It is easy to understand why friends in his Stevens Point, Wisconsin community refer to Greg Wright as “The Connector-in-Chief.” Since moving back to his hometown ten years ago, the former high school English teacher has designed an organization and built a lifestyle around providing creative individuals the resources and connections needed to thrive.
As founder and executive director of the nonprofit arts advocacy organization CREATE Portage County, Wright focuses on strengthening rural communities by nurturing their innate ingenuity and making space for collaboration. Arts Midwest spoke with Wright about how regrowing a creative culture can lead to power reclamation from outside corporations and media narratives.
Greg Wright, executive director of CREATE Portage County, leads an opportunity mapping session.
“We do very little work as an organization that isn’t supporting somebody else, or that isn’t somehow bringing community members together. We have to let go of control, and we have to focus as much as possible on supporting and empowering other people.”
- Greg Wright
What prompted you to initiate CREATE Portage County? Why does this work matter to you?
Greg Wright: The storyline of the organization and my personal story have an interesting intersection. I grew up in Stevens Point and moved back after living in Chicago. I had been an English teacher for eight years and decided I wanted to write for a while. It was way cheaper for me to live and write in Stevens Point than to stay in Chicago. In the process, I had this epiphany that I loved it here. I was surprised to see so few of my classmates still here, and there was a lot of conversation happening around the workforce shortage in small communities. I got interested in why more people don’t move back to small towns and why moving to a big city is considered to be a success story.
I started having conversations with the founder of the Arts Alliance of Portage County. He was interested in what role the arts could play in creating a sense of vibrancy in the community and making small towns more attractive. That led to me getting hired as the Executive Director of the Arts Alliance with the idea of seeing what could happen if we focused more on creativity and less on just the arts — although still supporting the arts — and what we could do to reinvent the image of a small town through that investment in creativity.
Stevens Point is one of many paper-making towns along the Wisconsin River. Historically, the site was a Menominee ricing camp.
Many people are shy about calling themselves artistic or creative. How do you define creativity?
There are particular identity types that we’ve associated with the word “artist,” “entrepreneur,” and “creative,” and those associations become very limiting. [CREATE] made a concerted effort right away to find as many projects as we could in the community. Our goal was to find ideas and to get those ideas up and running as projects. If projects were successful, they often turned into something bigger such as a community organization, a business, an arts venture.
Everybody has ideas; there’s nobody in the world who hasn’t thought about something they could be doing differently or some creative project they want to work on. When we start to say things like, “You don’t get the label until you’ve achieved a certain status,” that is off-putting. So we focused on that beginning point, to say, “Well, you’re all there, you’re already doing this, you’re already thinking about these things. What you don’t have is the support you need to make it through the process.”
There’s something about seeing your neighbor and being like, “I know that guy, he started a business, I can start a business.” It dispels the myth that [entrepreneurs] are rare and exceptional. When the only entrepreneurs you hear about are Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, it can be really off-putting. When the person next door to you is running a small business, and you know that person, and you’re friends with that person, it becomes more approachable.
What has been your strategy for helping people discover their creativity? What changes have you noticed in people and places after you’ve broadened the definition of what is considered to be creative?
We have found that the culture of a community plays a significant role in whether or not people see themselves as creative. That’s foundational to the work we’re doing — teaching communities how to regrow their own creative culture. There’s a buzzword right now called “ecosystems” — creative ecosystems, entrepreneurial ecosystems. We see a lot of what’s happened to creativity as an invasive species problem. Economic development taught communities that if you attract a business from outside of your community, that’s what success looks like — get the Applebee’s, get the Red Lobster, get the Target, get the Walmart. Throughout that process, communities started to learn that their creativity was something they imported from some smarter place, usually some bigger city.
I have a board member who says, “There’s not a community without an artist in it.” As an organization, we see arts as that first layer of regrowing the local ecosystem. If you have a strong arts and culture scene, that creativity becomes visible, and that art turns into products people sell, including paintings, sculptures, ceramics. That turns into small businesses, and usually leads to restaurants, which lead into food products, which lead into tech businesses over time. It’s like getting rid of an invasive species, you have to start by regrowing what’s gonna take hold first, and then from that you can grow the harder-to-reclaim wildlife.
A live-music event brought Radio Son Jarocho through Stevens Point.
What tactical tips would you have for people who would like to get started on leveraging creativity as a tool for economic development?
There’s this myth that rivers have headwaters and that they’re linear. In reality, rivers are starting in all sorts of places, with springs that eventually feed into creeks, that feed into other rivers, that feed into the main river branch. That’s how we see community change happen. Communities too often are waiting for consensus, they’re trying to create the perfect plan, they’re trying to do all of these things to create this linear path to some future success, and then when something goes wrong, it throws things off the rails.
What we recommend is just to get started — start by supporting a creative project and then find another one. Pay attention to trends, habits and cultures that grow in the process. If you start to see many people interested in videography, create some resources to support a better film scene. If there’s a lot of farming in your community, how can you grow a local food scene? We talk about the ABCs of creative ventures: Arts, business, and community impact. All three of those categories have equal economic value.
A lot of communities will have organizations that focus on one type of creativity; they will have an innovation center for entrepreneurs, but that will leave out community organizers and grassroots groups as well as artists. Or they’ll have an arts center where you can come in and make art, but if you were going to come in and work on a business idea, you’re not welcome there. Resources get so narrowly focused that there’s only one type of creativity that gets nurtured.
When you can create a broad supportive organization that is networked to whatever specific requirements people may have, you can get a lot of projects moving through the same space or the same system. When your tech company needs somebody to design the app they’re creating, they know an artist because they work from the same space. When that artist needs help with their accounting or their marketing, they can reach out to somebody who has that skill set.
Local artist Alexander Landerman works on the first mural CREATE completed.
It seems like saying “Yes” to ideas on a small basis can blossom into big change.
As a high school English teacher, I always watched kids freeze up if they wrote an excellent paper. The next time they sat down to write, they would forget that the drafting process led to that great paper. I would always say to them, “All I need from you is to sit down and write something. Even if it’s just one sentence that has some value, that one sentence will over time grow into a final paper you’ll like.” How do you go into a community with a mindset of change and being open to the fact that whatever you’re doing isn’t right yet, but can get closer to something that works if you’re open to that process over time?
We categorize ourselves as an economic development organization these days, but our roots are in the arts. Because of that, the process of rehearsal, the process of drafting, the process of creating are built into how we approach the work we do. What we see holding up so many communities is a lack of understanding the generative process that comes through creativity. We watched so many communities throw millions of dollars at consulting plans that sit on shelves because the goal is to have a perfect plan. What they should be identifying are some goals they want to work toward and many different strategies.
What specific cultural assets exist in the rural places that you’ve worked, and how have you been able to amplify them?
The best thing about a small town is that you can meet anybody at any time. There is some social stratification, but in Stevens Point, I can connect an entrepreneur to the CEO of a major company because we all live in the same community, and everyone’s generally approachable. One thing I’ve loved about my own creative world here is that it’s really diverse and tight. I’m friends with farmers, bakers, innovators, people in tech, and that’s in large part because there aren’t sector-specific social groups.
When I was in Chicago, I rarely spent time outside of my industry bubble because there were so many educators in Chicago. In big cities, creative networks become sector-specific [and] you end up not knowing anybody outside of your worldview. You can’t have those same divisions in a small town and make it work. You have to find ways to build your network so it includes people outside of your sector or worldview. Otherwise, you just don’t have a big enough perspective. The other thing I love about small towns is that if you get 30 people excited about something, they can make a significant change. The tricky part is that small towns culturally have an attitude where they’re slower to change, and there’s often a lot more tradition built into the way a small town operates.
What we see is if small towns adopt this culture shift, they really can become great places for innovation. We would love to see small towns thought of as great places to experiment with change, ideas, and new businesses because the resources are tight and the capacity for change is much more available.
CREATE runs an innovation hub called the IDEA Center, with a podcast studio and other resources for supporting local media production.
How do you and partners effectively build trust in communities?
That’s always interesting, it’s not something we’re entirely good at yet. There are places where I think we’re succeeding well, and there are places where it’s almost impossible to fight the national narrative. We did a project at the beginning of the pandemic where we produced about 4,000 face shields for hospitals, frontline medical workers, poll workers, first responders. I had a pretty good sense of the politics of the people who engaged in that project, and it was cool because it was all over the political spectrum.
We had very conservative people, very liberal people, people in the middle; we worked with people from various racial groups, from various socioeconomic levels. It was this incredibly diverse project that everyone engaged in and it was one of the proudest moments I have had as a community member here. Then the national narrative about politics seeped into how we are taught to feel about the pandemic, and all of that unity broke apart. I think that that’s one of the things that is both an opportunity in small towns and a real challenge — the day-to-day in a small community is much more integrated, as I was saying before, it’s tough to separate into your enclaves. At the same time, there’s almost no national media that’s small town-created.
The media empire that exists right now is almost exclusively coming out of big cities. Any writing about the rural experience is usually some reporter embedding in our town for a week to find the person they think is the most characteristic of all rural America. There’s lots of podcasts that follow unique characters that are rural people, but there is no real narrative that’s from small town America. That then influences the way we’re taught to think about ourselves and our neighbors. We’ve been having a lot of conversations with police officers and police departments because we’re an organization that does a lot of social justice work. That’s been interesting as well, to balance the need for this conversation, which everyone we’ve talked to agrees needs to happen in a local context.
One of the biggest challenges we have, in terms of that divisiveness, is even when you have a local win that brings people together, there’s a good chance they’re gonna go home to their TV sets or their podcasts and they’re going to be told to distrust people again. You’re constantly fighting by saying, “No, we love each other, we care about each other, we’re in this together.”
It’s hard right now. Stevens Point is a blue dot in the middle of a sea of red, but we’re also a very 50-50 blue dot, where the county itself is very divided. And it’s been really interesting to watch that play out here as people who work together are starting to learn to distrust each other, and I don’t know how to fight that. If you have ideas, let me know.
Ann Vang and Barry Calnan put the finishing touches on a 3D-printed face shield.
What do you wish that more people understood about creative community development work, and how could people in your sector better tell that story?
I wish people understood that creativity is valuable wherever it happens and that fostering and nurturing it without regard for your specific type of creativity can open doors. If I’m in love with the arts but I don’t care about creativity in the business sector, there’s a good chance I’m cutting my artists off from the revenues they’re going to need to be successful long-term.
When somebody installs a bike trail in your community, there’s economic value to that, there’s recreational value to that, there’s emotional value to that. Thinking about entrepreneurship versus in-company innovation — why is entrepreneurship more valued right now than innovation in a company that’s been around for 100 years? When you make that mindset shift and start to invite more people in, the impact is significant.
What are you most proud of about this work?
This work has a real capacity for empowerment. We’re a really small team, there are two of us that work at CREATE Portage County right now, and we have our fingers in a lot of different pots, and there are lots of different projects happening. But the only way we have the impact we have is by finding people to support. We do very little work as an organization that isn’t supporting somebody else or that isn’t somehow bringing community members together. We have to let go of control, and we have to focus as much as possible on supporting and empowering other people.
More and more we’ve seen social justice work built into our organization. We can say to communities who historically have been underrepresented in our area, “We wanna know what your vision for the community is, we wanna know what arts projects you wanna see, we wanna know what businesses you wanna see.”
Stevens Point area is on Menominee land, and the Menominee people were here for 14,000 years before the settlements that have made the community named Stevens Point. There are also about four or five other tribes that spent time here at some point in history. But I learned, and this word is a word I’m still working on saying, but āhpēhtesewen is a word we’re learning. It’s a Menominee word that means “the power gained from giving power away.”
There’s a 14,000-year history of that concept here. We care about activating others with what resources we have. We’re trying to model that as much as possible as an organization. It has been a mindset shift, and that is what I’m most proud of.
Greg Wright addresses the crowd at a CREATE event.
How do you activate your own creativity?
I feel like my creative outlet is about how I can bring people together. I have a friend who calls me “The Connector-in-chief” in the community, and that is my favorite thing to do — to know people and what they’re trying to accomplish. There’s all this great language about agility, agile leadership, change management. That has been a really empowering headspace to get into — not seeing everything as a linear, and understanding that different things will take shape over time. It’s really fun to have this momentum building, and I’m not entirely sure what will come.
What do you hope to accomplish next?
We are in the process of launching a new version of the organization called CREATE Your Community that is about taking what we’ve learned in the six years to other communities and trying to grow a stronger network of activated people in the small towns around us. There is so much value in small places, and having lived here for about ten years, I’m so glad I’m here. I think big places are valuable as well, but there’s a great potential in small places, if they’re open to it. I guess that’s our next big step — trying to see what other people and communities are out there doing.