Dan Weidenbenner: Emerging Leader, Embedded Organizer
When asked to describe what the term “emerging leader” means, Dan Weidenbenner focuses on the “emerging” part. “I think I’ve got a lot to learn,” he says. “If you would have asked me a few years ago if I’d be doing what I’m doing now, I don’t think I would have had the vision.”
Weidenbenner is executive director of Mill Community Ministries (Greenville, S.C.) and a recent recipient of a We Raise Foundation Emerging Leader Grant for his work developing Mill Village Farms, a job and life skills training program for at-risk youth ages 14-18. Youth are employed at the farms, growing food for communities with limited access to fresh and locally-sourced produce.
Weidenbenner grew up in South Florida and graduated from Furman University, Greenville, S.C., with a degree in psychology. As a student, his community research led to him working with families in a multicultural environment, and Weidenbenner felt himself drawn to that experience.
“It helped open my eyes to another world, another community that I wasn’t very familiar with growing up or at my school,” he says. His passion for that other world grew through his mission work in a very small, low-income rural part of South Carolina. While participating in a year-long leadership development program, Weidenbenner visited and learned from national organizations doing innovative community development – and he also began living with an African-American pastor and his family in that same rural area where his mission work took him.
“It was so inspiring,” Weidenbenner says. “Some incredible folks and very resilient leaders have dug roots in that community and are committed to see it thrive despite often overwhelming odds.” He stayed with the pastor and his family for about a year. “They took me in and mentored me, helped me understand some of the local history and the cultural context of the community and the state,” he says. “It was very eye-opening for me: it shaped a lot of what I do and what I’ve gotten involved in.”
His life as a community organizer may have had its roots in his experience as a resident assistant at Furman. “Working with a group of freshmen from all over the country, with all different kinds of beliefs and backgrounds–and how do you build a community of students that now all live together and share space and how do you create common connection?” he says. “That was not an easy job, but I learned a lot from that experience that does apply to what I’m doing now. There are similar skills needed.”
Weidenbenner’s heart truly lies in his community. When asked about his greatest personal challenges, he focuses on his community’s challenges: gentrification, suburban sprawl, his students finding safe transportation to farm sites, the lack of economic mobility in his community. He is grateful for his current partnership with We Raise Foundation and its donors for supporting the program costs for Mill Village Farms’ Job and Life Skills training. And he remains hopeful.
“God has opened doors every step of the way, given me opportunities to serve and hopefully be a leader in a small area of influence that I have,” he says. “Our call is to integrate our faith into work, and I always felt like the Gospel was calling me to this type of work.”