Friday, October 12, 2012


Leadership Racine kicked off its 15th class this past September and as I spoke to the new group of participants, I reflected on my involvement over the past fifteen years.  

From a participant in that first class to advisory board chair, I have done everything from schlepping soda to presenting.  In between I have served on the program and selection committees, helped revise the program after that first year and supported the program with my “time, talents and tithes”.

Over sixteen years ago, a small group of community leaders began asking the question, “Who would take over when we are no longer involved.”  Perhaps they sensed their own mortality.  Maybe they had grown tired.  Or quite frankly, they were ready to pass the baton.  Whatever the reason, they asked the question but didn’t like what they saw.  There were no runners coming up from behind.

A vision was cast that day and a program was created to meet the needs of our community.Leadership  Racine was placed in the Racine Area Manufacturers and Commerce (RAMAC) and with support of United Way and the Racine Community Foundation, along with several major corporations, a net was cast to reach the broadest of audiences.  Diversity was a key goal and one that was easily met.

What is unique about this next generation of emerging leaders is that they come from all walks of life-transcending racial and socio-economic barriers.  They work in the private sector, the public sector and for non-government organizations.  Some own businesses while others still live at home.  They are young and old, rich and poor, black and white but none of that mattered because they were a part of a shared experience called Leadership Racine.  

Over the past fifteen years, each class has worked together for nine months, learning about themselves and about others.  They are taught leadership skills, exposed to various community leaders and organizations and complete a team project.  But most importantly, they are united by a desire to make this community a better place.

As I spoke to the new class this year, I mentioned three things:

1.      If they want to see servant leadership in action, watch Karen Bayer.  Karen Bayer is the Executive Director of Leadership Racine and has quietly guided the program from the beginning, mentoring many who have gone through.  She is part den mother, part task master.  With her bell she keeps the day moving but more often, she quietly leads from behind.  Whether its an encouraging word or a hug, Karen has a way of influencing people and engendering support. 

2.      A marker of success for Leadership Racine is the buy-in from the graduates of the program.  Not only is Karen Bayer a servant leader but she is highly relational.  This has benefited the program immensely over the years.  LR graduates enjoy working with Karen.  She empowers them to lead, encourages them in their strengths and supports them from behind.

Although Leadership Racine was started by a group of community leaders, there are only two founding board members still involved with the program.  The bulk of the work is handled by Leadership Racine alumni who cheerfully serve on the various working committees.  For example, LR grads on the “Program” committee plan each session and then volunteer their time to assist the day of that session.  In between they meet monthly to plan and evaluate each session.

3.       Finally if you look around our community, you will notice that almost every board, committee or commission has at least one, if not more Leadership Racine alumni serving on it.  Some alumni have run for office, serving as elected officials.  Others are appointed to positions.  Overall, there are fresh faces serving in a leadership capacity and no longer is there that fear that there is no one to pass that baton to.

That day over sixteen years ago, these community leaders, many who will remain as icons in the history of Racine, casted a vision and Leadership Racine was birthed out of a desire to train up a new generation of leaders.  Fifteen years later, that torch has been successfully passed and a new generation of leaders has emerged within our community. 

Monday, October 8, 2012


Nine years ago, an Ojibwe grandmother from Canada began walking around the Great Lakes to raise awareness about water issues.  Armed with a copper pail of water and an eagle staff, she embarked alone on a journey which took seven years to complete.  As the water walk progressed, others joined her along the way.  

It was in Milwaukee, however, that a new dream would take hold.  As Josephine Mandamin looked out over Lakeshore State Park in Milwaukee, she had a vision that a teaching lodge would be erected on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Her adopted son, Gabriel Peltier, caught that vision and began soliciting help to make it a reality.  Along the way he encountered resistance, partially due to the difficulty of articulating what this vision would look like.  Who was it for?  How large of an event would it be?  What was the purpose?  

Having been advised to let others do it, he refused to give up on this vision.  Persistently he called on a handful of people and meetings were held.  Discussions centered on the purpose of the lodge.  Different people came and went.  More meetings were held and again, discussions turned to the purpose of the lodge.  Wheels were spinning but little traction was gained until late last year when a new committee was convened and an action plan developed.  A February retreat in Keshena resulted in the formation of a “program” for the four days.  Progress was being made.

However, challenges remained.  The committee was spread out throughout Wisconsin and into Canada.  Leadership was fluid.  This was both good and bad.  Different people stepped up at the appropriate times but somebody needed to drive the ship.  Illnesses and distance were obstacles that needed to be overcome.  Face to face meetings were difficult to arrange and it was easy to put the event on the back burner as most committee members were involved with other community events including the Indian Summer Festival held just two weeks before.   

As the date of the event drew closer, the vision became much clearer.  Roles and responsibilities were assigned.  A schedule was finalized.  Elders and teachers were invited.  And funding was secured.  All that was left—build the lodge with the hope that the people would hear the voice of the “Little Boy” dewe'gan (drum) and come.  We are thankful to the Three Fires Lodge and Eddie Benton Banai for the teachings about the “Little Boy” and his songs.

But first, work needed to be done.  Pole holes were dug several days before the lodge was built.  This would save time because the lodge had to go up before the sun went down.  On Wednesday, September 26th, a small group of volunteers began harvesting over 60 lodge poles.  The next day, the sacred fire was started and a sunrise ceremony was held.  As I shared a healing song, I prayed that this lodge would be a place of healing for those that would come, for the land and for the water.  This would be the first lodge ever built on the man-made island which forms Lakeshore State Park and perhaps the first time a teaching lodge had gone up in a long time on the Milwaukee shores of Lake Michigan.

After a quick breakfast, students from the Indian Community School, along with community volunteers began erecting this 60 foot long lodge on the shores of Lake Michigan.  Assisted by the children, asema (tobacco) and nibi (water) was prayerfully put in each hole, connecting the lodge poles to Mother Earth.  Both men and women shared in the work, the poles carefully tied by the women. By noon, the “ribs” of the teaching lodge were in place and by sun down, the lodge was complete. 

While the work we did was serious, there were lighter moments throughout the four days.  One such moment occurred as I was sawing one of the braces.  At the same time, Diane Amour was attempting to tie the brace to the lodge pole.  Every time I stopped sawing she’d thank me.  Well I thought she was thanking me for sawing the branch so I’d saw even harder.  However, she was thanking me for stopping because the saw dust was getting in her eyes.  At other times we had so many helpers that were tripping over each other.

The next day we stood facing the east.  As the sun came up, the “Little Boy” was sounded and we greeted the new day.  Gabriel Peltier shared his pipe.  Water and berries were passed around by the women and all partook.  Songs were sung and prayers said as the sun began to warm the land.  This would be the first day of teachings and students from the Indian Community School were expected to arrive.  In addition to traditional teachings by Ojibwa, Ottawa, Potawatomi, Ho Chunk, Menominee and Oneida elders, games of Lacrosse were planned, as well as a nature walk identifying plant medicines growing on the island.  That evening a social was planned featuring singing, drumming and dancing.

Saturday would prove challenging due to off again, on again rain and a nearby visit by the President of the United States.  That did not deter the 25-30 people from showing up at 6 am to greet the new day and the changing of the seasons.  I was honored to be asked to lead that sunrise ceremony and all pipe carriers were invited to put out their sacred items.  

Later that morning, we were joined by about 30 students participating in the Student Conservation Association, a non-profit group whose mission is to build the next generation of conservation leaders.

As I mentioned, President Obama was scheduled to speak that afternoon across from the island where we had built the teaching lodge.  This resulted in the access points being secured, along with the noise from the rally itself.  However, we did not allow this to deter us and in fact, many were hoping the President would see the teaching lodge and tipi and choose to pay us a visit.  Unfortunately that did not happen but it didn’t stop us from enjoying a feast of turkey, fry bread and wild rice without him. Finally the week would come to a close on Sunday afternoon.  

After an enjoyable elders panel featuring Josephine Mandamin, Frank Ettawageshik, Skip Twardosz, Mary Ellen Baker and Delbert Charging Crow, the lodge was taken down.  

While the physical structure was removed and the land returned to its pristine condition, the memory of that lodge remains etched on our hearts.  Healing did take place over those four days.  The community came together to share and to learn, friendships were made and in some cases renewed and plans were made to return to that place where the vision was fulfilled.