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Jacob Risse didn’t know what to expect when he learned that one of his duties as a Youth Leadership Council member was to meet one-on-one with the CEO of Butler County Rural Electric Cooperative about engaging the next generation of members.
“Why would the CEO of my local cooperative want to hear from me? I was just a high school kid,” said Risse, now an 18-year-old freshman at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan.
Risse was an Electric Cooperative Youth Tour participant in 2018 and represented Iowa on the YLC, a smaller group of young leaders chosen by their fellow Youth Tour participants.
His close-up with a co-op CEO was part of “Convince Me,” a program created in 2017 by Youth Tour coordinators to have YLCers chat with co-op leaders, learn about co-op challenges, offer their insights and report back about their experiences.
Risse sat down last October for about 90 minutes with Craig Codner, CEO of Butler County REC, and Anne Sesker, public relations specialist, at the co-op’s Allison, Iowa, headquarters.
“They were willing to speak with me for a long time. It really felt good to have them interested in my perspective,” Risse said afterward.
He said the discussion touched on industry issues, career interests and the critical challenge of how to increase awareness of co-ops among young adults.
“Much of the youth doesn’t know what an electric cooperative is, let alone the huge impact it has in their daily lives,” Risse said. “Their knowledge doesn’t go beyond the switch.”
Codner agreed on the importance of involving teachers and guidance counselors to promote Youth Tour and other co-op opportunities among students. But just as important is who delivers the message.
“The message will carry more weight if it’s not coming from someone in a suit like me,” said Codner. “Testimony from people like Jacob, saying, ‘This is a great program,’ will go a long way.”
Adam Schwartz, a Youth Tour consultant and founder of The Cooperative Way, said “Convince Me” is a way for co-ops to build on the relationships they create with the Youth Tour participants they sponsor.
“We had a vision to make the Youth Tour more than a free trip to Washington, D.C.,” he said. “We want more co-ops to see something tangible come out of this in a purposeful way.”
A key goal of the project, he said, is to head off rural brain drain.
”Maintain ongoing relationships with students by creating opportunities in our rural communities, so if they do go away to college, they will think about coming back and contributing to the co-op and their community,” said Schwartz. “We’re lowering the speed bumps for co-ops, too, by showing them that the Youth Tour can be an ongoing resource.”
Risse told Codner and Sesker during their meeting that he would be interested in staying involved with the co-op despite having completed his YLC duties last year.
“We were somewhat amazed at how receptive Jacob was to promoting the cooperative philosophy, the business model and the cooperative difference among his peers,” said Codner. “He even went so far as to offer to talk to other schools in our service territory.”
Risse says he will maintain close ties with the co-op long after meeting the CEO.
“It showed me how I fit into my cooperative and how someday I might help lead a cooperative. The depth of thinking displayed in my meeting was inspiring, and it makes me want to get involved and learn more.”