Inspiring Rural Leadership Stories

Edited by Lynn Buske, JONAH Organizer

Leaders aren’t born overnight, they are grown. It’s a journey. Becoming a leader means taking steps and trying things – acknowledging the feeling that “this is new to me and I don’t know how it will go, but it’s important.” When you read these stories, look for how values determine action, and that those values come from early on in life. Can you also see in these stories how things went in surprising directions for these leaders and their communities? One of these below leaders, Norm, is my dad. He is why I am the leader I am today. Try and see yourself in these courageous, every day people who are doing amazing things out in their rural communities.

Kristi Weiland – Stanley Community Association President

My involvement in my community was a little unusual. My husband and I were in Sheboygan and visited a splash pad there. We kept thinking of how nice it would be to have something like that in Stanley. From there the plan kept evolving, as we figured out everything that actually would be necessary to accomplish such a goal. We knew we would need help from other community members. Then I did research and figured out that a 501c3 would be eligible for the most grants. So, I created the Stanley Community Association (SCA), and appointed myself President. Not quite as glamorous as winning an election.

When we had our first meeting in July 2021, there were so many needs and desires expressed from community members, that our goal of just a splash pad has evolved into so much more. We were granted our 501c3 just two weeks before a tornado hit Stanley. Because we had the 501c3, we were able to get more grants and donations to help the tornado victims. We now do several community events and our project has now evolved into an inclusive splash pad and playground, with plans for community improvement projects long into the future. 

I am not a natural born leader. I actually was very shy and had low self-esteem much of my life. My experiences as a nurse have helped build my confidence, but I was still nervous and a little scared when I started the SCA. It’s been two years and I am still learning and growing. To be honest, I thought someone else would have taken charge by now because I felt surely someone could run this better than me. And I’m sure someone could. But I have come to realize that I am a leader, and that not everyone else has things figured out better than I do. There are many people that could do many things, but we often think like I did. People think surely someone else is better than me, someone else will do it, or I don’t have time to do this. The truth is the world is run by people who didn’t know what they were doing when they first started. Most of them are busy with jobs and family, but we all waste more time than we think.

I was inspired by a friend who worked and had a family yet she was very involved in her community. If I hadn’t seen her doing it, I don’t know if I would have believed I could either. I have already seen a few people that seemed to be inspired by the SCA and went out and found community involvement they were passionate about. That is what we all need to do, contribute to the trickle-down effect of community involvement. We give what we can while we can and encourage others to do the same, leading by our example. 

Nate Otto – Altoona, WI and EC County Board Member

Leadership is a spark. It is that tiny moment when we realize that people are the ultimate goal. Maybe these people are voters we hope to reach, employees we hope to train, or family members we hope to spend time with. Leadership is that spark we feel when the wellness of those with us becomes an end in and of itself. 

When did I begin feeling those little leader sparks? Not sure. I graduated UWEC with a political science degree, ready to change the world, and then found a job babysitting spreadsheets in a downtown Minneapolis cubicle. It was a dead-end, so I got a Master’s Degree in Public Policy, ready to become an urban planner. Urban planning is interesting to me. Then I fell in love, got married, and the Great Recession hit. My wife and I moved to Eau Claire to start a family. The 4-5 urban planners around here had no interest in giving me their job. But coding was fun, so I became a software developer.

Notice a lot of random career choices, here? I call it “Forrest Gumping” through life. The term has yet to catch on.

Enter kids. Kids do activities. Parents get involved. I became a Cub Scout den leader and loved it. Then CVTC needed adjunct faculty so I started teaching coding. My church needed board members, so I became a Unitarian Universalist Congregation board member. Then, through one accidental “Sure, I’ll do that” after another, I served as board president. Being a known leader now, I got asked to apply for a vacant County Board seat. I was appointed. I ran for election in 2022 and won by a double-digit landslide, by 10 votes. (Fact: 10 is technically two digits.) Then I was asked to run for State Assembly for the November 2022 election. I lost, but enjoyed campaigning.

So, I fell into leadership by accident. The best part of every step was making new connections with people. And I was best at leadership – and this wasn’t all the time – when I felt those connections. I was my best self when I felt that people are the ultimate ends.

Alisha Lucy Meinen – Cadott Community Association President and UW Social Work Professor

I am also an active member of my community. I am one of the founding leaders of the Cadott Community Association. Our mission is to enhance our community by strengthening business and citizen involvement. As a parent, it is important that my own child sees and is involved in this work as well!

Norm Christianson – Vast history of leadership in Stanley, WI

I was born and raised on a dairy farm near Stanley in 1946. From childhood I had to take care of the animals, the crops and the farm machinery. It was a 24-hour day job my entire youth. It taught me responsibility. Farming at that time was a community. Your neighbors – we each helped each other. That has changed now, but back then neighbors shared equipment with each other and helped each other with farming crops. That made a difference.

After high school I joined the Army. In the Army you have to follow orders, do your work, and get along with fellow soldiers. I learned to live, work and play with my fellow comrades. We depended on each other and I trusted they would do their job.

Up to this point in my life, all my experiences taught about doing my part and how to work with people.

After I returned to Stanley and got married, I got involved in stuff with my kids and at church. I have taught Sunday school almost all of my life. I got into that because my wife made me go to church every Sunday! We took the kids every Sunday and kept them with us there. It was important to us. I started falling into some roles at church: ushering, different committees, teaching confirmation, and church council (which I’ve been on for 25 years).

My involvement in things grew more and more. I got more involved in the community: Jaycees first, because a bunch of young guys asked me to start a club with them (Jaycees was for men ages 18-30). Then I became a Lions Club member (have been for 40 years, and have held different offices – President for 6 years). I got involved in Boy Scouts as my sons got into it – they needed a scout master. There I learned on the spot of how to work with our children and others kids so they can work and learn together. Then I took the position of our Church Council President (have now for 18 years). I also got involved in our School Board, because someone asked me to run (did this for 5-6 years), was on the Luther Park Board (for 5 years), the board for Chippewa County Big Brothers Big Sisters, Stanley City Council (for 10 years – ran in 2010 because others asked me to), and after a being a member of the Legion for awhile became Commander in 2020 because someone asked me to be a leader. Each time someone asked me to help them out by taking a leadership role, I said, “I’ll try.”

There are other less obvious forms of leadership I’ve taken as well: I have worked the election polls for 15 years, and have taken tickets and run scoreboards at the school athletic events for 30 years.

The seventh year of being a member of Stanley City Council, the mayor at that time decided to resign. Because I was City President I stepped in the role of Mayor for that year. Then I ran for another 2-year term as Mayor because I disagreed with the positions of the other candidate. My opponent advertised for her campaign. I didn’t. I believe I won the election because people in the community knew me. I had good rapport other residents. I think I was able to do some good things as Mayor. I didn’t run the next election because the way politics goes these days doesn’t line up with my values.

I have learned some things through my many experiences in leadership. The motto I live by, that I learned from Jesus and the mottos of the Lions and Boy Scouts, is to “Serve”. What led me to step in is that everything I did was to help someone else out with their responsibility. Though boundaries are very important. I also learned it’s important to always have more than just one person responsible for something, that we are all responsible together. Otherwise, there are liabilities, and it’s hard to make it sustainable. One example of this, my wife and I were rpesident and Secretary of our church cemetery and were the only ones responsible for that property. We got others to help with that responsibility. I have also realized that it’s not always what you get in monetary value – it’s the satisfaction of knowing you help someone in need. You have to listen to people, be present with them, and try to help where you can, even if you have to learn as you go.


I thoroughly enjoyed meeting these leaders and listening to their stories. Their stories, and my own experiences in leadership, have taught me that what is most important is to SHOW UP. One doesn’t have to know how things work, what they’re doing, or even not be afraid. A person just has to see the value in things, and know that everyone has to do their part not someone else. These stories have taught me to keep trying, keep showing up, and take the opportunities in front of you – you never know where you’ll end up! Just be present where you are, and know your boundaries. But go outside your comfort zone – it’s needed! We need everyone.