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Meet an Innovation Center Board Member: Carolyn Edlebeck
Submitted by Ana on Mon, 03/08/2010 - 13:57.
When we had the chance to catch up with Innovation Center Board of Directors member Carolyn Edlebeck in early February she was packing – for Uganda. For as long as we’ve known Carolyn, nearly a full 12 years, she’s always been going somewhere and doing something – whether it be a visit to her town’s city hall to advocate for a new recreation center, or a trip to Mexico with her sisters to volunteer in a community day care. When we spoke, just one month after her college graduation, she was filling her suitcase with protein bars and insect repellent for a year-long stint at a school and clinic in rural Uganda. “Slow down” and “you can’t” are not in her vocabulary.
Travel and service seem to show up often in Carolyn’s already impressive resume, and they’re passions she says are rooted in her experiences with community building. As the youngest member of the Innovation Center’s Board of Directors by at least 20 years, Carolyn roots our organization’s leadership in an awareness and understanding of the real needs and challenges of today’s young people; her own experience with community-based leadership – both at home and abroad – have given her an appreciation for the deep and long lasting changes community building and collective leadership can make.
In this interview, Carolyn tells us about the people and experiences that inspired her community change work, her history with the Innovation Center – including what it’s like to be the only youth on a non-profit board – and how she’s planning to take what she’s learned to her latest adventure.
You’ve been a part of the Innovation Center, and you’ve known our President Wendy Wheeler, for years now. How did you first become involved with the work?
“The relationship began when the Innovation Center came to Waupaca, my hometown in Wisconsin, and worked with community members in starting a youth-adult organization. I felt the work was really important and took an active role in our community group; it felt like such a perfect match for me. I went to some 4-H conferences and leadership trainings – then I became the lead youth trainer for the IC’s Training Cadre. I started doing trainings and then got involved in strategic planning meetings – wherever I could, I’d help out. We [Wendy and I] did the White House conferences [First Lady Laura Bush’s Helping America’s Youth initiative], and then I was asked to be a board member.”
Something must have attracted you about that initial work with the Innovation Center. What’s kept you coming back?
“This wasn’t just teaching a [Sunday School] class; this was becoming a part of the process in making decisions in the community. We were trained on how to look at the needs and assets of our community… We thought more about the community and the substantial changes we could make. One of the things we did was build a rec center. It’s still doing really well and tons of kids go… The IC contributed the idea that community development can be much stronger when you look at the community’s roots – knowing the community itself allows you to make bigger changes.”
That’s a really powerful idea. How else have your experiences with the Innovation Center informed your community service and leadership work?
“The IC helped me to feel confident…by treating all the youth [who were part of the Waupaca community change group] as part of the community who can make change with adults. The IC’s approach isn’t just to put youth into the plan; they want youth in the process. ”
Who or what else has influenced you in your decisions to stay involved with community work?
“There are a couple of things. The first is my family. My parents have shaped who I am. They’re huge supporters of me getting out there and doing as much as I can. They also got us involved in the community at a young age – tutoring after school, donating gifts to Toys for Tots on our birthdays rather than receiving. We’re also a foster family and that’s been a big part of my life. We’ve had kids from all walks of life living with us. Travel has also been important. I went to Finland through Lions International in the summer of 2004. Having the opportunity to travel opened my eyes up to the rest of the world. After that – after I was confident in myself as a leader – I wanted to do more. Noticing the different lifestyles around you – the way people are both the same and different from yourself – I think that really makes you who you are.”
What’s it like being the only young person on the Innovation Center’s Board of Directors?
“Being on the Board [of Directors] is definitely an honor. It was hard at first. I’m not a CEO of a company; other people are used to looking through a budget, they now how meetings go. But the Board is great with understanding and explaining things to me. I feel I can really contribute in a positive way… I contribute with realistic ideas. I know more [relative to some of the adult board members] about the issues that affect the process. I’ve always respected them [adult members] and they’ve always respected me back – I’m more than a token, more than a sidekick.”
You recently had the opportunity to travel with Wendy Wheeler to Doha Qatar to conduct a leadership training for Reach Out to Asia. What was that like?
“It was interesting to go to a place that is so culturally different [from the United States] and to see that the Innovation Center and the ways we go about trainings – community youth development – is still applicable… it was also exciting to see some of the same stuff the youth are going through that I went through when I first started [community work]. Community youth development is something that’s just so cross-cultural.”
You’re about to set off on your own cross-cultural journey, spending a year at a rural school and clinic in Uganda. What will you be taking with you in your “community development toolkit” so to speak?
“The community youth development approach has made me who I am in feeling that I can do bigger things than I ever imagined. I hope to share that with the students. More concretely, I’m excited to use some of what I learned in Qatar [about youth-led service organizations] while I’m working in Uganda. I want to start a youth club about women’s issues with the girls at the school and clinic.”