, ,

North (Dakota) toward Home: Designing Diversity – an Integrative Incubator for “Individual Creativity” and “Interactive Community”

Confession time: I owe North Dakota an apology. About six months ago, in light of the economic pressures on government employees, budget cuts and downsizings, further calls for their jobs or at least slashing their pensions, I wrote a satirical “Shrink Rap” ditty called “The Reorg Rag.”

It started:

It can’t happen here, I have too much to do…

Who took my desk and chair, my computer, too?

They can’t replace me; the Branch Techno-file

What do you mean I’m still in denial?

Reorg Rag, Reorg Rag,

Why does it feel I’ve been fragged?

Reorg Rag, Reorg Rag,

Maybe I’m just on a jag.

Reorg Rag, Reorg Rag,

I’m still on the Reorg Rag!

Rejoice, you’re employed…so they’ve frozen your pay

And put on your backs the recovery.

Two free weeks furlough to re-“leave” your stress

What a friend you have in the 112th Congress!

Work’s now a casino, a high tech RIF** RAFFle

When will we know? Why does management waffle?

Buddha Computah… who’s pink slipping away?

Here’s your ticket to ride; shopping’s good in Bombay.

Reorg Rag, Reorg Rag

Why do I just want to gag?

Reorg Rag, Reorg Rag,

Whatever happened to my swag?

Reorg Rag, Reorg Rag

I’m still on the Reorg Rag!

The lyrics and predicaments progressed till finally…

Now you’ve had enough, playing Raggedy Ann

Start calling their bluff; draw a line in the sand.

You are a survivor; just never forget

To bring out your “Inner Rambo or Rambette!”

So “Do know your limits; don’t limit your ‘No’s”

There’s life beyond widgets; you’ve taken their blows.

Break away from the mob, you’ve surpassed your quota

And have won your job…but now in North Dakota!

(Email [email protected] for the entire lyric.)

In fact, my new mantra is “Go North young wo/man.” If economic opportunities are drying up “down south” (that is, in the “Lower 48”) my advice: head for Alaska…or for Alaska-lite, i.e., North Dakota! The past two months I’ve done speaking programs in both states and while the differences are obvious, the similarities are also palpable. First the differences: Alaska has a vast coast line, and an extensive rugged, forested mountainous wilderness, including the highest point in North America, Mt. Denali, formerly Mt. McKinley, at 21,000 feet; and while permafrost underground means Alaska is not the bread basket for the world, the salmon and halibut, in particular, are yummy. In contrast, flying into Fargo appears to validate my presupposition that ND is mostly farmland flat. Your eyes are captivated by large checkerboard squares of light and dark rich agricultural soil; the state does help feed the world. Actually, the eastern half of North Dakota consists of Drift Prairie, with elevations of 1300-1600 feet above sea level, and the western half of the state has the highest point, White Butte, at 3500 feet.

Now the similarities: The states share plenty of cold weather, (in both states I saw electrical power plugs attached to the front of cars), the two have small populations relative to their land mass, and now with the boom times happening in western North Dakota, both states are reaping the benefits of oil production. (Of course, there may be some specific economic boom town winners and losers. Word is that qualified truck drivers can easily earn a $100,000 a year and popular pole dancers may draw $2,000/night; apparently not many other ways to spend money way out on the oil range. And today I just read that seniors are being forced out of their life-long apartments as landlords, in pursuit of oil money, are raising rents astronomically. Hey, it’s the American Way; capitalism at its finest. Turning natives into immigrants in their homeland; we’ve seen this movie before!)

But I digress…in addition, at least in Anchorage (pop. 270,000) and Fargo (pop. 200,000), cities bounded by waterways, each, paradoxically, has a small town-cosmopolitan feel; both are fueled by a diverse, friendly and articulate citizenry as well as the visible presence of a vibrant and clean downtown, humming with artistic activity and Native American culture – visual arts, theatre, dance, etc. And the “symbiotic cities” of Fargo, ND-Moorhead, MN area, striding the opposite banks of the Red River, boast numerous colleges and universities.

Harnessing and Harvesting a Multicultural Mindset

And with the economic revival both are attracting people from around the globe. And while in Alaska oil may be a primary magnet (the state’s motto: North to the Future) in small towns throughout Minnesota and the Dakotas there’s another “future”-oriented engine driving the influx. The US Government has been settling immigrants in upper-Midwest towns, towns that until recently (late 20th century) were precipitously losing population, especially their young people. The towns were also struggling with a withering tax base; survival was definitely a communal conundrum. Hence the idea of resettlement. And it’s been working. At least in the last few years the immigrant population is doubling; the long-established (mostly Caucasian and Native American) citizenry has had some small growth. And while there has been tangible economic progress, such demographic social change rarely comes without a measure of cultural conflict. (Not to mention the personal and family stress generated by major relocation, loosening ties to geographic-family-cultural-national roots, engaging with a new language, and, at least initially, often feeling like “a stranger in a strange land.” I certainly experienced some of this disorientation when I moved from NYC to New Orleans in my mid-20s. I will say more shortly.)

The challenge of integrating these diverse populaces led to the formation in the mid-1990s of a non-profit group, Cultural Diversity Resources, led by an Asian female fireball of energy and enterprise, Yoke Sim Gunaratne. As stated in the conference brochure: “In 1993, Fargo-Moorhead area leaders held several community forums to identify community issues needing urgent attention…The community needed to embrace its increasing ethnic diversity and assist diverse populations in overcoming barriers to community participation. Leaders wanted to ameliorate intolerance of all kinds, increase understanding of the value of diversity, and develop a permanent system wide framework aimed at celebrating the ever-increasing cultures of the community. Action to develop a proactive regional diversity project to cover four cities and two counties began.”

And in the last five years CDR has put on a diversity conference to further encourage building bridges between “the oldies and newbies” and among various community-educational-business institutions. And if my intuitive sense of the conference energy, the impressive array of speakers and community leaders, and of the bright, well-spoken, warm, compassionate, very engaging people I met, especially individuals who seem brimming with appreciation and ambition for the chance to start anew – from a young woman survivor of war-torn Bosnia, one of the conference planners, perhaps not surprisingly with a sharp survival sense of humor to an African man in his 20s, sporting charm and a winning smile, working on his PhD in mathematics, while also making some money playing in a local jazz band – my money says Fargo will go far!

In fact, at the start of my luncheon keynote, I shared an associative image of being in a Star Trek movie; our multicultural-intergalactic crew was piloting the Starship Enterprise, exploring the depths of outer and inner space. I thought this an apt segue to my talk on “Creative Risk Taking: Grieving, Letting Go and Inspiring Flow.”

I couldn’t resist establishing my cultural diversity credentials by letting the audience know that in addition to being a Type A New Yawka (born in Brooklyn, mostly grew up in Queens, and attended high school in Manhattan) I have a second gear: sixteen years in N’Awlins (from 1974-1990; eight years as a doctoral student at Tulane University), my “American in Cajun Paris” years. Lots of great stories including burning out as a grad student and, opportunistically, becoming a radio and TV Stress Doc ™. Eventually, however, “there were no more mountains to climb in the bayou and I had this urge to move to DC. I didn’t understand it till I got there, but then I realized if NYC and New Orleans had a baby it would look like Washington, DC.” That got a laugh, and so did my follow-up: “I still haven’t decided if this offspring is a love child!”

Critical Quotes on Change and Conflict, Team Synergy and Society

Finally, I set the stage for my interactive presentation (even during a keynote the audience engages in arousing and fun exercises), by sharing two quotes, pertinent to communities with survival on their minds, needing to be both diverse and interdependent. The first was from Adam Gopnik’s book, Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life. Gopnik extrapolates a key point of Darwinian Theory: Repetition is the law of nature but variation is the rule of life. We see repetition in nature through the cycle of the seasons; in many species migration and spawning patterns are also cyclical.

However, oftentimes, what enables a species to achieve survival fitness is responding productively and imaginatively to major change or crisis – whether brought on by alterations in its ecological environment or by a small deviation in its genetic makeup that spreads through the species, culminating in hereditary and adaptation advantages, that is, “natural selection.” I believe the influx of immigrants is providing an evolutionary challenge and a boost for these towns and townspeople. Both groups are experiencing a mind-and heart-provoking trial and error and maturational learning curve. While maintaining their roots, through interaction with the “natives,” the newcomers are learning about the customs, mores and morals, the strengths and vulnerabilities of the American Ways. And over time the establishment grows increasingly open-minded, slowly but steadily turning productive conflict into newfound commonality if not camaraderie along with creative variation on convention.

Together I’m seeing the basis for cultural synergy: not only does each group gain fresh ways of perceiving and acting upon new possibilities, but now these once disparate parts gradually transform into partners.

Of course, mutation and variation test the tried and perhaps once true. As was previously noted, conflict and change are often contemporaneous. But ultimately, if the conflict is harnessed through honest, hard-hitting yet also appropriately humble dialogue – focusing more on problems than personalities – then the words of John Dewey, 19th c. pragmatic philosopher and “Father of American Public Education,” may still ring out:

Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It shocks us out of sheep-like passivity. It instigates to invention and sets us at noting and contriving. Conflict is the sine qua non of reflection and ingenuity.

I’m reminded of my readapting the familiar acronym TEAM – “Together Each Achieves More.” My TEAM mantra: Trial and Error Amplifies Mutation! And I did share my variation on the motivational standard or cliché, depending on your perspective, “There’s no “I” in team”: There may be no “I” in team…but there are two “I”s in winning – “Individuality” and “Interactivity.” And these “I”s definitely “C”: A winning team blends “Individual Creativity” and “Interactive Community”!

And the pioneering sociologist, George Herbert Mead, would agree. His mantra: Society is unity in diversity.

So in the Fargo, ND-Moorhead, MN area an immigration-integration incubator is transforming the lives of individuals and institutions and inspiring – breathing life into and revitalizing the spirit of – long-standing communities. Perhaps it’s not so surprising; the North Dakota state motto: Liberty and Union, Now and Forever, One and Inseparable. Paradoxical and passionate words to help a complex, diverse world…Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, “The Stress Doc” ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker as well as “Motivational Humorist & Team Communication Catalyst” known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN programs for both government agencies and major corporations. In addition, the “Doc” is a team building and organizational development consultant. He is providing “Stress and Communication, as well as Managing Change, Leadership and Team Building” programs for the 1st Cavalry Division and 13th Expeditionary Support Command, Ft. Hood, Texas and for Army Community Services and Family Advocacy Programs at Ft. Meade, MD and Ft. Belvoir, VA as well as Andrews Air Force Base/Behavioral Medicine Services. Mark has also had a rotation as Military & Family Life Consultant (MFLC) at Ft. Campbell, KY. A former Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant for the US Postal Service, The Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online “HotSite”www.stressdoc.com — called a “workplace resource” by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc’s “Practice Safe Stress” programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email [email protected] or call 301-875-2567.

Leave a Comment

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply