Prairie Dreamers: Reflecting on Springboard’s 5 years in Fergus Falls

As a child growing up in Dundas, Minnesota, I learned more in school about the rainforest or the oceans than I did about the prairie and lakes that were in my backyard. I had t-shirts pleading to save the whales, and begged my mom to buy chocolate whose proceeds would go to the tropical places I had never seen. I really never questioned this, to be honest. I just thought these more colorful, more glamorous places were more important and under more threat than where I lived.

After school though, I would chase my sister and neighbor friends around underneath the maples and black walnuts that my parents planted. I squeezed milkweed pods and watched their fluff fly away, and tried to catch fireflies. In the summers, I dug for mussels and clams in the sand of Lake Lizzie, woke up listening to the loons, and watched, fascinated, as my dad carefully cleaned piles of sunfish or walleye on the outdoor cutting board at sunset.

The author and her sister at Lake Lizzie as children.

Somewhere between those sweet moments with nature, and what I had been told about my future and what this rural place had to offer me, I packed a couple of suitcases, moved to Portland, Oregon, and didn’t come back for 11 years.

When I was hired by Springboard for the Arts in 2011 to start our office in Fergus Falls, the town where my grandmother grew up, the region where most of my extended family lives, and where my parents had recently retired, it felt good to get a job in my career with more leadership potential, to be closer to family, to have a fresh start. But mostly, it was a relief to set my feet on the prairie again, to rest my eyes on the lakes, to brace myself to shovel the sidewalk during a blizzard, to be home and given a chance to give back to a place that shaped me. Of course, it was scary too – I had moved here alone and didn’t know anyone outside of family. I knew the landscape and nature better than the culture or people. Would they accept me as a newcomer? Would they care that I had always thought of Otter Tail County as my second home, and that it was the place that nurtured my own creativity as a young person?

The answer is a complicated yes. And it had everything to do with timing. I quickly met Naomi Schliesman, an artist who had grown up in Fergus Falls and recently moved back. We began collaborating on a simple, but inspired project that encouraged the community to have fun talking about the future of the Kirkbride Building here. She and I connected pretty deeply. We were young, had moved back to Minnesota for family reasons, but were looking for meaningful, creative work to keep us here… and we knew that we had to make it for ourselves. If it weren’t for that initial connection, and the resources and space from Springboard to just try something out together, none of the rest of collaborations, programs and adventures would have happened. I’m grateful we were both paying attention and awake to what was possible at the time, and I think a lot these days about the conditions that create that level of response and intuition in individuals.

We’ve learned a lot since that first project, as people and as an organization, but our work at Springboard, in both our urban and rural settings, has always been about trying to dig deeper about what it means to support artists, and what happens when they can help us nurture and share the stories that help us understand place – whether in the context of our health, our built environment, our economy, nature, or family.

It means a lot to celebrate five years of what began as an intuitive experiment in 2011 on the part of several people and organizations, and it’s tempting to create a list of what we’ve learned, or a toolkit of how other people might be able to do something similar, or a call to action on what we plan to accomplish next.

Hiking the prairie with Hinge resident artists.

However, what feels more appropriate at this point is to express gratitude, hope and commitment.

Gratitude: In a time when rural communities are being psychoanalyzed, I’m grateful to live in a place that does its best finding its own path and being true to itself, and that will never truly be able to package up its complex story in order for people to understand our voting patterns on a map. And I am grateful to have a national network of rural colleagues who themselves are overflowing with stories that constantly push back on the typical rural narrative, but also aren’t afraid to dig into the weeds of rural identity and admit that there is still so much to do to keep our downtowns thriving, to welcome newcomers and make space for new expression while respecting and preserving our heritage, and to make sound decisions for the next generation. And I’m most grateful for the generational knowledge and exchange that I have access to because of living rural that I didn’t have in Portland (it’s completely normal to be working in my office and hear Naomi’s one year old sleeping in a crib a few feet away, while our 80-something collaborators from Friends of the Kirkbride stop by to check on upcoming events, or a high school student emails seeking information for her persuasion speech about arts funding).

Hope: for the health of the prairie as the pendulum swings from innovative restoration programs to gravel pit mining, development and manicured lawns. Hope that my community and neighbors, friends and colleagues will make some time each day to learn about one another’s stories, and see the beauty in each. Hope that we understand more every day about how the stewardship of both the prairie and of our stories actually affects our individual physical and mental health, and wellbeing.

Commitment: No matter what our connection is to rural – if we grew up and have resolved not to go back, at least not permanently, if we have never left, if we have one foot in and out the door – we do need to make some commitments to one another right now. And the thing that we are hearing people are hungry for, perhaps the most, is exchange. Exchange across sectors, generations, cultures, political views and places. We started our Hinge residency program for that reason, because of the exchange that can happen when outsiders are invited to the community. They can’t solve our problems, but they can better help us understand ourselves, will listen to our stories with fresh eyes and ears, ask us questions that no one has asked in years, and challenge us to articulate what matters to us. And as they get a little glimpse of our world and worries and hopes as we see it, a little piece of our world goes back to them, whether that is to cities like Kansas City, Fargo, New York or small towns like Palouse, Washington and Good Thunder, Minnesota. And that’s a beautiful thing to imagine. Finally, I’m grateful that this commitment to exchange has helped reveal possibilities that were staring us in the face all along – such as the idea of a homecoming residency that invites artists who grew up here but moved away to reconnect with their community, just like Naomi and I had the chance to years ago.

On the prairie, the roots of native plants are sometimes 3-4 more times deep than the plant itself. People are a lot like that, too, in any place. We don’t always see the depth of someone’s relationship to place, or their resilient stories of standing tall through harsh winters and brutal summer storms. And then, sometimes because of circumstances that we have control of or not, our roots are torn or tangled. Even if we are standing as tall and brilliant as possible, we are sometimes tentatively reaching and digging for an anchor, or worried about our space as other plants thrive and encroach upon us.

Despite this, it’s easy to make assumptions about the simplicity of prairie plants, and it’s easy to make assumptions about rural identity. In a time where there is not only a so called urban-rural divide, but a rural-rural divide, our stories of how we got here, why we choose here, why we stay, what we want for the places we call home, are more important than ever. And the way we navigate and share them right now, and resist to package them up neatly, will affect our future for years to come.

With that in mind, we’re so happy to share this film by our first resident artist, Nik Nerburn, who spent a good part of the summer of our five-year anniversary with us, and helped us document our story as an organization that has made an investment in a rural place, in hopes to better serve them and share our learning across the country. Based on a song written by PlaceBase Productions for the Kirkbride Cycle performance, it’s called “Prairie Dreamers.” Because that’s where we are, and who we are, and what we do together.

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