Our culture is changing. This idea of culture is not confined to race. The culture of doing business, communication, spiritual services, interacting with our community, requires our ability to adapt, accept and respond to this reality. These shifts do not ask for our permission. They do not always arrive loudly. They can come in subtle ways that appear to awaken us from a peaceful sleep or a blissful indifference. Regardless of how these moments arrive, cultural change, cultural evolution, and sometimes cultural revolution, will demand our attention. They create and command a shift in how we view and engage in the changes that arise.

These changes will require that leaders emerge. They will require that these leaders, chosen seemingly by providence, or by previous life experiences, become the obvious and evident forerunners into this new cultural movement. We have one such leader in Springfield. An Oregonian by birth, she attended local schools all the way through her university education. She is the CEO of an organization that is the epicenter for all business activity that affects our local economy. Vonnie Mikkelsen, CEO of the Springfield Chamber of Commerce, is her name. 

It can seem like an anomaly that someone from here could be the tip of the spear in such times. However, her life took her to a place and a land far, where the experiences of new cultural challenges required that she yield to the struggle of change. This far-away dream, this assignment of life, took her to Japan. 

From a small town, rural upbringing that shaped her thinking and character, to a small-town rural community in Japan teaching English to children in a local school, Vonnie learned about the requirements to adjust to cultural change. This foundation of culture was birthed in the simplicity of a gift given to her by her mother as a child; a subscription to National Geographic. This magazine opened her mind to a big, beautiful world outside her front door. The experiences at the University level, to include life relationships as a child, taught her to embrace cultural change. 

Vonnie says, “She was all in!” – “She wasn’t afraid.” – “There wasn’t any hesitation or anxiety.” 23 years old, with a rural town tenacity, she dived headlong into the immersion process required for success. For 16 years, she allowed the cultural norms and practices to shape her perspective and paradigm. Food, language, daily living practices, a wonderful host family, all different to her upbringing. She learned “how much we can really communicate without words.” In her desire to be independent she asked someone how to ask for “100-yen stamps” so she could mail a letter home to her mother on her own. That’s what leaders do; they find ways to communicate in the common details of life. 

Springfield has adjusted to many cultural changes brought on by the pandemic, social issues, economic closures, school closures, societal duress and distress. The Springfield Chamber of Commerce is at the heart of those cultural shifts. They take up part of the space in all of these areas in our community. From politics, to private enterprise, to community advocacy, Vonnie leads the Chamber and our community through these tenuous conversations. It is not possible for any leader to help a community navigate through cultural shifts without having the experience of having lived this life themselves. The moment requires a situational awareness developed through previous experiences. 

While in Japan, Vonnie learned “the value of absorbing, observing, being respectful and responsive in the space you were in, in the moment.” This was beyond learning what the language could give to her. She learned to be “open to others, other ideas, other ways of doing things.” She learned to be mindful of “gestures that communicated” the subtle intentions of others. She says she is “still fascinated by these differences” as she learns and observes other nuances of culture. 

If our community is going to learn to cordially, respectfully and thoughtfully navigate the cultural change that is afoot, without our request or permission, then we will need to look to the example and mindset exhibited by critically thinking leaders such as Vonnie Mikkelsen at the Springfield Chamber of Commerce. 

The Chamber reflects the values and ideas that businesses, entrepreneurs, civic leaders, government leaders of all levels, and nonprofit service providers, come together as a conglomerate of various backgrounds and cultures, to help each other thrive, face challenges unique to them, and learn to develop a common voice of progress and profit. This is the model worthy of emulation and replication by our community at large. 

In our midst, in our community, the necessary leaders for the challenges we face are present. One of those inspiring, gifting leaders, a true Oregonian, Vonnie Mikkelsen, is present and ready for duty. She is proving we need not fear cultural shifts and change. We need to embrace them, with full immersion, to live a better life together. 

Mark Molina is owner/founder of Molina Leadership Solutions. He is a regular contributor to The Chronicle’s editorial page.