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Smart Talk

Norman, Meet Ralph and Jeanne!

April 5, 2005 | By Hans Voss
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Brian Confer

Hans Voss, Executive Director

A man rises from his seat in a crowded town hall in Vermont, his eyes bright and aware. His blue shirt and brown jacket are as comfortable as the hands gripping the bench. He’s a workingman and, judging by the way people hang on his words, they know him well.

This image — Norman Rockwell’s famous 1943 painting, “Freedom of Speech” — hangs in my office. For me, the scene represents the best of what we Americans are: Confident individuals well prepared to express ideas that improve our lives and communities.

Ten years ago the Michigan Land Use Institute was founded on the same principle. This organization has traveled thousands of miles helping citizens understand how things really work in government and providing them the tools to perform more expertly in public policy arenas. Whether it is stopping bad ideas like Great Lakes drilling or starting good ones like planning a real town center in Acme Township, the Institute helps citizens make their communities better and more prosperous.
In many cases, the Institute stretched to work with citizen groups: We used foundation grants or charged fees to finance our grassroots support. But the demand for help consistently exceeded our financial ability to respond.
That has changed. Ralph and Jeanne Graham, among the Institute’s most engaged supporters — Ralph joined our board in 1999 — have provided a generous five-year gift to help more community activists.
The Graham Grassroots Support Center enables the Institute to provide the strategic, communications, organizing, and fundraising guidance that produces stirring grassroots victories against tough odds. Last year, for example, Charlevoix citizens and businesspeople stopped Wal-Mart from draining the life from their downtown. The Institute helped them design the strategic plan and communications strategy that got it done. We also worked with friends in Manistee, several of them battle-tested veterans who helped launch this organization, to convince local officials to reject a coal-fired power plant because it was bad for the local economy and air quality.

Such victories happen when ordinary people — farmers, businesspeople, landowners, conservatives, liberals, grandmothers, high school kids — understand what it takes to be effective in government forums, to communicate with reasoned and clear messages, and to be persistent, accurate, and fair. As they meet and work with neighbors, their collective experience enriches their lives. That’s the authentic American story told in Norman Rockwell’s painting. It’s at the center of what we do at the Institute.

Hans Voss is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s executive director.
Reach him at

The Great Lakes Bulletin is published by the Michigan Land Use Institute, an independent, nonprofit organization that conducts research and works with policymakers and citizens to help foster a new approach to economic development that respects the land, the communities that inhabit the land, and the inherent process of change.

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Executive Director
Hans Voss, hans@mlui.org

Deputy Director
Keith Schneider, keith@mlui.org


Patty Cantrell, patty@mlui.org

Diane Conners, diane@mlui.org

Charlene Crowell, charlene@mlui.org

Andrew Guy, aguy@mlui.org

Jim Lively, jim@mlui.org

SMART GROWTH Policy Specialist
Mac McClelland, mac@mlui.org

Northwest Michigan Smart Growth Journalist/Organizer
Kelly Thayer, kelly@mlui.org


Managing Editor
Jim Dulzo, jimdulzo@mlui.org

Art Director
Gail Dennis, gail@mlui.org

Web Coordinator
Doug Rose, doug@mlui.org


Mary Ellen Pattyn, maryellen@mlui.org

Heather Edwards, heather@mlui.org


Bob Sutherland

Deborah Rohe

Robert Otwell

Reg Bird
Sam Cummings
Mark Denson
James F. Gehrke
Ralph Graham
John Hackett
John H. Logie
Dr. Robert Marans
Maureen Martin
Helen Milliken
Rob Mossburg
Joyce Petter
Hans Voss (Ex-Officio)
Timothy Young


Olson, Bzdok & Howard, P.C.

Cover photo: Lake Michigan shoreline near South Haven.
Photo by Carol Blundy.

All contents © 2005, Michigan Land Use Institute.

Reprints: All rights reserved. Please contact the Michigan Land Use Institute for permission to reprint or otherwise distribute articles, in full or in part, from this magazine.

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