North Dakota is full of hidden and not-so-hidden gems of the physical or abstract nature. The awe-striking beauty of the Badlands and the financial opportunities oil, coal and wind of the Bakken landscape and beyond have been well documented in history. But the more abstract ideas of bettering communities and the quality of life for North Dakota residents through education and hands-on experiences, both domestically and internationally, have just begun to snowball within the past two decades.
Programs on the individual, community, state and federal levels are being created and funded with the intent to better the lives of people and the communities they live in by promoting expanded cultural and artistic interests, offering job training services and encouraging more direct involvement and understanding of the industry, community and government issues that affect the individual and the state.
In another effort to educate and improve the quality of life for North Dakota residents, North Dakota State University and its extension service created the Rural Leadership North Dakota, a program that "is a dynamic two-year interactive study and travel program dedicated to producing graduates with vision and commitment to lead themselves, their organizations and communities into the future."
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During the three-day workshops held throughout the state, Rural Leadership North Dakota participants tour numerous local facilities ranging from pool cue manufacturers to feedlots to learn what’s is going on in other communities around the state.
The program, one of more than 40 leadership programs in the U.S., Canada, Scotland, New Zealand and Australia, emphasizes the continued development of communication skills such as public speaking and working in groups as well as other skills involving critical thinking, project management and understanding ag and rural legislative policies.
"The program was started because a number of individuals raised concerns about the need for more people in leadership positions at every level, from county and city committees to school boards," said Marie Hvidsten, RLND program director.
Since the program began in 2003, 41 communities in 27 counties have been represented by the 56 participants, including the current class of 14, set to graduate in 2009.
During the course of the two-year program, participants attend 10 in-state workshops, held in different towns throughout the state, as well as two four- and six-day out-of-state seminars.
The 10 three-day in-state workshops deal with a variety of issues pertaining to communication, management, critical thinking, agricultural and rural legislative policies, recognizing individual strengths, weaknesses and overall differences, as well as learning to effect positive change in their local communities.
One of the in-state workshops involves taking a trip to the state capitol to speak with Gov. Hoeven and other officials to learn about issues that affect the state as well as sit in on legislative sessions or committees to gain knowledge about the legislative process.
Expanding beyond the state Legislature, one of the out-of-state seminars is a six-day stay in Washington D.C., in which participants will spend a day at the capitol touring the building, speaking with North Dakota representatives and sitting in on House and Senate sessions. Other activities planned during their stay include visiting the headquarters of the USDA, networking with different national organizations, touring historical landmarks and for the first time, meeting with five other state leadership programs.
Another first for the program this year is a four-day seminar in Canada, where the focus will be on giving the participants information and experience on the international level.
"They are so close to us and we deal with them on so many issues, like ag and water, that we saw it as a way to start building relationships and see what their concerns are and how they deal with them," Hvidsten said.
The international and far-reaching domestic travel expenses, combined with the cost of developing and presenting the in-state seminars, adds up to a big investment of time and money for all those involved.
The total cost per participant is nearly $11,000, but individuals are only required to pay $3,000 total, or $1,500 per year for tuition. The remaining balance is paid for by a combination of funding from the 2007-09 Legislature, NDSU Extension service fundraisers, financial support from grants and foundations as well as local and statewide business sponsors.
With this kind of monetary investment, program requirements and results are a must.
Geared toward current North Dakota residents, individuals must have resided in the state for one year prior to applying to the program, but other than that, "the program takes every walk of life, no matter the profession," said Mary Schmitt, who works for the First National Bank and Trust in Ray and is currently participating in the program.
Aside from attending the workshops and seminars, participants are required to create and implement a project that will positively impact their local community. Project proposals are submitted to Hvidsten and her colleagues for review, but are also taken to local officials to make sure a need of the town will be met with the project. Participants are not afforded a stipend for project costs and must raise the entire amount by writing grants, conducting fundraisers, holding raffles or by accepting donations or sponsorships from local entities.
"The projects are about putting into practice the knowledge learned through the seminars," Hvidsten said, adding that participants will use their skills to speak with local officials, network, get funding and maintain organization throughout the process.
Of the 41 projects completed thus far in the program's history, 10 have focused on tourism, 10 have had an economic impact and 21 have made an improvement in quality of life throughout the various communities.
Depending on the interests of the participants and the needs of the community, the projects range from the physical to the abstract with the building of museums, parks and community gardens, to the creation of town Web sites, committees and organizations to better serve specific groups within a community.
Past projects include creating a horse trail and campsite in Stutsman County, an eight-plex multifamily housing unit in Watford City, an art exhibit showcasing Ellendale artists, a new swimming pool in New England, an after-school mentoring program in Minot and creating a promotional brochure for the town of Epping, among others.
The current 2009 class is presently working on projects involving the beautification of streets in Hannaford, the building of a dog park in Dickinson, the restoration of homes belonging to the elderly and low-income residents in New Town and the development of a community cooperative daycare in Stanley and numerous other projects.
For her project, Schmitt is currently working on raising funds to purchase and install new playground equipment at the school in Ray. With seven children of her own, Schmitt said she has three prerequisites for moving to and living in a community: church, school and recreational opportunities.
"It's important to me to have recreational activities for the kids during their breaks so that they can come back refreshed," she said, adding that, "all of the equipment in town needs to be replaced, but I chose to put the equipment in at the school because it seemed to be the optimum place for children to use it during school and in the summer."
With a price tag approaching $30,000, funding might seem like a major hurdle, "but our community (in Ray) is fantastic at supporting these kinds of things," she said. With donations coming from local individuals and businesses, Schmitt said she is half to three-quarters of the way to her goal and with the proceeds from an upcoming annual festival, she said she hopes to be able to start construction in the spring.
When the current class completes the course next year, a celebratory gala will be held to honor their personal achievements as well as their involvement in the community. Past ceremonies have included speakers from local universities, raffles, silent auctions and an awards ceremony.
"This is a program that needs to go on in North Dakota longterm, hopefully forever, because we will always need leadership," Hvidsten said."The impact (of the program) has been felt on multiple levels with learning and leadership development." She added that reports have showed a 30 to 40 percent knowledge growth by program participants, "but the biggest impact has been the confidence built up by participants and their understanding of themselves and their community."
Schmitt couldn't agree more.
The program, "has really been a very rewarding and positive experience," she said. "It has bolstered my confidence, pointed out strengths I wasn't aware of and has given me insight into how to deal with people and the community.
"I would highly recommend it to anyone," she added. "I'm doing things now that I wouldn't have done otherwise."
The RLND is currently accepting applications for its 2009 class and are available online at (www.ag.ndsu.edu/rlnd) or at your local NDSU extension office. Deadline is July 1, 2009. Class sizes are limited and tuition assistance may be available. For more information, contact the RLND office at 231-5803.