Community Connect: One link leads to another

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Community Connect: One link leads to another

Connections sometimes have a roundabout way of happening. When the University of North Dakota Center for Community Engagement held its fifth annual “Community Connect Forum” in Buffalo, N.D., last April, it seemed a natural fit for the event. Residents of the town 40 miles west of Fargo were looking to bridge the gap between where the community’s been and where they want it to go.

Buffalo also happens to be the hometown of Lana Rakow, director of the Center for Community Engagement. One of several programs coordinated by the Center, Community Connect is a prime example of expanding UND’s presence, one of the “exceptional priorities” advanced by UND President Robert Kelley’s Exceptional UND initiative.

“This project helps UND students, faculty and staff connect with community members to find out what they need done, what partnerships should be formed, how we can we be of value and what disciplines we have at the University that can benefit communities in our region,” Rakow explained.

Buffalo also is the residence of Rakow’s sister, Liane Stout. Forty years after leaving Buffalo, she retired from accounting, moved back to her hometown and became an active participant in Community Connect. She’s a firm believer in the project’s importance to Buffalo and its citizens.

“Not only were we connecting to UND, but also with each other,” Stout explained. “It connected us with a common purpose.

“Small towns can be very independent and never go out to ask for help,” she added. “Through Community Connect, resources are available to us that we didn’t know were possible.”

As Rakow noted, Community Connect enables the University to draw on its collective knowledge to address community issues and concerns.

“Part of our job is to get all parts of the University to think about how we connect,” Rakow said. “How do we make our knowledge available to be of service to the region? How do we think about working with and for the public? It’s important for UND to have a place that helps figure out where to get funding to link up those partnerships and the resources to get the work done.”

Buffalo, a town of about 190 people, sent representatives to past Community Connect Forums held in the North Dakota towns of Rugby, Fort Totten and Mountain. It was logical for the community to host a forum and discuss what it had learned in the process of saving the town’s only grocery store, building a new fire hall, restoring its historic high school building and learning to tell its story.

Preparation for the event began long before it occurred. Working with Matthew Skoy, assistant director for service learning and civic engagement at North Dakota State University, Rakow arranged for groups of student volunteers from UND and NDSU to paint Buffalo’s library. Stout said the community undertook the tasks “planting, painting and paving” to improve the town’s appearance, knowing that visitors from around the state would be attending the Community Connect Forum.

Wesley Smith, an associate professor in UND’s Art and Design Department who teaches ceramics, connected with Buffalo’s delegation during the Community Connect Forum in Mountain last year. That led to a pottery project with some of Buffalo’s elementary school students.

Smith provided the clay for students to mold into pots. Stout brought the pots to Grand Forks to be fired in UND’s kiln. The finished pottery was part of an art exhibit during the Community Connect Forum, which also featured works by UND artists, First Lady Marcia Kelley and pieces from the UND Presidential Portfolio.

“It was fun because unless folks from Buffalo come up to UND, they’re not necessarily going to see museum- and gallery-quality artwork,” Smith said. “It was a chance to let the University to share some of its holdings with the public.”

About 200 people participated in the Buffalo Forum, including 60 faculty, staff and students from UND. Attending as guest speakers were Jasper Schneider, state director of rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Al Anderson, commerce commissioner with the North Dakota Department of Commerce. They also took part in a one-on-one discussion with students from UND and NDSU about the state’s challenges and economic future.

“You have to have good connections with government on the state and federal levels,” Stout said. “Little towns like ours can’t just sit back and expect things to come to them. You have to be vigilant, and you have to be connecting with people to figure out what you want do.”

The forum’s theme – Mapping Our Community Stories – attracted the attention of UND graduate student Kiley Wright, a volunteer at the Center for Community Engagement. She grew up in the nation’s “Rust Belt” in Youngstown, Ohio, and is writing a novel based on her experiences there. Visiting a small North Dakota town “in the middle of nowhere” was an eye-opening experience for her.

“My hometown was once a steel town,” she said. “We have abandoned steel mills and abandoned neighborhoods. They still mean something to us, but we’re no longer too concerned about them. In rural areas, a small town losing a grocery store or a post office is a major concern. In urban America, we don’t think about losing the same things.”

Stout noted that approaching a university for assistance can be rather intimidating, and Smith agreed. However, having attended and worked at other institutions of higher education in other parts of the country, he believes that compared to UND, most aren’t as helpful or as community-oriented.

“When we visit with communities and help them solve problems, it lets the public see the positive side of UND,” he said. “It might be part of the history of the region or the weather that causes neighbors tp help neighbors, but I do think that it’s a unique quality of this particular institution.”

Patrick Miller

University Relations

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