Summers Shape Our Future


Steve Freese, President and CEO

With summer in full swing, the attention of your statewide electric cooperative organization turns to a pair of recurring and very important leadership training programs and experiences we coordinate.

Fortunately, this state’s electric co-op board members recognized long ago that the future of their cooperatives would be forever entwined with the future of the young people who lived on co-op lines. They concluded that we needed specialized youth programming to help shape future leaders.

Among the results are two programs that in their present forms date back to 1964 and since then, have attracted more than 8,000 Wisconsin high school students.

One is the Youth Tour to Washington, D.C., sponsored annually by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA). This year, 17 Wisconsin students joined more than 1,800 others, along with more than 300 chaperones, representing 42 states. Their six-day experience in the nation’s capital was packed with leadership training; basic education in the cooperative business model; visits to museums, historic sites, and national monuments; and meetings with congressional representatives and staff.

The leadership training was all about being involved with their co-op, and national and local co-op career opportunities. A lineman who worked on an international project to electrify a rural town in another country talked about the potential to affect a wider footprint than just their home town. The students picked one of their own, Adrian Rodriguez, who was sponsored by Oakdale Electric Cooperative, to represent Wisconsin at the NRECA and Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association annual meetings.

It’s not uncommon for the Youth Tour to be the first airplane trip for participating students, and they did some memorable things this year: laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery, visiting the World War II Memorial during the 75th Anniversary of the D-Day Invasion of France, and visiting the Holocaust Museum. It was great to see how they were respected at Capitol Hill offices and to hear Senator Ron Johnson urge them to be a voice for their communities.

The second program, held in July, is the Youth Leadership Congress. More than 100 students spent three days on campus at UW–River Falls learning all about cooperative governance and what it takes to assume a leadership role at the co-op. We share with the students what job possibilities there are in electric co-ops. By the time they leave River Falls they know what’s expected of board members and what cooperative decision-making requires. They leave with a new understanding of what it takes to keep the lights on back home.

This all started at the 1964 WECA annual meeting with a resolution saying, “A new generation is moving into active ownership and control of electric cooperatives, and still another generation within a very few years will have the most numerous representation within our membership.”

Times have changed, but the circumstances remain valid. Co-op directors saw the future of the electric program in our youth, and continue to help prepare them to be the future employees and leaders of their electric cooperatives and the communities they serve.