Structural racism. Food insecurity. Long-term health care. Systemic change in these areas can feel intimidating, too large for one organization to tackle alone. But Ben Kofoed ’12 and Perran Wetzel V ’13 of the Collective Action Lab in Minneapolis aren’t afraid to dive in and help make it happen.
The Collective Action Lab is a uniquely modern enterprise. Its small, agile staff partners with community groups to address complex social challenges. Sometimes this means helping to draft a strategic plan. Sometimes it means research, grant proposal writing, project management, or facilitating communication between stakeholders.
Kofoed explains: “Our organization recognizes that in order to tackle the big problems, collaboration between sectors or different organizations is really important, and it’s really hard to do that well. A lot of times people come together in grand ideas and projects and it doesn’t work out because everyone has a day job and it lacks this sort of backbone support to sustain it. The Collective Action Lab tries to serve as that supporting infrastructure.
Kofoed, a biology major, came to the Lab after earning a graduate degree in public health from the University of Minnesota and working for over a year in local public health administration in the northern part of the state. “So where I was doing really basic administration of public health programs,” he says, “the Lab was working on big-picture change around the health care space. It was an opportunity to do what drew me to studying public health policy but work on it in a much bigger way.” Kofoed has played a large part in initiatives such as Silos to Circles, which brings health care organizations together to share learning, pilot new ideas, and generally think about health care questions in innovative ways.
Wetzel, an anthropology major, came to the Lab after he and his wife, Emily Griffin-Wetzel ’14, moved to Minneapolis from Chicago, where he’d been a teacher’s aide and substitute teacher at a special-needs school. When the Lab’s founder, Olivia Mastry, offered him a position, he jumped at the opportunity to be part of large-scale change.
Wetzel works primarily with an initiative called Mill City Kids, which focuses on improving the health and well-being of African American and Native American children age five and under. “The initiative has been around for two years,” Wetzel says, “and the organization has grown to focus on increasing awareness around historical trauma and structural racism in all sectors that may influence or interact with children, such as health care and government.”
Wetzel and Kofoed are also engaged in additional collaborations, such as the Minnesota Hunger Initiative, a network of more than twenty hunger-relief organizations currently working to explore new and compelling ways of understanding need and new models for hunger relief.
It seems an incredible coincidence that two Luther alumni who graduated with such different majors would end up doing the same kind of work at a tiny specialized company, but it actually makes a lot of sense. Wetzel explains, “Luther’s model of having to take so many credits outside of your major really made me open to this kind of a job, where I’m doing so many things outside my comfort zone.”
Kofoed agrees: “Jumping from topic to topic and diving in on hunger relief one week and rural aging the next week and structural racism another week, you have to be pretty good at not being one-dimensional. We draw on that a lot.”
Wetzel also points to his anthropology background as good preparation for facilitating conversations and engaging small groups on difficult subjects, a skill that Kofoed also picked up at Luther.
“For me, what really helped were the classes where you inevitably bumped up against things that people feel really strongly about,” he says. “Wherever there were strong beliefs or deeply held opinions, we had to bring that into a reasoned discussion. I think of my senior seminar, Secularization in the West. People had passionately different views, but there was healthy discourse about that in class every day, and that’s a lot of what our work is now. We’re bringing groups together that sometimes have pretty different perspectives on these issues and creating formats that can hold that conversation in a way that’s respectful but also facilitates real conversation.”