‘The Longest Table’ highlights close town/gown relations
More than 800 gather to dine, discuss health and wellness in the Greater Grand Forks community
A few gusts of wind that rustled tablecloths and toppled empty plastic bottles didn’t extinguish the mood at The Longest Table’s third installment in Grand Forks, held on Thursday evening, Sept. 14.
In fact, the weather – those wind gusts and dark clouds that threatened rain – scampered past Sertoma Park, leaving the area bathed in sun. So, what started off with the threat of bad weather quickly became a perfect evening for UND and Greater Grand Forks community members to sit down together for dinner and conversation.
More than 850 people turned up to the community building event, which had not been held in Grand Forks since 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic. The 2019 event was one of several factors that led to Grand Forks and the University being awarded the Larry Abernathy Award from the International Town & Gown Association, one of the nation’s highest awards for outstanding town/gown relations.
That year, the event also served as an opportunity for diners to talk about improvements that could be made along the University Avenue Corridor, which connects UND to downtown Grand Forks.
Several UND administrators, faculty and staff members, as well as students, participated in this year’s event, with some serving as “Table Captains” to help guide the discussion between people who may not have known one another (the random seating arrangement is a hallmark of the event).
One of those captains, on hand at one of the 115 tables lined up end-to-end along 11th Avenue South, was Laura Link, associate professor of Teaching & Learning. It was Link’s first time attending the event, and she said she was delighted to participate.
“How amazing is this?” she said to UND Today. “What a wonderful way to connect for this community. We are a north-Midwestern secret.”
The theme of the dinner (in addition to the built-in themes of fostering connections and exchanging ideas) was how to promote habits that improve physical and mental health.
Art Malloy, vice president for Student Affairs, discussed some of the region’s inherent qualities that long-term residents might need to remind themselves of, occasionally.
Living in an inclusive community can do wonders for a person’s mental health, Malloy noted. He has lived in regions of the country where people’s perceptions of him as a Black man have not always been positive. He said he used to consider going shopping late in the evening, when stores are less crowded, due to the looks of fear or distrust he has received. Those looks, that culture, act as weights that can drag down a person’s mental well-being.
But Malloy said he has not experienced that in Grand Forks. He spoke enthusiastically about his interactions with people in the greater community.
“I speak to everyone when I go into stores,” Malloy told his tablemates. “If (people) will look at me – and most of them do – I’ll speak, and we’ll have conversations. It’s a wonderful thing. The environment and the people here are conducive to good mental health.”
Soojung Kim, chair of the Communication Department and another first-time table captain, met both new and familiar faces at the event. Kim, who conducts public health research, said her department looks for ways to engage in the community, and that she and her tablemates discussed how the overall idea of health extends beyond the physical.
“Over the past 10 years or so, since I first came to Grand Forks, I’ve seen the community really come together to promote the idea of wellness, of overall health, not just not being sick, and I feel like Altru and other health care providers in town have been really mindful about that approach,” she said. “I shared my gratitude at seeing those developments and improvements that have happened in a short period of time.”
Organizers of the Longest Table also informed attendees of a “micro grant” program. The program provides a way for people to get their ideas “off the table and into the community.” This year, Longest Table organizers are offering people the chance to receive up to $2,000 to implement ideas that promote health and wellness in the Grand Forks community.
Previous grants have gone to support public art projects and provide free tickets to theater performances for homebound seniors. The application for the micro grant program can be found online at longesttablegf.com. The deadline to apply for funding is Oct. 13.
The event is organized by the Community Foundation of Grand Forks, East Grand Forks & Region and the Greater Grand Forks Young Professionals.
Speaking just before the meals were served, Becca Baumbach, executive director of the Community Foundation, told the nearly 1,000 attendees she was glad to bring the event back from hiatus, and she thanked all the volunteers for helping get things organized and reminded people of the purpose of The Longest Table.
“This event is more than just a meal at one very long table,” she said. “It is an invitation to engage in meaningful conversations, to listen, to learn and to appreciate the diverse perspectives that enrich our community.”