Community Leader & Educator Katie Boone Joins Connect the Grey

Katie Boone knows what it means to be resilient. 

Throughout her career — in nonprofits and community engagement; in educating, consulting and facilitating; in helping nontraditional entrepreneurs launch their businesses — she has faced a variety of setbacks. She's put hard, personal work into projects only to see them dismissed by those with power and influence. Despite that adversity, she's maintained her superpowers of bringing people to the table for meaningful conversations, and of understanding and advocating for widespread change to complex systems. 

Earlier this spring, Katie officially joined the Connect the Grey team as Learning & Innovation Lead. This July, she'll be facilitating two collaborative sessions called The Future of Work: Creativity & Business, held in Mankato on July 12 and in St. Paul on July 21

Katie's skills in engaging communities and groups of people began to take shape when she received her master's degree in experiential education from Mankato State University. She then worked at a homeless shelter as volunteer coordinator, a job that, she says, "wore on my soul." 

"The thing that broke me was watching a newborn baby leave the hospital and come into the homeless shelter," she says. "I felt really disempowered in that role… It felt like there was more that could be done, but I didn't have a role that was going to be able to effectively address the changes that needed to be made in the system."  

While in school, Katie interned at United Way, an organization she had fallen in love with when she had her first child as a teenager and they connected her to important services. When she found out there was a position open for a Community Impact Director with United Way, she saw it as a dream job — a chance to look at and strategize about the system as a whole. 

Though it was a long shot, Katie got the job. In her new role, she helped fund 54 different programs, working with teams of volunteers to determine how money would be granted,  to help the volunteers understand nonprofit organizations and their budgets, and to evaluate programs' outcomes. 

It was a twofold process, she says, of strengthening nonprofits while giving businesspeople a place within the nonprofit world.  

Every spring, she would review the programs that were funded by her department. "In those review processes, you would hear about all the needs," Katie says. "And then you would hear about these gaps: This program was able to do this, and this program was able to do this, but nobody was doing that.

Once they identified those gaps in the services being provided, Katie and her team could develop programs to fill them. It was, she says, her first taste of entrepreneurship.  

"We would go in and design a start-up initiative to close the gap in a system," she says. "It was starting something from scratch, based on a need or a problem that needed to be solved. … It was this entrepreneurial endeavor of doing program evaluations, figuring out how to keep these programs afloat, but also how to design programs that didn't exist before, that met new needs." 

Katie loved the job. She started to get restless, though, as she saw more and more needs and fewer and fewer resources. The work also highlighted the fact that core needs like affordable housing, livable wages, and transportation access weren't necessarily being addressed, she says. 

Around that time, Katie got to work on a long-term initiative funded by Blue Cross Blue Shield, a prenatal home visiting program. The project looked at social determinants of health: "Not just health in the doctor's office, but health outside of that," she says. "Where do you live? Where does your food come from? What is your support system? How do you get into the system? How do you navigate the system?"  

The grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield funded the team to do community planning, helping stakeholders "design the system that they wanted it to be, not the system that was," says Katie. 

Over the course of a year, the team hosted conversations with a variety of stakeholders, from teen moms to case managers to child protection workers to families who had had their kids taken away. It resulted in a "huge, monumental shift," Katie says, involving 53 partners and the emergence of a new system.   

For the Blue Cross grant, Katie was required to undergo training in collaborative leadership. That gave her her first experience with The Art of Hosting, an approach to complex challenges that involves tapping into the collective wisdom of groups.  

The training focused on the skills of developing a plan "with your community instead of for your community," Katie says. "When they said that, something in me clicked. … 'Create a plan with your community' was everything I had wanted — it was facilitation, it was community engagement, it was bringing in people to solve problems together. From there, I totally drank the Kool-Aid."

Katie knew she needed to create a position for herself that focused on solving problems with community members, not for them. She decided to leave her job, and started a consulting practice called the Sowelu Institute. Organizations and project leaders hired her to facilitate community conversations, engage stakeholders, and help with strategic planning. Soon, her consulting work started to grow. 

At the same time, Katie began intensive trainings to deepen her consulting practice and to learn more about The Art of Hosting. She was accepted to a nine-month Bush Foundation cohort that trained participants to be Art of Hosting experts. Along with a few of her fellow cohort members, Katie became an Art of Hosting steward, the term for practitioners who train others.  

The Art of Hosting, Katie says, has become a huge part not only of her consulting work, but also of how she lives her life. Its approach includes imagining "what could be" instead of "what is," asking powerful questions, and harnessing the power and knowledge of a group.  

As a self-described "chronic learner," Katie wanted to go even deeper. She enrolled in a certificate program at Harvard called "Leadership, Organizing, Action: Leading Change." It was taught by Marshall Ganz, a well-known community organizer whose grassroots model has been used with successful civil rights and political campaigns, including Barack Obama's presidential run. 

As part of the program, participants were asked to develop independent projects to apply the practices they were learning. Katie decided to create an affordable housing collaborative. The goal was to improve the Mankato area's affordable housing system and infrastructure, and she saw an opportunity to include the people who use housing services.  

"We didn't have a system that included the voices of the people that needed the services," she says. "We had a system that was providing services to, and not really with." 

As the project started to take shape, "we ended up experiencing what it was like to be stonewalled," Katie says. "Power brokers in town did not want me to continue to do this project. Because there was already a system in place, and they knew the system, and they didn't need all this other stuff." 

Led by Katie, the affordable housing collective had engaged 600 families in the planning process. It was painful, she says, to have the system resist that kind of engagement. "I learned that, in community organizing work, if you're mobilizing a whole entire army of people, then it hurts when things don't work, and when the system isn't supportive of it."  

After that experience, Katie needed to take a pause. She was working at home at the time, by herself — and she missed being surrounded by people. "I had learned that when you have community around you, the work isn't as hard and lonely," she says. 

Seeing the need for a space where people could share ideas and create change through collaborative work, Katie started researching coworking spaces. The trend had grown quickly in response to economic downturn and the rise of freelance professionals. Katie thought Mankato was ready for its own coworking community. She began developing what would become Envision Lab. 

With Katie as Chief Envisionary Officer, the "dream team" applied for and won a grant that provided their startup money. Envision Lab opened its doors in March of 2015. In the first week, 64 people came through the doors. That summer, they helped 15 businesses launch in 12 weeks. 

"There was a lot of excitement, a lot of momentum," Katie says. "And then it became like crickets chirping." 

Many people, Katie says, didn't quite understand the value of a space for collaborative working and innovation. At the same time, Envision Lab faced competition from a large corporation providing short-term office rental.  

"We found that our niche was in serving artists, serving the folks that never get served by traditional business development support services," she says. 

Katie was invited to become a consultant with Mankato's Small Business Development Center, the local office of a national network of centers overseen by the U.S. Small Business Administration. The SBDC's leaders were impressed with what Katie had done with Envision Lab, and they invited her to share her startup expertise. She began to lead a program called the Startup Lab, holding sessions every two weeks to help entrepreneurs "take their idea out of their head and put it on paper," along with helping them navigate the process of launching a business and finding resources. 

"Despite everything we were doing, there was still a lot of pushback from traditional business development people," Katie says. 

That pushback, Katie says, was due in large part to the fact that Envision Lab's entrepreneurs didn't fit a typical business mold. They included artists, musicians, LGBTQ people, "people with purple hair and tattoos."  

"I'm a fighter, so I just kept going," says Katie, "and I ended up burning myself out." In October 2016, Envision Lab closed.  

Since that tough decision, Katie has made time for personal healing while working in a variety of roles, including her consulting work. Now, she's ready to apply the hard-won lessons of her previous work and professional training to new ventures. 

That includes continuing to strategize and collaborate across sectors. The Future of Work events this summer are driven by the fact that while business, government, and education leaders have gathered to discuss the challenges facing Minnesota's workforce, the arts and creativity are too often left out. 

Business leaders, artists, educators, public and nonprofit employees, and anyone who's interested are invited to come and share ideas on July 12 and 21. Connect the Grey will harvest the notes and insights from those two sessions, share our findings, and continue to build ways to engage people across sectors and think creatively about the future of work. 

Katie quotes the Japanese industrialist Konosuke Matsushita, saying, “Continued existence depends upon the day-to-day mobilization of every ounce of intelligence.” The upcoming Future of Work sessions — and Katie's ongoing work with Connect the Grey — will mobilize intelligence from a wide spectrum of people to drive systemic change and collective impact. 

Click the links to register for The Future of Work: Creativity & Business on July 12 in Mankato and July 21 in St. Paul!