There's no place like home

When Moorhead Mayor Shelly Carlson spoke at the inauguration of Minnesota State University Moorhead President Tim Downs last October, she pointed to her shoes. She was wearing red heels, her Dorothy shoes.

“There’s no place like home,” she said.

For Carlson, the comment and fashion choice were a nod to the city she serves and MSU Moorhead, where she earned two degrees.

She firmly believes the futures of both are intertwined. For college students to thrive, the community around them needs to reach its full potential – and vice versa.

“What is good for the university is good for the city, and that makes lives better for everyone in the city of Moorhead,” she said.

Shelly Carlson

Carlson was elected to the Moorhead City Council in 2018. She was unanimously appointed mayor by fellow council members in February 2021. That same month, she was appointed FM Metro Flood Diversion Authority (MFDA) chair.

Public service was something she saw modeled by her professors at MSUM, so serving her community felt natural.

“They encouraged me to think about ways to be engaged and active in my community,” she said. “They taught me that every person has the ability to contribute and make good things happen.”

However, taking on two significant leadership roles at the same time was terrifying and presented a huge learning curve. Still, Carlson persevered. After serving as mayor for nearly two years, she ran for election and was officially elected in November 2022. During her tenure as chair of the MFDA, the board secured financing for the entire diversion project.

Carlson credits part of her success to skills she learned as an MSUM student and honed as a professional working for and with government agencies. She knew how to analyze systems and how to explain them.

At MSUM, she learned these skills while taking her most challenging class – legal writing and research, which kept her in the library for many nights. But the assignments forced her to present information in a way that was easily understandable.

“I gained the ability to write and communicate clearly,” she said.

For Carlson, going to MSUM for college was a big deal. Nobody in her family had left her hometown of Minot, North Dakota, to attend school.

“I took a leap of faith and packed everything I owned,” she said. “I was excited and apprehensive.”

She worked her way through school and joined the paralegal club. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Legal Assistance. After graduation, she worked for a temp service until an MSUM classmate mentioned that Moorhead’s city prosecutor’s office had an opening.

BA in Political Science

In the years following, her professional and volunteer work has included advocating for victims of abuse. She also earned a graduate degree in Public, Human Services, and Health Administration from MSUM in 2006.

Carlson is a criminal justice systems manager at the Minnesota Elder Justice Center. She trains people across the country and internationally on the topics of domestic violence, sexual assault and elder abuse. She interprets and communicates new and complex ideas in both her professional work and public service.

“The unknown is scary,” she said. “Information and knowledge help provide some comfort. When you have good information, you can make better decisions together.”

Carlson is excited about all that is ahead for Moorhead. “Most significantly, there are plans for a revitalized downtown, a new community center library, housing options, retail, cultural amenities, parks along the river, and places for great experiences.”

That means engaging with the community’s higher education institutions.

Shortly after Downs joined MSUM, Carlson talked with him about ways the university and city could improve the community for everyone. She views the city’s colleges and universities as important partners in community development.

“It’s exciting to consider a vision that could benefit all of us,” she said.

While no specific projects have been identified, Carlson wonders what collaboration might look like in a downtown project or whether there’s space for cooperation at Romkey Park, which recently received a grant for renovation.

Carlson believes every person and every institution can contribute to the community around them. When they do, the place many call home will be stronger for it.

“We all play a role,” she said. “It’s about what we can do together.”

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