Meet the Professor: Chris Merrett, Community and Economic Development

Meet the Professor: Chris Merrett, Community and Economic Development

Next fall, WIU will begin a new master’s degree program in Community and Economic Development. This new program will combine online learning with in-person class sessions and hands-on learning opportunities. The program is being offered through the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs (IIRA). We sat down with IIRA Director Chris Merrett to learn more about the program – and about him.merett

Chris Merrett is a native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada. He earned undergraduate degrees in geography (University of Western Ontario) and political science (Lake Superior State University), before earning a master’s degree (University of Vermont) and Ph.D. in geography with a focus on regional development and international trade (University of Iowa). He loves to travel and learn about new places, and geography was a natural discipline to help guide these personal and professional intellectual pursuits. Chris has been married for 25 years and has two children.

Since working at the IIRA, his love of geography has evolved to embrace local community and economic development, which is a kind of applied geography. As IIRA director, Merrett oversees a university-based research, outreach, teaching, and policy development unit comprised of 40 community development faculty and professionals. In addition to his management role, he teaches courses in Community Development, serves on the Governor’s Rural Affairs Council, is current chairperson of Rural Partners, and has raised more than $6 million in external grant funding to support community and economic development outreach and research, including a $200,000 USDA Rural Cooperative Development Grant for the IIRA.

His current research focuses on cooperatives and community development. Merrett co-edited two books on this topic, including A Cooperative Approach to Local Economic Development (2001) and Cooperatives and Local Development: Theory and Applications for the 21st Century (2003). He has also published in a range of journals on topics such as value-added agriculture, cooperatives, rural land use, social justice, and rural community and economic development.

In summer 2015, Chris participated in his fifth RAGBRAI, (The Des Moines Register’s Great Annual Bike Ride Across Iowa). This is a 7-day, 500+ mile ride across Iowa. Each night of the ride, participants camp out in a rural Iowa community. According to Chris, “It is a great way to see the rural Midwest while enjoying rural community development (and hospitality) at its best.”

Chris took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions about himself.

Q: What course(s) do you teach?

Chris: I teach several courses on the WIU campus including Principles of Community Development,” Rural Geography, Geography of the United States and Canada, and the History and Philosophy of Geography. The course I have devoted most energy to over the past half-decade has been Principles of Community Development, which enables me to link my theoretical interests in what makes communities thrive with concrete projects in rural Illinois.

Q: What are you most looking forward to in the new Master of Arts in Community Development program?

Chris: For more than 25 years, the IIRA has been delivering award-winning technical assistance to rural communities across rural Illinois and beyond. We have also published literally thousands of peer-reviewed journal articles, books, technical reports, and other essays. Teaching has been an important, but secondary, part of our mission. Our faculty members have always devoted a significant amount of energy to teaching courses in economic development, rural sociology, marketing, and geography, but have done so in other departments. In other words, our teaching efforts have been dispersed across several departments outside of the IIRA. By offering a graduate degree through the IIRA, we can offer our teaching expertise in a focused, concentrated, and coordinated manner which will increase our ability to share our expertise in community and economic development.

Q: What are you passionate about?

Chris: Professionally, I am passionate about how universities can serve as catalysts for social change, including community economic development. Public universities such as WIU have resources to help small communities identify their assets and deploy them in more effective ways. It is gratifying to see towns make meaningful change with assets and leadership skills developed from within their community.

At a personal level, I love to ski, bicycle, read, and spend time with friends and family.

Q: Favorite thing(s) about WIU?

Chris: There are many great things about WIU. It’s location in west central Illinois is just lovely. WIU is not like other larger public universities that are located in, but somehow separated from, their host regions. WIU is not just located in a rural region; it is deeply integrated into the region and hence is shaped by the culture and needs of the region. WIU also has a great faculty with a collaborative mindset. Our M.A. degree in CED, while hosted by the IIRA, has many opportunities to take great courses in other departments such as recreation, park and tourism administration; economics, geography, political science, and business administration. Great colleagues in the IIRA and partner departments help make WIU a great place.

Q: What is your favorite quote?

Chris: I have several quotes that are all related to community development in one way or another:

  • Education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living. — John Dewey
  • A community is like a ship; everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm. — Henrik Ibsen
  • Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. — Thomas Edison
  • Be an opener of doors for such as come after thee, and do not try to make the universe a blind alley. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Q: What is your favorite place?

Chris: This is a good question. I have several “happy places.” First, I love my summer cottage in Northern Ontario. It is located on clear, northern lake, with loons, moose, and bears in the surrounding forests. I also love rural roads in the Prairie State, when I am on my bicycle. The blue sky, green fields, goldfinches, farms, and gently rolling hills, make for a bucolic, enthralling scene.

Q: What are you reading right now? What’s next on the list?

Chris: In preparation for an upcoming course, I am currently reading Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen and The Price of Civilization by Jeffrey Sachs. On my bedside table, waiting to be finished is Capital by Thomas Piketty. It addresses the growing income inequality of capitalist economies in the 21st century.

WIU Alumna Balances Professional Life, Family

By Caitlin Meyers
University Relations Intern

Western Illinois University alumna Julie Foy (1990) is a model for WIU graduates and current students endeavoring for success in sales, marketing and human resources, while balancing a family and continuing to serve the community.

Foy has held three major positions in the retail/wholesale fashion industry since she left WIU. Foy joined Dansko Footwear’s staff in April 2014 and is currently the national accounts manager.

Prior to her current job with Dansko Footwear, Foy was the divisional merchandise manager of footwear and accessories for Lands’ End. She also worked for a privately held Midwest based retailer, where she managed multiple product categories, excelling in her many roles, and was promoted to general merchandise manager.

“It is unusual for someone to move from a successful retail career to a wholesale career. Dansko Footwear was looking for a new approach to their business and felt someone with a retail buying background would be a fresh approach,” said Foy.

As the national accounts manager, Foy manages many large retail accounts including Amazon, Dillards, Nordstrom, QVC and Zappos, just to name a few.

“I am always representing Dansko Footwear–from wearing the product every day to presenting the new products each season–partnering on a retailers Dansko sales plan to executing a marketing plan we help our retailers sell Dansko Footwear products from start to finish,” said Foy.

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QVC is one of the national accounts that Foy manages for Dansko Footwear. She is on air at QVC when the brand is being offered for sale. Upcoming QVC appearances include Monday, Nov. 9 and Monday, Dec. 21 at 1 a.m. CST.

Foy says she attributes much of her success in her early years to her time at WIU.

Foy attended Griggsville High School in Pike County, Ill. with a graduating class of just 28.

“Being involved and attending a medium sized university was essential for my future success. I needed a balance of academic and campus involvement,” said Foy.

The desire for a medium-size student body led Foy to Macomb.

The student body was around 13,000 when Foy attended WIU in the late 1980s. According to Foy, this was perfect size to be involved in campus activities, prepare for a future career and build lifelong friendships.

Foy received a bachelor’s degree in communication, with a minor in marketing. While attending WIU, she was involved with the University Union Board, Student Government and Delta Zeta Sorority. Foy served as the Delta Zeta chapter secretary and chairperson for the Delta Zeta Illinois State Meeting, hosted at WIU in 1990.

“Like many students I worked multiple jobs to pay for my education. My campus job was working for Darrell Negley at the University Union Sign Shop. In May of 1990, I was awarded the University Union Employee of the Month. I also worked off campus as a waitress at a local restaurant,” said Foy.

Balancing work and extra-curricular activities, along with academic accomplishments was the just the beginning of what Foy needed to balance a successful career and a family.

She married her husband Jason in October 1994, and is mother to two sons, a 19-year-old named Jake and a 16-year-old named Justin, who is a junior at Rockridge High School. Foy is excited her son Jake will be transferring to WIU in Fall 2016.

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“I am able to work from home in this position but that also means I spend a lot of time on airplanes. Each week I am traveling somewhere either to work with accounts or attend meetings in our corporate offices in West Grove, PA. I have to work on balancing all aspects of my life,” said Foy.

Although the position is demanding at times, the job also comes with many perks.

“During my career in retail buying and wholesale I have been exposed to people and brands I really never imagined. I have traveled to New York City (Manhattan) over 175 times in the last 20 years. I have crossed the street alongside of Donald and Ivanka Trump. I have sat and talked with Russel Simmons for 45 minutes and didn’t even realize who he was. I was able to see Ralph Lauren in person and was surprised to see his stature was quite small. I even once ran into Hulk Hogan in the lobby of my New York hotel. I am often times mistaken for Tina Fey, Sandra Bullock or Sarah Palin. It really just depends their current look and if I am wearing glasses or not,” said Foy.

With a busy lifestyle, Foy wanted to find a meaningful way to give back to her community using the knowledge that she has gained from her career.

“I currently manage the “Rocket Shop” for the Rockridge Boosters Organization. This means designing screen prints, ordering merchandise, managing the inventory and marketing the products. Each year we are able to keep the school spirit strong, our fans excited about ‘what is new’ at each game and raise money to support all extracurricular activities,” said Foy.

The Foy family had a scare this past year and learned that its oldest son, Jake was diagnosed Hodgkin Lymphoma. Foy said her Dansko family was very supportive and provided her with time off necessary to travel with Jake to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN for treatments.

“I can’t say enough about the support, care and flexibility Dansko provided as we were managing the unexpected,” said Foy. “Jake is now cancer-free and is looking forward to attending WIU and majoring in agricultural business. As a WIU alumna, I am ecstatic about his choice and know that his experience and career opportunities will be limitless.”