Seat at the table

UND-City relationship top of mind as community organizers bring ‘Longest Table’ to Grand Forks

Kathryn Kester

Kathryn Kester, executive director for Greater Grand Forks Young Professionals, was one of many community organizers making a 750-foot Longest Table possible. The event brings people together to have conversations about the community; last Wednesday over 700 people showed up downtown, including many from UND. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

In literally bringing the Grand Forks community to the table, Becca Cruger knew UND was a factor in not just filling the seats, but bringing diverse perspectives and ideas to the mix.

Last Wednesday, 750 feet of North Third Street was occupied by the Longest Table – an event bringing over 700 people together for conversations about the community.

Cruger, through her role as president of the Greater Grand Forks Young Professionals (GGFYP) board of directors, recruited dozens of student leaders to assist as “table captains” – with dozens more from UND participating in the community-wide effort.

UND alumna and GGFYP Executive Director, Kathryn Kester, says becoming involved in the community during her senior year gave her a crucial realization.

“Grand Forks provided me with both personal and professional growth opportunities,” she said. Before becoming involved with Young Professionals, she planned to leave Grand Forks and North Dakota after college.  Now her mission is to make the community a better place for young people deciding where to start their careers.

“UND has prided itself on being a chief economic opportunity engine and providing experiential learning opportunities,” Cruger said. “When you have events like this, or being involved in a community-based organization, it’s a huge opportunity. We want to hear students’ voices and empower them to be part of the community, not just on campus.”

Brian Schill

Brian Schill, assistant director of the Office of Alumni and Community Relations at UND’s School of Medicine & Health Sciences, engages members of his table to discuss their thoughts on the Grand Forks community. For ideas that come out of this evening of conversation, the city has set aside money for micro-grants – funds that can help projects go from the table to reality. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Greenhorn captains

Jacob Haugen, a senior biology and pre-med student, is an active member of his fraternity, Delta Upsilon, and a student representative on the GGFYP board. His involvement got Cruger to “politely push” him into guiding and generating a round-table discussion. Still, he wasn’t sure how things would go. What if the conversation became negative? How would he keep the productivity from plummeting?

“Fortunately, I didn’t have that,” he said. “I didn’t know how someone aged 60-70, who’s lived here their whole life, would react to an 18-year-old coming up with a brand new idea – but everyone was respectful around the conversation.”

Before Bridget West started her internship with the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corporation — mapping out the community’s entrepreneurial ecosystem — she had no idea that community efforts like GGFYP existed. She grew up in nearby Thompson, ND, and felt familiar with the area throughout her four years at UND as a supply chain management and entrepreneurship student.

“It’s been an eye-opener to see what Grand Forks has to offer,” she said, adding that Cruger, too, recruited her to become a table captain. “I didn’t feel different from being one of the people at the table, because everyone was keeping the conversation going and staying involved.”

She says out of her diverse table group, with varying ages and career paths, many had similar views of Grand Forks. The conversation allowed her to express her passion for student involvement.

“I want more students exposed to events in the community,” West said. “I’d like to start a student organization in entrepreneurship that brings them to events and experiences, giving them a grasp on what the community supports.”

Tyler Larson

Event organizers recruited UND students to help plan and lead the Longest Table, which meant taking on the role of table captain. Captains, such as sophomore Tyler Larson wearing the appropriate headgear, lead the conversation and made sure everyone stayed involved. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Opportunity to change

Both Cruger and Kester want the Longest Table to be more than the conversation. After receiving a grant from the Knight Foundation to make the event possible, they kept the momentum and received a matching amount from the City of Grand Forks to create micro-grants.

“Anyone who has an idea at the table can get it from the table to the community,” Cruger said. The application period for city-funded support lasts through Sept. 30 at the Longest Table Grand Forks website. “I’m excited to see in 2019 what happens when projects come to fruition.”

“I hope people realize that the start of change is by having conversations and asking questions,” Kester said. “The biggest things happening in communities started that way. It’s cool that people will have the opportunity to make their idea a reality, beyond the conversation.”

The micro-grants, much like the Longest Table, are inspired by the Main Street Initiative of North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum. His visit to Grand Forks was the impetus for the Main Street GF Challenge, which put both high school and collegiate student leaders in positions to make a difference. Cruger says the Longest Table is another way to engage the community’s youth and empower them to build the community they want.

“We hear a lot about the community dialogue, how UND students feel disconnected from the Grand Forks community,” she said. “As we’ve built this event, we thought about how we get students not just to the table, but involved in planning it and leading it.”

Kester, who handed out tickets at the Campus & Community Expo and recruited student table captains, says getting UND students invested in the community will make for a better Grand Forks.

“If people have buy-in; if they’re voices are heard and make a difference; if opportunities are provided for them – social networking, community involvement and professional development – they’re going to be invested,” she said. “It will be hard for them to leave what they love.”