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Stories of Service

By: Ellie Bullard

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“Taking a leap together”: A conversation with Julia Quanrud and Audrey Suker

After leading ServeMinnesota for 24 years, Audrey Suker retired in March of 2023. ServeMinnesota’s new CEO, Julia Quanrud, has worked with Audrey closely to manage many innovative initiatives and programs. Their collaboration helped bring forward some of the key programs that have helped Minnesota respond to acute needs of recent years, including the Emergency Response Initiative and Resettlement Corps. In March, Audrey and Julia sat down to chat about their work together, what they’ve learned from each other, and their reflections on what’s to come for AmeriCorps in Minnesota.

Your roles have overlapped for more than ten years now. Audrey has been leading AmeriCorps in Minnesota since 1999. Julia served as a AmeriCorps VISTA member, then managed programs at Ampact, eventually serving as Chief of Staff. What has it been like to work together?

Julia: The first time I really got to work with Audrey closely was when we launched Total Learning Classroom. I learned that she’s always asking, how can AmeriCorps be a transformative force? Since then, we’ve worked on a lot of things together and collaborated on really important relationships.

Audrey: When I first started working with Julia, I thought, here’s a woman who will help solve problems. I’ve had a sense of relief and confidence working with her. Whenever there’s been an issue where we needed to do some problem solving, Julia’s really shown up.

Julia: There have been moments where you’ve asked me to leap and I’ve needed to leap. We’ve done really incredible things as a result. Audrey has really instilled in me that value of leading boldly and not letting fear hold back the promise of what we can do.

What strengths do you see in each other as leaders?

Audrey: I think Julia said it well when she said that both of us are willing to take leaps of faith together. You can’t do these things alone, so it’s one thing to have a big idea, but if no one’s going with you, it doesn’t matter. Julia’s been there, and that’s a huge strength. She has a really unique ability to bridge and build partnerships.

Another strength is also what we’re charged to do. The whole purpose of AmeriCorps as an agency is to solve unsolved problems. You can’t solve any one problem by doing more of the same. You have to go and find out what isn’t getting done.

Julia: When I started this work, it was so welcoming to me that there’s a real value placed on learning and having humility here. We don’t know it all – there’s constant research being done that challenges our beliefs. It’s important to ask, is this the best we can do? Or is there a better way to do this work? That requires curiosity and a learner mindset. When I think about where that culture comes from, I think about Audrey.

Audrey, going off of your decades of experience in this space, what advice would you want to share?

Audrey: At ServeMinnesota, we take the purpose and the mission of AmeriCorps very seriously. When we take that seriously, we can’t just sit back and be passive and transactional. You’ve got to lead. You’ve got to understand where we should go. There’s this great scene in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones needs to get to the other side of a canyon, and there’s no bridge. He takes a leap and the bridge appears. That’s kind of what we have to do in this work. You’ve got to take leaps of faith.

It’s important to trust in the power of the idea of AmeriCorps. Trust this notion that we’re giving all these resources to help solve problems, and know that’s very real. And always be asking for help. One strength I have is the ability to ask for help.

Julia, you’ve touched on this a little already, but what are you thinking you’d bring forward with you from Audrey’s legacy?

Julia: Audrey has demonstrated really bold leadership. We have so many AmeriCorps champions statewide because of the work that Audrey has done to build the impact of our programs across the state. That kind of leadership is something that I will be working hard to bring into the role.

The leadership I’ve experienced here has been about community building. It’s been about keeping that ego in check and bringing a lot of different experts, stakeholders, and community to the table. I also think about the kindness that I’ve experienced here. There’s an expectation flowing through our culture that says we care about each other, and I want to continue that.

What’s in store for the future of ServeMinnesota and AmeriCorps?

Audrey: I’d say to stay the course with all the growth potential. There’s growth potential that exists even with our long-standing programs like Reading Corps and Math Corps. They can go even deeper, and so can our newer initiatives. It’s important to understand the full potential. And it’s important to be thoughtful about how we make decisions about where to go next and where would the greatest value be.

Julia: I agree. I am thinking about how to sustain that legacy of AmeriCorps making a big difference on the critical issues facing our state. That’s really important to me. I’m also really excited to continue to work in a space where I’m thinking about all of Minnesota, all of our communities across the state.

I love Minnesota through and through. I think it’s such a badge of honor that our citizens sign on to serve their communities and do such much on behalf of their communities. So for me, I want to continue Audrey’s legacy as a leader in welcoming a lot of people to AmeriCorps. I want to make AmeriCorps more and more inclusive. We’ve really done some exciting things to make AmeriCorps more inclusive to more communities. I want to really push that needle even further.

What other reflections do you have to share?

Julia: It’s exciting that so much of my leadership style has been shaped by my experience working with Audrey. I’ve learned how to build spaces of innovation and environments where teams can do what they need to do. It’s been a gift to be able to grow as a leader and now be leading. It’s a really remarkable thing and I never saw it coming. I’m immensely grateful.

Audrey: I have so much ownership over all the work that’s happened here. I’m confident in the change – it’s really comforting to me to feel the synergy and deep connection with Julia. I know we’ll continue talking with each other and we’ll keep putting one foot in front of the other.

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