Embracing Localitas: Seeing “The Third Place” as a Common Community Purpose

Originally published in The NEW Business Review: Place & Purpose, Jan/Feb/March 2024 edition and reprinted with permission.

Water drew me here. 

Looking out of a Burke Hall window on my St. Norbert College tour, I could see the Fox River. That view eased my college selection, and I chose to leave home for this new place.  

Water was my calm, my center, my go-to then and still is now. Born in Minneapolis and growing up within the Mississippi River Valley of Southeastern Minnesota, the Mississippi was my refuge for the first half of my life. The waters of the Fox River, flowing into Green Bay and then Lake Michigan, are now my sanctuary. 

A word that has stuck with me, first learned from my college’s founders, the Norbertine Order, is localitas. It means to be committed to the place you call home. That term is partnered with other frequently used campus words like vocation, calling us to find the intersection of our gifts with the needs of the world. Their mantra communio, which invites us to seek deep and meaningful relationships to create community, rounded out the missional terminology of my undergrad experience—laying the expectation that each of us is called to live for more than ourselves. 

I’ve now been in Wisconsin for over half of my life. My localitas and vocational calling weaves communication, strategy, consulting, and the Northeastern Wisconsin community through a business I started over a decade ago called O’Connor Connective, located just two blocks from the St. Norbert campus and Fox River. 

Our company vision is to be the chosen partner for the advancement of our community. Nothing in that statement is about communications or marketing but everything about the betterment of the place in which we live, work and find our joy. That’s what motivates our team—and I think it likely motivates most people when asked why they do what they do. We want work that matters. That makes a difference. 

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about my purpose. What is the next thing that I should do with my gifts for the good of this place?

These are questions I imagine many here in Northeastern Wisconsin ask. Leaders, young and old. Experienced and green. People here clearly care about making an impact and building things that are bigger than themselves. Maybe it’s in the water. 

Uncovering what’s needed, here

Having a desire to create an impact doesn’t mean we always know where and how to apply our gifts. Especially at a time when Wisconsin appears to be at a crossroads, along with the rest of the nation: technology is advancing so rapidly that it’s hard to get our bearings. Politics are volatile. Climate change is affecting our daily realities. And friends around me are still shaking off the post-Covid malaise, wondering if retirement isn’t a better option than pushing hard for another decade.

Yet, also from my peers, I sense pride in the progress taking root here. From recent rankings as the Best Place to Live by U.S. News & World Report to world attention with the NFL Draft coming to Green Bay. Or the advancement of places like Titletown Tech, the Urban Hub and our social equalizer, the Brown County Library being named the best in the state. Pick a business. Pick a cause. There is a current, and its vibration is strong. 

Pair this energy with the disruption occurring in our state’s major industries, such as agriculture, manufacturing, healthcare, and education. Massive shifts are at play. And we, the people who are here, in this place, as the charism of localitas would suggest, must be the ones to innovate for the good of our region’s future. We must do more than give of our time and dollars. We must see into the future. 

Our regional signals of change

Envision Greater Green Bay is a non-profit organization that aims to educate and train small groups of individuals to become foresight strategists by using signals to better prepare for the rapid pace of change affecting our community. Envision hosts an annual event called World Futures Day, which attracts hundreds of attendees. We marvel at what’s suggested by guest futurists—incredible medical advancements, money-less banks, density housing pods that look like science fiction, online skill development and credentialing rather than in-person degrees, and more foods grown from labs than soil or animals. We gasp at what’s coming—and cheer as we get a glimpse of what’s already being developed by our local industry leaders. 

Alexa Naudziunas, Executive Director of Envision Greater Green Bay, suggests that learning to spot signals and then strategic preparation based on those signals is needed to guide our community purposefully.

“Envision Greater Green Bay stands at the forefront of preparing our unique community for the future,” says Naudziunas. “Through our steadfast commitment to collecting and interpreting trends, or what we call signals, we empower our region to navigate change with insight, resilience, and innovation.”

In addition to signals, we can learn from other regions where intentional efforts have spurred economic development and neighborhood improvement. Take, for example, a place I’ve strolled quite a bit lately now that my son’s attending Marquette University—Milwaukee’s Third Ward. 

Spearheaded by the Historic Third Ward Association, with support from the City of Milwaukee and private investors, the creation of the Milwaukee Public Market transformed the Third Ward into a bustling hub of commerce, culture, and community. Green Bay seeks this same effect as it works to bring a public market to the Broadway District through the collaboration and support of public and private sources. The ripple effect of this development seeks to not only attract visitors but also enrich local life, offering a dynamic neighborhood boost for business, leisure, and residential opportunities—energizing a corridor that connects to the planned Shipyard and ongoing Rail Yard developments—all making intentional linkages to the Fox River trail and public green spaces like Leicht Park along the Fox.  

The transformative power of collective investment in these important public spaces that foster community engagement and economic growth allows us to have a vibrant society that attracts and holds our most valuable resource—talent. 

Third Places uniquely Impact Culture, Community

The first time I heard of “Third Places” was in the mid-1990s when I worked for a company that’s now called Cuningham, a global architecture firm founded in Minneapolis by John Cuningham. JC, as he’s known, talked about how we have our homes and places of work, but where we choose to spend our free time, those Third Places, are what makes a community great.

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term, and it is the backbone for fostering a sense of belonging and collective identity, a key piece of localitas. As a region, these Third Places are vital because they attract us to want to live and be around them. Some of the best Third Places aren’t manufactured but instead are natural in their formation and experience, but intentionally leveraged, like our waterways. 

The Fox flows into the Green Bay, the world’s largest freshwater estuary. Today, tremendous energy is being applied to the hopeful designation of a Green Bay Natural Estuarine Research Reserve. This will allow our region to further leverage the draw of the water and the region’s position as a leader in the research, use, preservation, and enjoyment of our coveted natural resources. Just like it drew me here in 1989, we can channel our water to draw the world to us. 

Intentionality of place is in our hands. We must be mindful of the people who came before us and those who are not yet aware that this should be their home. People from all walks of life must find this community as a place for all. During a session at World Future’s Day, Dr. Gratzia Villarroel, a professor of Political Science and International Relations at St. Norbert College, shared that the Hispanic community in Greater Green Bay is growing, and the region is becoming more diverse. This is evidenced by the fact that the Green Bay Public Schools are now majority-minority. Dr. Villarroel presented a strategic framework that aims to establish Greater Green Bay as a national model of adaptability, dynamism, and equitable opportunity in a rapidly diversifying community.

Leadership in localitas

Over the years, my team and I have spent much effort building a regional support system for women professionals. This work paralleled that of women at UW-Green Bay, and our collaboration, which began almost five years ago, has birthed the Schreiber Institute for Women’s Leadership. 

“The world needs more women leaders,” said Schreiber President & CEO Ron Dunford when announcing the company’s investment in endowing the university’s institute. These words and actions from a global corporate leader with headquarters in Green Bay are how ideals become reality.   

Further, the formation of professional networking groups such as the Northeast Wisconsin Chapter of ACEL-Asian Corporate & Entrepreneur Leaders, the Latino Professionals Association of Northeast Wisconsin, Current Young Professionals through the Green Bay Chamber, and many other groups and corporate employee resource groups (ERGs) are lifting the voices not generally heard within Wisconsin’s boardrooms. The infrastructure for the advancement of all is purposefully preparing us to become better positioned for the future.   

A case for localizing your brand

Recently, Green Bay’s destination marketing organization leaned into the perceptions and misperceptions of the area with its own rebrand. O’Connor Connective helped them with this identity transformation, including the new name, Discover Green Bay. The organization’s new logo features what we call a “wave ball” to show off the area’s well-known football identity with our greatest natural resource and our namesake, the bay. 

Discover Green Bay’s organizational brand melds with the regional brand because of what they do—promote the region. But might there be an opportunity for your organization to tie your brand more intentionally to the region? How might you begin to adopt the mindset of localitas into your organization with a refresh of your vision, mission, or values? If you want today’s talent and consumers, it’s imperative. According to consumer research, people are now more likely to engage with brands that resonate with them because of geography, company values, and sustainability. 

It’s on us 

At the core of localitas is an expectation that we, the people who live here, actively advance the community we’re a part of. If we wish to attract and retain talent or to build our businesses or organizations, the intersection of purpose and place is critical. 

For me, I’ll work on my strategic foresight skills. I’ll keep reflecting on my evolving vocation to intersect my gifts with the needs of this region. I’ll keep thinking while sitting on the banks, shores and docks of our water. And then I’ll act because I’m called by my alma mater, first led by Abbot Pennings who chose to build a college on a gentle bend of the Fox River in De Pere in 1898, a “contemplative in action” working toward the ideal of localitas. 

✍️ Bridget Krage O’Connor, O’Connor Connective

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