Joe Sanfelippo

Joe Sanfelippo spoke to community members at the Knoxville Performing Arts Center on August 22.

THRIVE Knoxville and the Knoxville Community School District welcomed motivational speaker Joe Sanfelippo to Knoxville on Aug. 22.

Sanfelippo, the superintendent of schools in Fall Creek, Wisconsin, spoke to community members at the Knoxville Performing Arts Center about changing the way we talk about our schools, traditions and community.

Sanfelippo’s message revolved around changing the way we talk about the positive things happening in the community and celebrating accomplishments. His message tied directly into THRIVE’s goal of finding new ways to promote great things happening in Knoxville. The organization likes to bring in motivational speakers to push not only their thinking, but also that of community members.

“We love the idea of having community members welcome to join us, because it takes an entire village to move mountains, and we think you’re the right people,” said THRIVE member and Knoxville superintendent Cassi Pearson.

Sanfelippo told listeners that people often have perceptions of who they believe you to be, and you have to understand that people will make judgements based on those perceptions. He encouraged those in attendance to make sure the narrative and conversation moving froward represents the accurate story, rather than the perception, to showcase the great things happening in Knoxville.

“The thing that we have to keep in mind as we move froward, and living in small communities like this, is that we’re all in this thing together on some level,” Sanfelippo said. “Until we start thinking differently, until we start thinking about the idea that we have a tremendous impact on each other, then we fall victim to everybody else’s narrative about who we are.”

During his speech, Sanfelippo reminded listeners the only way to change how people talk about the community from the outside is to ensure that community members on the inside change the way they talk about it.

To do this, Sanfelippo outlined three basic steps to promote the good things happening around the community: recognize, acknowledge and extend. He said to walk with open eyes to recognize the great things happening, acknowledge the person and tell them they are doing a good job, them extend the conversation to others. Sanfelippo said that doing this is the best way to change the conversation.

Throughout his speech, Sanfelippo had audience members interact with one another to generate conversation about the community. He had community members share aspects of Knoxville that make the community great. Some of the responses included the people, hospital, school, friendly people, a willingness to grow and help others, and a place for kids to return to once they become adults.

Sanfellippo acknowledged that changing the narrative is hard work and sometimes a challenge. He said that despite this, the hard work is worth it, referencing all the aspects of Knoxville that audience members spoke about.

“If we don’t think about it as more work, if we think about it as the right work done more, then we’re in this place where we can get this out to people and make sure they understand all these ideas we have,” Sanfelippo said.

He encouraged listeners to know their “why,” challenging them to use this as a guide to accomplishing their goals. Sanfelippo said knowing your why gives more purpose to your actions.

Sanfelippo had spent the day speaking to and working with teachers in the Knoxville School District. He also spoke to students at the high school and middle school the following day to kickoff the first day of school in Knoxville.

Emma Skahill can be reached at or by calling the newsroom at 641-842-2155.

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