[3:50]: Benya’s agricultural roots and family origins in Thailand and Minnesota
[6:30] Enjoying rural and urban settings and embracing Asian identity
[7:45] Amnesty International and Global Solidarity
[9:00] Moving to Waseca, Minnesota and exploring family history
[10:15]: Fusing values: commitment to place and global solidarity
[11:45]: Decline of Waseca industry and the narrative of rural decline
[13:00]: Lack of pro-active agenda for revitalizing rural
[14:15]: Arguing the importance of the rural economy, traditions and family history
[17:30]: Cultural and values negotiation within a mixed-race and mixed-culture family
[18:30]: Pursuing joint truth across ideological or political difference
[19:20]: Creating spaces for cross-interaction
[20:30]: Ideological silos on college campuses
[23:15]: Culture of asserting beliefs
[24:30]: Valuing academic knowledge and lived experience
[26:45]: College friends’ responses to Benya moving from Boston to rural MN
[28:20]: Reading more poetry in Waseca
[29:15]: The benefits of being close to extended family and tempering individualism
[31:00]: Strengthening friendship through connection to place
[31:45]: Intergenerational relationships and relationships to buildings in rural places
[33:50]: The impact of Lead for America fellows
[35:30]: Next steps for fellows and understanding issues first-hand[37:05]: Benya’s relationship to Bangkok today and calls for democracy reforms in Thailand
[38:15]: Carrying home with you and responsibility to a place
[39:45]: Waseca Thai-takeover
[41:00]: Benya’s tips for launching a mission-driven organization
[44:15]: First year figuring out Lead for America
[47:30]: Lead for America’s co-founding team and origin story
[51:30]: Addressing the polarized state of America
[53:20]: The Lyceum Movement and history of lyceums
[56:30] Layout of Lyceum events: conversation habits, commissions and toasts
[58:45]: Fellow stories
[1:02:50]: Benya’s hopes for her rural community
“Why I Choose Rural” Minnesota Women’s Press
“Thailand Targets Pro-Democracy Protesters in Sweeping Legal Dragnet,” New York Times
Guest: Benya Kraus
Host, creator, producer, editor and mixer: Megan Torgerson
Episode Music: Andrew Drinnan
SEASON 2 FUNDING PARTNERS:
Megan Torgerson (narrating): To travel, to go, to guide. These are the etymological origins of the word “lead.” They are also words that describe the journey of Benya Kraus, a native of both Bangkok, Thailand and Waseca, Minnesota, who is guiding the next generation of rural-raised leaders towards a path that combines their potential with their love of place.
Benya Kraus: I think this question of how can I be a citizen of the world if I am not first and foremost a citizen to a place and to a people, that help build and nurture my understanding and solidarity with the ways that people in other places are connected to each other.
Torgerson (narrating): I’m Megan Torgerson and this is Reframing Rural. Today a conversation with Benya Kraus, Executive Director of Lead for Minnesota and co-founder of Lead for America or LFA. Lead for America is a national nonprofit that is inviting recent college graduates to return to their hometowns or home states to address critical challenges affecting their rural or economically distressed urban communities. Launched in 2018, Lead for America’s signature program provides paid fellowships with local government, nonprofit or mission-driven organizations, along with on-the-ground leadership and community-building training and curated listening tours that reintroduce fellows to their home communities.
Benya and her co-founders were recent college graduates when they launched Lead for America, and they quickly proved the need for fostering the next generation of leaders and building the community cohesion required for sustainable development. Benya moved to Waseca, Minnesota, where her family has been farming for six generations, to launch Lead for America’s Minnesota affiliate. Waseca is a town of approximately 9,000 residents in South Central, Minnesota that is making a comeback after losing major sources of industry in the 1990s. Benya and the Lead for Minnesota team, including Molly Byron, a Waseca homecomer who introduced me to Benya, are helping steward Waseca’s vision to become a more thriving and vibrant community.
As accomplished as she is, Benya is humble and wise beyond her years. She embodies the virtue of getting proximate to the issues most affecting her place, while striving to restore solidarity between disconnected cultures and a divided nation. This conversation focuses in on Benya’s roots in Minnesota and Thailand and what led her to become a bright light in the world of rural advocacy. It also spans questions of: how our ancestors have shaped our lives and the opportunities available to us; what it means to carry home with you when home is far away and the responsibility we have to a place; why some places are deemed worthy of investment and not others; the value of witnessing other cultures; and tactics for uniting across difference.
Torgerson: This season, I'm offering a question that explores the place based nuances of guests’ childhood, and how in retrospect, things like family, community, class and culture inform that understanding. So when you look back on the geographic settings of your childhood, Bangkok, Thailand and Waseca, Minnesota, what storied understandings of place come up for you?
Kraus: Yeah, well, so it's great to be here. And I love that first question of rooting it not just your own personal story, but you know, in thinking of how we're connected to generations whose decisions culminated into what is now our life. I say homes split between Bangkok, Thailand and Waseca, Minnesota as someone who has been transient in a couple of different homes, but when I think of most fundamentally where my roots are, I think of my parents and the roots that cultivated their lives.
So my mom grew up in a rural community in Northern Thailand, and so her family was farming mangoes. Her dad, so my grandpa was the dean of the agricultural school in Chiang Mai University. And so he had actually studied abroad in Oklahoma. And he learned about FFA, Future Farmers of America, and actually was so inspired that he brought that to Thailand been started a chapter of FFT.
My dad, so now several 1000 miles east, I guess you could say, or west, yeah, West. It depends on you know, where you fly. But my dad grew up as one of nine on our family farm here in Waseca, which is now in its sixth generation of farm stewardship. But yeah, so I think both those backdrops very different types of agriculture, and an exposure to that.
But I grew up well first was born in Bangkok, Thailand, but in my early years, actually lived in Switzerland and Vietnam for just a few years, did kindergarten in Thailand, then went over to New Jersey, where I live for eight years. I did middle school out there. My dad ended up doing a career in public health, working with HIV AIDS. And in high school, I came back to Thailand. And then for college, I was out in Boston, so a lot of just different places. But when you know it came time for Christmas and family gatherings, the cornerstone of our of our family always led us back to Waseca. And a lot of how I grew up was, you know, when we lived in New Jersey was map questing and having 25 pages of directions, as we did the drive from New Jersey, to Minnesota in the depths of winters, that time, you know, you couldn't even see out the front window. But I remember being able to spend entire summers with my cousins, and we were outside from early morning, when my cousin would jump into my bed and say, here's the agenda for the day. And then after hours of you know, just being in our imagination, and using the five is kind of the backdrop of our creativity, we you know, come in for meals, and then go to sleep and do it all over again. So, I think that was a very affectionate part of, you know, my memory and appreciation for the farm and for Waseca. And juxtaposing that with Bangkok, you know, I go back and be in a mega-mega city, and also found so much joy in that to have the way that street vendors just bring, you know, asphalt and concrete to life. And the smells, the tastes, the just being, you know, I think especially going back for high school, I felt more affirmed in my Asian identity of seeing just the vibrancy of what my culture had, and could offer me in a time when you know, in middle school, you kind of just want to be like everybody else, and in New Jersey, didn't quite see a lot of my Asian identity represented. So I'd say those are the images or the storied understanding of my roots that come to mind when I think of Bangkok and Waseca.
Torgerson: Thank you so much for sharing those really beautiful and vibrant stories. I feel like I was transported back to Bangkok with you and want to taste the food that those street vendors are making. When you were younger did you - where did you think that you were going to live? Did you have a favorite kind of place? Or did you just love being able to appreciate you know, as you said, both locations?
Kraus: Yeah, I think a lot of my identity around you know, place was, I really prided myself in being this global citizen. And so you know, I went to an international school where we had so many different cultures around us, and you know, even had this week that was called global citizenship week. My early interests were actually wrapped around Amnesty International. And so I got involved in my high school chapter age 14. But because it was such a nascent organization in Thailand very quickly at age 14, 15, I got involved with the national chapter. So I, you know, I share all this because this idea of global solidarity was kind of the first value that was ingrained in me. And I actually felt more pride in being a global citizen than being routed to any one place. And I carried that with me, when I went to college. I chose Tufts University because of its very strong international relations program, and was on that track of wanting to be an ambassador working for the state department or some diplomat, and actually thinking that my life would transition its place every two to three years, you know. And think like most young people, or, you know, people in college, you're so used to planning your lives and three to four year increments, and what is that next goal? And what does success look like? So that was that was really where I was headed. And I think in that process, my junior year of college, a family situation brought me back to Waseca for a summer and I diverted this D.C. internship to instead, you know, come back to Waseca, this time with a little bit of an older eyes and an analytical lens, perhaps to see some of the things I was reading about in school, and actually how it played out in my community. And combined with kinda that new way of seeing, you know, our downtown, new way of seeing about the new community members that were making a home in Waseca, the new immigrants - I also was just transported to, to understanding my past.
So long for we'll arrive with my uncle had me start questioning and understanding about the histories of great grandparents and grandparents who gave their lives to this place, so that my family could have life and for whatever bizarre ways that the world and the universe and God works is that I was now back here, and understanding the sacrifices that were laid, so that I could be alive today. And I think that was just so deeply humbling. And I then went on a path of trying to say, “How can I thread together this idea of global solidarity with also what I saw was a deep nobleness of being rooted and committed and caring for a place?” And how could both of those be fused together so that my understanding of solidarity was built upon a foundation of understanding and caring for what is most directly in front of me. But I think this question of how can I be a citizen of the world if I'm not first and foremost, a citizen to a place and to a people that help build and nurture my understanding and solidarity with the ways that people and other places are connected to each other? So that's, that's a little bit of the evolution there. But yeah to your point, I grew up not at all thinking I’d be back in Waseca, which I am today.
Torgerson: Wow, I feel like growing up, I had these narratives that in order to make something of my life, I would need to move to an urban center. And that's what I ended up doing to find jobs, and so I love how your story runs counter to that. And thinking about global solidarity, I think, really kind of helped break down that that narrative that urban equals good and urban equals opportunity. So I'm kind of wondering to thinking back to your education at Tufts, and some of the learnings that you were receiving about rural community development, when you moved to Waseca, what narratives were you learning and unlearning from what you were learning in school? And maybe from what you heard about Waseca when you were growing up or when you were visiting there?
Kraus: Yeah, you know, when I was a kid, there's been some traumatic events that have happened in Waseca. At one point, we had the highest number of engineers per capita. And that's because we were home to E. F. Johnson, a big radio company and Brown Printing, a big printing press. And so we had a lot of audio engineers and, you know, printing press engineers. Unfortunately, those two industries closed and they took several 1,000 jobs with them, you know, a story that you hear playing out in a lot of different real communities in the 90s, as well, we had a University of Minnesota campus that closed and actually turned into a federal penitentiary. You know I was born in the mid 90s, right? So a lot of these things actually happened before I was even born. But the way they were told me it seemed like it happened just yesterday. And even today, as well, the way that we remember it is a very recent memory.
And so I think this narrative that rural is in decline, and that it is inevitable, is both an external narrative that is imposed upon rural, and I think the most dangerous part of that is when that narrative also starts getting internalized. And that we start saying, you know, we don't have opportunity here, so let's just close in and stop trying and stop trying to seek that opportunity, or put a cap on our level of creativity and ambition. And so when a community starts internalizing it, then I think it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. And it doesn't also help them. You know, it's not just media that has that narrative on rural. That's a lot of also how our programs and policies at the federal level and at the state level are often designed too.
There's not a very streamlined, proactive agenda about how do we revitalize rural. How do we make sure that places that if we close up industry that there is a recovery plan put in place? Right, so I think there's just across the board, internally and externally, this lack of like, pro-active foresight into how do we care about and invest in these places. So that is, I think, you know, the narrative that is often put onto rule.
At Tufts, I had an incredible education. And I actually minored in urban design, there was no rural design option. A lot of my readings about community development was more so in an urban lens. I remember I was in a lab that was talking about how can Boston revitalize and ensure that its waterfront is sustainable, because the way that climate change is projecting, right is that a lot of our city would actually be underwater. But instead of just viewing it as, oh, this is an inevitable thing that's going to happen, let's not do anything to be proactive. We come together as a city and as a nation and say, like, no, we must protect this waterfront. Which is, I think, a right idea, right? People live here, there are stories and roots and businesses and potential and, and history to these places, which is why we fight to protect and preserve it. That same logic is not often extended to rural. And so I think as a result, we often don't have a lot of research going into how can we revitalize these places.
On campuses like mine, we're not often thinking about the importance of the rural economy, and agriculture, and a lot of manufacturing, that happens in rural, we're not thinking about the importance of that to our national security. And I think we are worse off as a nation when we don't do that. And then lastly, you know, I'll just wrap this up by also saying like, what does that mean for our democracy, when we are saying that there are only a handful of places that are worthy of investment, and worthy of people claiming home, because the reality is that many people love rural and have a blast, and have fun, love it, and have roots there. And so this narrative of just saying, you know, your place doesn't matter, is also saying, like, you don't matter, your traditions don't matter. Your family's history, the role of your grandfather in this place, doesn't matter. And I think that's harmful to our national psyche, and makes coming together to solve problems extra challenging, when right off the bat, any conversation we have is lacking this sense of solidarity and desire to understand the history and value of one another's place.
Torgerson: Thank you so much for putting that into context. I just relate to so much of what you're saying on a personal level, too just learning how I've been conditioned and reclaiming and finding ways to celebrate my rural identity. And I'm hopeful that we're coming to understand as a country, that rural matters for the larger economy and just seeing what's happening with supply chain crises and thinking about the pandemic and food security and all of these things that we're kind of I feel like are on the forefront of our consciousness now a little bit more. And more people need to continue to realize that rural matters. And I'm wondering, just thinking about your personal story and how uniting across difference has been a personal mission of yours. Even I was reading an article about your time at Tufts where you are advocating for an on campus pub, which I think is really it to provide a common space for students and faculty like across different fields. So yeah, I'm just wondering if you could share with me a little bit more about your roots in uniting across difference or how you saw that modeled for you growing up?
Kraus: Well, so I think being born into a mixed race and mixed cultural family makes the cultural and values negotiation something that is so present at you know, every dinnertime conversation. I remember needing to say, “Look, Dad, when mom says this, I know her words are saying this, and you're probably thinking this, But actually she really means this and you would know if you know, you spend a little more time with” and then vice versa divine. Right? So I don't know if they totally appreciate like a third grader trying to always translate between them.
But so I think, yes, there's some, there's some practice and there's an urgency I have of that of knowing that I have a deep relationship and care for people that come from very different cultures, and, and seeing worth in both of them, and also seeing ways that we misunderstand each other. And that often I find that our pursuit for truth is strengthened when we have the bonds of relationship that allow us to feel like we can be on that search together. And that like your beliefs don't automatically foster a sense of harm, or like the urgency of harm to what I believe in what my experience is. But I think the ways that we consume narratives about the other now make almost everything into a harm narrative. And I think oftentimes, we do see places where a unnegotiated differences do lead to harm. And then understandably, we then choose to further disengage, because we have seen the ways that those things or those differences lead to harm. And so I'm really curious about, you know, how can you create containers of space or of relationship, that take those guards off of us so that we're not needing to automatically reconcile our difference or negate those differences and pretend like they don't exist, but that there's a trusted enough container, where we know we can be fundamentally on the same team, while not always having to resolve or diminish our differences. So that is like the theoretical I suppose, like way I think about the necessity of having conversations and like understanding across difference.
I’m really glad you did your research on my, my slogan for running for student body president was rethinking social space at Tufts. So I actually worked at I was an intern at the campus planning department, and worked with the university president’s office to actually assess people's experiences with different social spaces on campus, and then actually started trying to map where people spent more of their time. And it was bewildering to me that, you know, college is supposedly supposed to be a place, where you have so many different levels of economic status, different cultures, different geographies coming together. And you would think that for four years, we could figure out a way to meaningfully be in relationship across difference with each other. But what I found not just at Tufts, but at a lot of campuses is that even on a small campus, people only gather in certain pockets. And you also even see investment, either if it's from the university or from private pockets are going to certain areas of a campus and the boundaries between people grow even deeper. And so if we couldn't figure this out on a university campus, by the time I graduate, how could I go off and do that elsewhere? And so I just became very fixated about, you know, how do you design a physical space that allowed those cross interactions to happen, were very different people could claim that place as their own. And that became the core of my senior capstone and a lot of the work now to both within Lead for America, but outside and with other initiatives that are being launched to I'm trying to understand how can you create this physical space that allows that container for relationship meaningfully to be made?
Torgerson: You must have so many amazing conversations with your fellows in person and throughout the years that you've ran Lead for America. When you think about their homecoming, journeys and your homecoming journey, how do you see both your homecoming journey fitting into the kind of wider rural homecomer narrative and what does homecoming mean to you personally?
Kraus: In whatever place you're in, right, I think there's you just get it such a high concentration of what are the values of the people in that place? And, and I think when you're coming out of college, you're fueled with all this new information. And just, you know, how you're being assessed often is like, what is the argument and position you're taking? And then how do you argue that and get an “A” on your paper, and I don't think that's how all colleges work, and definitely not all professors. But I think there is a culture of how do you assert your belief. And also the social capital, I think you gain to win, you can be right, and almost like theorize a lot of things. And start, you know, having a logic of if I believe a, b, and c, and c is associated with f, then in order for my beliefs, and a, b and c to be true, I must also really strongly believe in f too. And so I think that's an incredible, valuable part of like somebody's formation. I think coming back home, I had to realize that that's not actually how life is lived.
And the purpose of sharing knowledge is not just solely for the social capital, you gain or like the feeling of being right. It is meant to be a joint pursuit of truth, and the more input you can gather in that journey, the stronger you might be in your own views, or, you know, you might also develop the courage to have different views start influencing your perspective, right. So that's a long winded way to say that, you know, I think when coming back home, I realized that a lot of the things I've been reading about in college, it's a part of understanding truth, and also that lived experience matters. The process, I think a lot of our fellows and myself come into understanding is that you have a greater degree of patience out of like necessity.
If you are to build meaningful relationships that make this place your home, there has to be a temperance of yourself. And so I think the process of coming home has helped me actually gain greater sets of values that also informed my own personal value system too. But I think in that process, it becomes just a lot more humanizing of knowing that, humans are complex. Places are complex. And what I have learned in college, what I've learned in other places, is not an imposition, but like an offering, and an invitation to continue the learning process together.
Torgerson: Wow, you're really challenging me and making me think about maybe how I've walked into conversations post-grad school. Because you're learning how to enhance your argument, position your thesis, and you know, you're really putting your perspective in the forefront. But what I'm hearing from you too, is you're learning to both check the intellectual knowledge that you gain from an academic institution, and then respect and lean into the embodied knowledge of citizens that live in the place where you're just moving to. I just love how you've put that into perspective, of just kind of shedding ego almost, and being like, what can I learn here?
How has it been in the last three years of living in Waseca? Like, what responses did you get from some of your colleagues on the East Coast? And how have your relationships with community and family evolved since making Waseca your home?
Kraus: You know, what did my peers say, sometimes I would got asked like, “oh, my gosh, like, who died like, I thought you were gonna stay in like, Boston, or where, you know, a lot of your friends are staying and things like that.”
So I think there's like that surprise factor. I think there was maybe a subconscious worry of especially like, the longer I stayed of that she's closing her world. And that, “Oh, she'll transform into the other right by by being there.” And I think that worry is a little like one-dimensional. There is a truth that I think you do change. And when I think of the ways that I have changed, I think there's other considerations into like, what is the good life that I have come to see and appreciate? You know, and I think it's both the embodied experience of the lives of some tremendous people who’ve lived here who have been rooted for generations and the level of thinking outside of just oneself and thinking in terms of past generations and future generations.
I've learned so much from farmers and therein also like my family members too and just the ways of thinking generationally. And the virtue of limits too like, think of your life and what makes a successful life - not just on how can one individual maximize more game and success, but being content with the way a season puts limits on how many days you can harvest - that there are also limits of like myself expression, when there are other lives that are even interconnected to mine too. And so I've seen that embodied practice, but then, you know, even like, intellect too. I've read more poetry than I ever had in my four years of college upon coming back, and that's been introduced by like the people I've gotten to live with and work with here.
So you know, I think there's a lifestyle that brings other calculations of values into the picture, that doesn't mean I lose one set of values from a place that I've also grown to love and been inspired by, but that it's an adding and shaping or reshaping of who I am, that is still intrinsically me, but I do think a place has the ability to change you. And again, you know, thinking of the negotiation of values across different places. I think I feel three years later, perhaps, like fuller, in like my palette of values that are around me.
Yeah, and in terms of relationships, here it is, it is amazing to be reunited, and like have this opportunity to build new relationships with my family. My parents actually ended up moving back to Minnesota a few months after I made the move back. So they moved from New Jersey back to Minnesota. And it's like, I'm getting to relearn my parents and like, become friends with them again. Same thing with my aunts and uncles and my cousins, and, you know, I know not everyone has the, I think true privilege to be able to have these bonds of family, but they are so important, and I think teach you also, what does it mean t not give up on people because, a familial bond is so long lasting, and you have to have a higher degree of, you know, like, I'm going to stick with you. And I think the virtues that it brings out in a person to say, you know, I'm not going to use human relationships of like, what are ones that are convenient to me, but they are the ones that I have, and how important it is to nurture what it is that you have here. I have felt that it has made me a stronger person, and like put some of my like selfishness that comes to play when it's like you're in your head and your life is only about you. Like I think it's I think it's helped temper that, and bind me to something and to people that are more than myself.
Torgerson: Yeah, it sounds like adding these new relationships in, it doesn't take away anything you had before. So I think it's just like you said, you're just getting fuller.
And yeah, so I'm wondering with the perspective that you now have, what is it like when you go back to Boston? And have you had friends who visited you in Waseca, and have you changed their mind about what rural life can be, too?
Kraus: Yeah, I hope so. My dear friend, Maya Pace is one of our founding team members of Lead for America as well, but we also went to college together. So it's been really exciting to kind of walk this journey with her. She you know, is from a small town in Northern California, then moved across the country to Boston for college, then came back to Dodge City, which is where our national headquarters are, but also spent a lot of time with me in Minnesota. And yeah, now she's back in Boston, with the Harvard Divinity School. And I think both of us through this process have seen like the resilience of relationships that I think make rural life so wonderful.
You know, you're constantly encountering how resilient relationships like across generations have been, like, you see, this building exists because this person had a relationship with this family. Their relationship felt this like intrinsic connection to this place. So you know that there's a story behind buildings of who were the people that cared enough about this place, you know. So your environment becomes less anonymous and more storied, and it brings to life a place that upon just driving through, it's like, oh, there's nothing special here. But I think even buildings can tell you something about the heart of a people. I have seen the ways that like my friendship with Maya have just grown tremendously, because she can see by just being proximate to my place, I think a lot more about who I am and who my family is, because she's able to see the place that has shaped us. And I think that would translate going rural to urban and vice versa, but I think it has meant so much to have a friendship in which I can be seen and my place is also seen too in that way.
Torgerson: Totally. Just thinking of the storied understandings of buildings like it makes me think of my conversation with Miranda Moen in my November episode. And also makes me think about I went hunting with my family this fall and there was a bordering section of land that the birds were flying into. And so we were like, who owns that land? And my dad was like, it's the Henke’s and they're our family. And so we called them up and they're like, “Yeah, you can go on to the land.” And we've probably been living in that area for over 100 years. And it's so cool to continue that kind of friendship and relationship. It's really beautiful to have just those little, little stories.
And so I'm wondering, too, when your fellows move back to their hometowns, oftentimes, the narrative of success implies that if you move back to where you were from, you weren't able to make it in a larger city. And, you know, it can be hard to go back to your hometown sometimes. And like, what do you hope for your fellows on an interpersonal level, when they make the leap and return to their hometown or home state?
Kraus: I think what we see often is that the level of impact that they have is tremendous. And it's not because solely of their educational background. I think always when you leave and gain new experiences, the ability to then bring it to wherever your next place is, whether that's your hometown or elsewhere is tremendous. So it's additive.
So I think, you know, they make a huge impact, in part because of that. But I think most largely, it's because of this deep care, and urgency and like pride over this place. And so when you combine all those factors together, so many of our fellows have just been unstoppable, and what they can achieve for their place. So I often have seen that our fellows have been able to rise into levels of leadership, of tangible impact, in some ways, like much quicker than if they stayed in a place where there was not as strong connection or conviction for this place.
And, and I think that's something that they see and experience as they're in the fellowship that can subvert those narratives of like, this is not where you're supposed to be, or it's because you couldn't make it somewhere else. For all of them for all of us, like, we could make it anywhere. But there's a conscious choice to have your competency also be paired with your care and conviction over something that is larger than you, which I think then puts your competency and your ambition in its rightful place. Because it's in service of something that is larger than just your own ego or self-advancement in whatever industry. So I think that's something that a lot of our fellows speak to, and also just embody by experience.
The second piece of your question, what do I hope that they that they gain, you know, we have some fellows that finished their fellowship and make incredible progress, but then end up going to grad school in a big city, because by coming home or serving locally, they're able to, I think, understand challenges not in a theoretical ideological way, but in a very tangible, real place based way. You know, you can be thinking of like food security on a national global level. But oftentimes, a lot of those solutions and interventions are carried out by local people. So just having the perspective of seeing a problem in your face and needing to work with neighbors, is such a good skill to learn, and I think can make us weary of like broad generalizations in policy or intervention wherever, because, like you have this now experience of being grounded in the actual challenge and solution in front of you. So I hope that even as they go to grad school, might move to a big city for a period of time, that way of understanding challenges in this kind of localized relational way, carries with them wherever they go. Because I think those big macro interventions also really could learn a lot from what we know and see everyday at the local level.
Torgerson: Yeah, yeah. And I think so many of us millennials are moving every few years, or that's been my experience, and that's an important outlook that really can give people that local context when they're thinking about large issues.
So obviously, Bangkok is also your hometown, and what does your relationship to Bangkok look like today? And I'm guessing you probably haven't had the opportunity to travel there in a while with the pandemic, but what do you hope that relationship looks like in the future as well?
Kraus: Yeah, the pandemic has been challenging of not being able to come back, but another added layer on that is, if you follow Thai politics, that there's been a big movement led by predominantly young people calling for democracy reforms in Thailand, and it coincided also with the pandemic. So I saw so many of you know, my friends who I grew up with participating in that and kind of seeing it from afar.
And so, you know, I'm here as a person who is like, get proximate to the challenge and then seeing, you know, a place that I care so much about in such a pivotal time in a country's history and seeing my friends really at the frontlines of that, too, was a check of like, oh my gosh, I'm not proximate to that also. And like, what level of responsibility am I giving up by not being there? And so it made me think of like, what does it mean to come home or carry home with you when home is far away? And what is the responsibility that you have for that place?
And, you know, I don't know if I have it, right. But with the gifts, or the situation that I am currently present in, what is a way that I can give some of that to the places that I care about? And, you know, I think it looks differently for all types of people, you know, I know some people who have been far away, but like, invested back into their hometown, so you know, have the gift of finances to be able to do that and stay connected. I know others that come and visit and speak at the Rotary Club or like for a student classroom, and that's how they can keep their lines of lineage or connection to a place going. For me in Thailand, it's been being aware and curious about like, what is happening and trying to be as informed as I could be.
It means listening to the people that are there and sharing, like, how can I help right? It means like, trying to also infuse my Thai identity and what is a value and beautiful about that place, also in my new context. And that's something that actually like I've learned a lot from the new immigrants here who have left their hometowns, but so wholeheartedly take up Waseca as theirs and bring the gifts of their place for us to also enjoy those gifts too.
So the past year, while that was also going on, my mom and I did a tie takeover in the kitchen in the bar that I live on top of, and it was awesome. We had over like 200 people come and it was such like an affirming thing of being able to have the relationships that I've made here, also see my other home, and participate in it and be excited. That was like so wonderful. But also of just being able to shine light on like, this is also a part of me, and I care about this place. And here are also you know, the challenges and opportunities and like what is my place also going through in a way to perhaps build some of that bridge of solidarity with this new place?
Torgerson: Wow, that sounds like a wonderful event. And so many people showed up for it too?
Kraus: Yeah, we're expecting like 20 and then like 200 people came in.
Torgerson: Just like your grandfather brought FFA to Thailand to make Future Farmers of Thailand, I wonder if maybe there'll be some person who will make a Lead for Thailand version.
Kraus: Yeah. Yeah, that'd be pretty awesome. Yeah.
Torgerson: So for listeners who may be considering creating their own community driven initiatives, like Lead for America, or Lead for Minnesota or your various affiliates, I was wondering if you could share a few of the biggest takeaways you've learned since first launching lead for America, whether that's kind of like program development or bridge building skills.
What skills have you learned since launching lead for America that you really treasure today?
Kraus: Our whole first year was talking to as many people as we could. It was talking to other organizations that have done similar work that we have. Of just I think being able to really be intentional about doing your research in that space, and having as many conversations as you can with people who have led similar initiatives to say how can I learn from what you are doing and constantly kind of ask, like, “Where does what I'm doing fit into the larger landscape of what is happening in my community?”
And so many of those people have been like mentors to us, have vouched for us and open so many other doors. You know, the LFA today is so different, is both different and similar, in the sense of like, I think there's been a through line of purpose and mission. But the people that have been brought into our organization have been a result of these, you know, conversations that lead to the next that lead to the next. So, I mean, I can't discredit it enough, I think just the value of being intentional about trying to learn from others.
You know, I think there's always so much to learn that sometimes we get paralyzed of how much there is to know that then second guessing if we can just go right? And so I think something very valuable, I learned with LFA was, you know, I don't think I would have necessarily considered myself an entrepreneur until just starting LFA, and so I think there's some virtue of just being able to say, let's, let's try something new, and then build into that process time to assess how that thing has gone and then like be able to learn as you are building it as well.
So I think it builds your confidence for the next, like, entrepreneurial thing or uncertain thing you need to do by being able to look back and say – oh, this feeling of when I thought it wasn't going to work or that like, I wasn't enough to do it, I have enough data points now to show me that actually, we managed and we succeeded. And so I think that's been my process of being, you know, quote, unquote, entrepreneur, you know, beginning from a place of like, oh, I'm definitely not an entrepreneur to now saying, I guess maybe I am only because I've pushed ahead, even when I didn't think anything was gonna happen, or if it was gonna work. So I guess holding both of those have, like listen and learn as much as you can. But then also, sometimes you got to just like, go for it and build into your process, this iterative checking and like, reiterating, as you go.
Torgerson: Yeah, yeah. It's something my dad's always told me is like, it's good to take risks when you're young. I wonder too, because you all basically graduated from college and then launched Lead for America, and I'm wondering if you had pushback from people thinking you were too young, in your career to launch national nonprofit?
Or like, what were some of your first conversations like that weren't successful too?
Kraus: Yeah, absolutely. Um, the whole first year, we had, you know, selected our group of fellows that we really wanted to bring back home, but also then still had to figure out the funding and like, local community host situation, right. And so that process of just fundraising is like, wow, you were going to get so many no’s.
And so I think of being able to take what you can learn from each no, and then apply it for the next one, but not put so much weight on every no that it tears apart, your you know, entire sense of like confidence, or why or like mission. There's definitely been people who I'm sure didn't have faith in what we were doing right away, and I can list off many of those. And also, so many people who did, and those were elders who saw something in us, both as individuals, but also in this organization, and had lived their lives in ways that were so respected in their fields, and could prop us on their shoulders too and open so many other doors.
And so I think for other young people who might be listening and being like, oh, how can I be taken seriously, the importance of building relationships with those types of elders that see now at this stage of their life, that their purpose is to be the shoulders that the next generation stands on, it is amazing how many people are like that. And, you know, I can name so many everyone on my board at Lead for Minnesota, our Board of Advisors particularly, have done that. And you know, when I came back to Minnesota was about to launch Lead for Minnesota, I did a month-long listening tour, where I drove around the entire state visited like 30 different small towns in those 30 days, and the doors to conversations were open, because, you know, I had built this relationship with an amazing mentor, Jane Leonard, who is now you know, in the stage where she's looking to retire soon. And so the culmination of all the relationships she has built, has now been with this purpose of how can I continue this work onto the next generation? And when you find somebody who is and you know, it's no surprise, she comes from a rural background. So I think she knows this culture, this value, how do we pass on to the next generation, so the work can live on beyond you. She has been the cornerstone of the doors that have opened for Lead for Minnesota, and how important those cross generational relationships are, and being able to open the door to the next generation.
Torgerson: Oh, that just makes me really excited for the idea of having like a listening tour across Montana. That just sounds like so much fun to like, reconnect with your home state and meet new people and have conversations. That's what really gets me excited in kind of the entrepreneurial journey of Reframing Rural too is just meeting new people and continuing to learn.
And so yeah, I'm also kind of curious to learn a little bit about your co-founders, what drove them to create lead for America and what places did they come from that they were really inspired to serve?
Kraus: Yeah, yeah. The co-founding team is an amazing group. Our CEO Joe grew up in Kansas and is also the reason why now our national headquarters is in Dodge City, Kansas. So you know if you've heard of get out of Dodge, we wanted to make sure we could get into Dodge. And he he's been an entrepreneur funny story about it was like since age 12. He created this like snack cart, at the local pool and turned that into a business. He has a very infectious spirit and is great at being able to bring people in and excite people into a vision and help them see their entrepreneurial capacity too. So he went to UNC for college and actually graduated early because he was already thinking about LFA. And he one day he wrote down all the challenges that the world was facing, and what was needed to tackle them. And it ranged from, you know, like nuclear distraction to artificial intelligence, superseding human intelligence, all that stuff. And at the core piece of, you know, what is the gift that I can bring to this? Or how can I address these challenges he was thinking of, you know, across all of these, we need the bench of leadership that can tackle these, and we need proximate moral dynamic leaders to be able to do that, and we need them not just in a handful of cities, but in every corner of the country.
And so that vision translated into like a two-pager that ended up coming across our CEO Reed, another one of our co-founders, who is from Oklahoma, went to Harvard for college and was a writer on the Harvard Crimson, so their newspaper. And he wrote this kind of scathing op-ed about how so many students at Harvard came in with personal essays that said, how they wanted to bring these skills back to serve their communities or wanting to go into public service, but that actually a lot of those pathways to do so weren't there. And so in some ways, is already like, you know, the pre-pitch for LFA coming from, you know, this angsty column. Joe had read that didn't know Reed at all, but ended up sending him that two-pager. They met, then a friend of a friend who knew Joe had connected me as well, once he had heard that actually, I had taken up a position at a law firm out in Boston, and was kind of second guessing if that's what I really wanted to do, rightfully so.
And so in that moment, I also received this two-pager. So again, didn't know Reed or Joe, but this two pager definitely made its way around, and I read that as saying, “wow, if this existed already, I could make it back to my hometown, or my family's hometown.” And then our fourth co founder is Dylan, and he is from Boone County, North Carolina. And so he's from a small mountain town himself. And he ended up working at UNC with their graduate school and working in advancement, and had connected with Joe and had this idea of okay, as we build out this national organization, how can we also test out the affiliate structure and build Lead for North Carolina at the same time. And so right away, we were thinking both in terms of national scale, but also local application. And, you know, with Dylan's leadership, we were able to have this kind of blueprint of what state affiliates can look like, which I was then privileged to be able to take that and bring that to Minnesota, and have that further kind of refine the blueprint for how we expand across this country.
Torgerson: Wow, thank you so much for sharing that origin story. That two-pager is legendary.
So one focus of lead for America in what I’ve gathered from spending time on your website and and news articles too is helping to depolarize the nation. And so looking five or 10 years down the road, how do you hope Lead for America or other projects that you're involved with, such as the Lyceum Movement? How do you hope you can kind of start chipping away at the polarized state of things?
Kraus: Our signature program with Lead for America is this fellowship program. And as we go into ‘22, and beyond, we're really trying to strengthen this idea of how do we really live into our mission of a strong community for everyone in every corner of the country. And how can the fellowship be this flagship program that, you know, young people see as also a marker of success of saying, “Okay, actually returning and serving back into the places that I care about is worthy of cultural significance.”
So with the fellowship program, we hope to create and expand that truly to every single corner of the country. And again, you know, really have it be this cross-country national network of leaders who are dedicated to this same kind of ethos of service above self, and building that bench of leadership for generations to come.
I'm also really interested in developing a more community impact oriented part of LFA and with other spin off or supported initiatives too. And that gets that okay, so if we have a bunch of leadership all across the country, what is it that they're replicating in their hometowns that make it not just about one leader being planted, but can ignite and catalyze something larger within their communities that they're serving? And so in that process, I have been looking at what are ways to engage more people. We launched the American Connection Corps this past year that was attract focused on broadband and digital inclusion and trying to defy the divide, the digital divide between urban and rural.
I think that also translates into other divides. And, you know, we've been talking about the ideological divides or our political divides. And that's made me really excited to also be launching with founder Nathan Beacom, the Lyceum Movement. And this is a really exciting initiative, and I'd say, it's a resurgence of an initiative. Because in the early 19th century, a farmer out in Connecticut was miles away from any university and said, you know, rural people deserve to be talking about and wrestling with these big ideas of philosophy and art and literature. And so he turned his farmhouse into a Lyceum, which was a school for adults to come together as neighbors and discuss these big ideas. It proliferated into 3,000 lyceums all across the country, and being part of this circuit where, you know, Frederick Douglass gave his first appeal for the abolition of slavery at a lyceum. The first telephone was showcased at a lyceum. Abraham Lincoln and other presidential candidates went around the lyceum circuit and shared their ideas for the future of America at lyceums. And they declined because of the proliferation of mass media. As more people start getting their news from radio and TV, the desire to meet in person, or the capacity, or culture around that started to diminish. And I think today, we're seeing a flip of that, where I think people are hungry to actually get together in person, and talk about these ideas, because we've been seeing that the ways that we have been communicating just have not worked.
And I think it is demoralizing and sinking of the human spirit to have the only ways we know how to communicate, be our touchscreens on our phones, and through social media. And so this resurgence of the Lyceum is to bring that type of style of meeting together in-person, in notable physical places that are like the anchor of community life in a place and bring that to the 21st century. So how can we leverage the connectivity that we all have in a way that actually gets you off of your phones, can leverage the phone, but then get you from the phone into meeting and discussing these big ideas together with your neighbors. So we have launched the Lyceum right now the headquarters is in Des Moines, Iowa, which was also the headquarters of the Public Forum in the United States. And we've been piloting it in Dodge City, and Waseca, and a few of our Minnesota fellows are also launching it in their hometowns to in January. So we're excited to see where that goes. We'll have writers actually contributing to the Lyceum topics, and our hope is that we can also grow this to a network of thousands of lyceums. And, you know, rehab buildings in your main street or the grain silos turned into community space, and partner with those local entrepreneurs that are redefining the physical space, and bringing in this opportunity to redefine our social spaces and how we talk to each other. So stay tuned on that, but really excited to see how that grows.
Torgerson: That's so exciting.
So is it kind of like you’ll have a panel of people talking and then an open forum conversation afterwards? Or how does the Look?
Kraus: Yeah, so we begin first by sharing what are the habits of conversation we're going for. And we call them habits because they are different ways of talking in a Lyceum than what we are used to in our everyday life. So the hope is, by coming together and talking, we can foster these new types of habits of seeing our neighbors’ words in the best light, of pursuing this, like, joint search for truth, and you know, allowing the differences to arise, but know that we're like on the same journey to try and figure stuff out.
So we begin with the habits and then launched into what we call a thought bouillon. So if you're a cook, you'll know that when you throw bouillon into a pot of soup, it turns into this beautiful flavor of whatever that bouillon that you threw in there was. So that allows us to have so you know, the monthly theme is like New Year's resolutions. And the question of pondering is “Can people change.” Wherever you are in your lyceum you’ll source a local speaker that you know and trust in the community trust and is excited to hear about speak on that. And so it could be a panel, it could be a person, it could be a dialogue, but they act as this thought bouillon. But the majority of the time then is spent in what we call groups, smaller groups led by like foreman, so light facilitators that get at those questions that were posed in the thought bouillon and together asking, you know, hey, do we understand it? Are we defining things similarly? Is it true? Is what we heard true? Can people change? What do we mean by change? And then third, what does it look like in my life? How have I seen this? How have I not seen this? And then lastly, what does this mean for our community? And then we end every Lyceum with both a commission and a toast. So a toast is a note of gratitude for what you heard. And then a commission is from this new , from this conversation, what will we take forward and bring into our places in our communities start starting tomorrow.
Torgerson Wow, I really hope that I can attend one of these. Yeah, I'm excited by that idea.
It's also addressing loneliness and disconnection in society, which I've seen as another focus of Lead for America. So I'm wondering also, like what fellow stories have been a gift of hope and solace during the challenging years of 2020 and 2021?
Kraus: Yeah, so many, and pointing to the crisis of loneliness is, I think, also, in many ways, at the heart of the distorted ways that we talk to each other. One of our fellows who went home to serve her hometown, Monument Valley, Utah as part of the Navajo Nation, she actually with a group of other native women founded their first ever community center, which is teaching in some ways, I think, is a little like Lyceum in the sense of, you know, they teach classes together there. It's a place for community as well as for education. It's a meeting space. The physical built aspects of this space are meant to restore those connections and like cross ideation and serves, you know, a very large geographic area. And that came into fruition out of months of her in this group of women coordinating the entire COVID distribution network for the entire Navajo Nation. And so they were delivering food and supplies and PPE. And through that were able to raise enough money to say, you know, we need a place of trust and community building and across our nation.
Similarly down in Fairmont, Minnesota, we've had a fellow launch street festival and a main street alliance. And you know, his practice of doing that was every fellow begins with a listening tour of their community. And he went to every single main street business and actually built a relationship with them, and saw a big piece being the divide between new Hispanic immigrants and community members who had lived in Fairmont for a while. And so this street festival, it's called Celebrating Culture in Martin County. And put together you know, a group of people who will continue this forward as well, you know, they had a Mexican band playing, they also had COVID vaccine center as well at the heart of this. And yeah, it was just something really cool to be part of.
And then lastly, another fellow has also been leading the charge create a Boys and Girls Club up in the Iron Range. And so to that point of, you know, restoring connection and combating loneliness, so a huge piece of the mental health and youth suicide challenges being like, do we have a physical space and activities for young people? And can we find ways to invest in that and there was not a single kind of like, youth center up in the range. And so she's been leading this charge along with other community members to raise the money, bring together the partners, and starting this fall will actually have a Boys and Girls Club serving all the small towns in the Iron Range.
Torgerson: Wow, that's so important. Especially right now, I can't imagine how hard it is for kids the last few years and your fellows are doing such great work. I'll need to bring one of them on to hear personally from them what their journey has been.
In an article for Minnesota Women's press, you wrote,
“I see hope in vacant Main Street buildings: an opportunity for someone’s dream to take its creative life.
I see hope in food deserts: an invitation for local growers to expand their market.
I even see hope in broadband gaps, as they remind us of how rural cooperatives once brought electricity to every corner of our country when the markets refused.
In the larger perspective, whether we are urban or rural, having this hope and connection to place is essential for our democracy. It is the cornerstone for how we live together.”
So during a fragile time in American democracy, and during this hopeful month of January, I'm wondering if you could share what dreams right now for your family and your community shine brightest for you?
Kraus: So many hopes. So many hopes. So tangibly in our community I'm part of an effort actually to launch community real estate investment fund. And this creates this avenue for other residents to actually just invest in their own backyards and projects of buildings and deep dilapidation that otherwise, you know, would not make sense for one individual to fork up the money to bring it back to life, this creates an opportunity for us to come together and say that this thing is important and work on this common goal of caring for and investing back into our place.
My hope for Waseca and I think my hope for communities everywhere is that we ourselves see our places and each other as worthy of investment. And that that resolve and that care runs so strongly that it can quell all the narratives elsewhere that are telling us that there's another place we ought to be, or that it is not our time or that our time has passed. And that this collective care is strong enough to push past that and breathe life and possibility into places and into people that I think larger society tries to make us deem unworthy or try to forget.
Torgerson: Those are beautiful closing words. You're such an inspiration Benya and I'm so grateful for you sharing some time with me today and for all the work that you're doing. Thank you so much.
Kraus: Thank you for having me. Thank you for your stories.
If you’d like to learn more about Lead for America, I recommend listening to the Leadmore podcast episode “Bring Leadership Back Home “featuring Benya. You can also learn more by visiting lead4america.org.
Next month’s episode will feature our fourth Minnesotan from “Season Two: Sowing Possibility,” Ashley Hanson. Ashley, is the founder of PlaceBase Productions, a theater company that creates original, site-specific musicals that celebrate small town life. She is also the founder of the Department of Public Transformation, an artist-led organization that collaborates with local leaders in rural areas to develop creative strategies for community connection and civic participation.
I produced and edited today’s episode on Duwamish aboriginal territory with recordings captured on Duwamish and Dakota lands. Reframing Rural’s episode and theme music is composed and recorded by Andrew Drinnan. Season Two: Sowing Possibility is funded in part by the Greater Montana Foundation, Humanities Montana and listeners like you.
Visit reframingrural.org to access full transcripts and to make a donation.
Reframing Rural is a fiscally sponsored project of the Montana History Foundation, an original series by Tree Rings Records, LLC and a member of the Rural Radio Collective.
Thank you for listening!