit. We have folks that you know visit ReGen in kind of a younger group, but we are also for folks that are young at heart. We have folks in their 70s that actively come to our events that we host that encourage and support that we look to as huge community resources and advocates, so that network is pretty wide. That's something that we're really happy about too, is that it's not an exclusive. "We've got to be certain age to be involved." No, I think it's people that have a different perspective.

So the next big thing I'm hoping to do is that we're involved in a lot of community organizations and action teams though it I guess say across the Iron Range and there has been a lot of different projects happening from broadband access to downtown revitalization to … you name it. So what we're doing is we're really trying to plug into some of the things that have some momentum and bring a perspective of "Okay, this is what we're working on for the next folks, not even for us, but involves [people] younger than us, what would be most useful to them?" So that's kind of our current work. We're also working on setting up a summit in the fall for engagements and it's going to be (Sharr will explain that later) but it's going to be an opportunity for folks to get that invitation to be involved that maybe haven't felt that invitation before.

Sharr Konger: Your idea is to have a one night where we have just basically a great, fun social evening and networking evening that everybody is welcome to attend. We are potentially bringing up Theater of Public Policy. They're a great group that have done events for us in the past and have an evening where we just get to know each other a little bit. From there have three separate events that stem off of that evening and focus those around grassroots involvement and how to engage and get involved in a nonprofit and then how to get involved in civic engagement in their community. So we have speakers at each of those events. I'm really just talking about you know how to get involved. We have a nonprofit executive directors or managers come in to talk about what they're looking for and how you can get involved in their organization. So we're looking for the summit to be kind of a welcoming party to the range of how young people can get involved. It will be open to all ages just kind of hear what's out there.

Christy Kallevig: I think that that leads into a good question that folks listening to this are thinking, "Wow, these three ladies are really engaged and excited, and they're working to get others engaged and excited, but nobody in my town seems to want to get involved in anything. What do you guys have to say to somebody who thinks that young people are just not wanting to do stuff for their communities anymore?

Desiree Yourczek: Obviously we know this is not true. Sometimes as a young person, you feel isolated. You just have to look. There are other people out there. Even when thought no one else from the Iron Range thinks the way that I do. And then I find a focus group of 40 other people think on the same page. And now I've been able to connect with so many others. You just need to start talking about it. I think that's one of the things ReGen did as everyone was thinking it. We started talking about it. So just start having those conversations and you'll be really surprised at what comes out of it. I think as for other groups maybe you know I think traditionally people talk about you know older generations kind of looking down upon these young millennials. I haven't encountered much of that at all either. So I think just giving people a chance just because that's the thing doesn't mean that's the way it is.

Jessalyn Sabin: I think being given a seat at the table is so important. We all have different ideas based on generations, we all have different ideas of doing things. And I think one thing that's incredibly important and where we've had success is where we've been invited to the table where our ideas have been welcomed where we can learn from older generations, where we can really work together and that it's not just us versus them. I know, "the millennial crew." I've heard this many times from the baby boomer generation., "you know, we don't get you." But invite us to the table! We have ideas we want to learn the history the culture of an area. But it's just the invitation that welcoming, accepted feeling. And if that happens and I see it is happening, you know communities can thrive across the Iron Range. So I think it's just that invitation to the table to work together.

Christy Kallevig: As we wrap up today, I just want to wish you guys the best of luck with ReGen. I hope it continues to grow and that your ideas and work continue to keep bringing people together up on the Range. For our folks that are listening across the states and perhaps across the nation, what if you could each give one thing that somebody should come to the Range to see or check out or do or be a part of? What would that be? And I know it's probably hard to come up with one thing but just one thing.

Sharr Konger: For me it's outdoor recreation. I mean, I've lived out west I've lived in central Minnesota and lived in other states and truly, the Iron Range and Northeastern Minnesota is like an outdoor recreation paradise. There's lakes, there is mountain biking, there's hiking, fishing, hunting … any kind of outdoor recreation that you can possibly imagine. It's here. And if that is something … winter sports as well cross country skiing snowshoeing and I could go on and on. But my one thing is outdoor recreation.

Jessalyn Sabin: I would piggyback on that, I would say tourism. But in the sense of it's the Grand Canyon of the north. If you haven't seen mine pits, if you haven't experienced kayaking in a pit. I mean it's just it's beautiful, it's breathtaking. We also have a local museum that is so rich in history and like history of really just determined emigrates and greedy people. And so if you're into tourism you know the Grand Canyon of the North and the history. I mean this is the place you want to be.

Desiree Yourczek: I would say come up and check out our trails. Whether you hike or bike or four-wheel, you know, let's go mudding.

Christy Kallevig: Well thank you so much. Sharr, Jessalyn and Desiree, for taking some time to talk with me today. Love what you have going. And I'm really excited to see what comes next. And can you remind us what your website is so that folks can learn more about ReGen?

Sharr Konger: Yeah, www.regenironrange.org.

Christy Kallevig: Thank you again to Sharr, Jessalyn and Desiree for sharing their story with us. If you'd like to learn more about ReGen and what it is doing to build networks of newcomers on the Iron Range visit their website at www.regenironrange.org. You can also follow them on Facebook at ReGen Iron Range.

Learn more about University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community vitality by visiting our website at extension.umn.edu/community. There you can learn more about today's topic and explore our leadership and civic engagement alumni blog. Make sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date on new research and resources for communities and those who lead them.

I also want to take a moment today to thank my colleague Merritt Bussiere for providing us with great music for our podcasts. I hope that you enjoy it. Thank you again for joining us for this episode of vital connections. Ani.

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