Engaging New North Dakotans in the Bakken Oil Patch

This weekend, I had a fun chat with some folks from the North Dakota Humanities Council. As many of my readers probably know, I’m on the board. One of the topics of our conversation was how do we engage younger people in the larger project of the humanities. We talked about how busy many 20 and 30somethings are as they attempt to start their careers and personal lives. The conversation then went in two directions. First, we discussed how young people rely on the flexibility of the web to consume cultural content and engage the humanities. Then, we turned to the largest new community of younger people in the state: those associated with the Bakken Oil Boom.

And in no time at all, the inspired leadership of the North Dakota Humanities Council worked with me to create a proposal. I should emphasize that this is just a proposal, but I find that the best way to make proposals “work” is to make them public and see what the response is.

So here’s the first draft of my proposal to the North Dakota Humanities Council.

Recent research by the North Dakota Man Camp Project has suggested that many new North Dakotans in the western part of the state feel disengaged from their local communities, the state, and its history. The attitudes of new North Dakotans is not unexpected, in part, because these new arrivals do not come to North Dakota for the cultural experiences, but to make a living. That being said, some of the new arrivals intend to make North Dakota their home and even the short-term residents have the potential to contribute to the larger humanities project in the state. In fact, the dialogue between longtime residents of North Dakota and new North Dakotans offers the potential for stimulating and renewing critical reflections on the state’s culture. For example, recent debates about how to best approach improvements to basic infrastructure in western North Dakota has revisited Elwyn Robinson‘s famous “too much mistake”.

The disengagement of the newest North Dakotans from local communities should not imply that these groups have not developed a sense of community among themselves. Like the first settlers to the state, new North Dakotans have worked to forge their own kinds of community centered on work, neighborhood values, and recreation. Unlike the first settlers many of these new communities stretch from physical locations into online social networks mediated by Twitter, Facebook, or blogs.

The presence of a well-developed set of online social networks and an intriguing hook to revitalize conversations on what it means to be a North Dakotan makes the prospect of engaging the new North Dakotans of the Bakken boom a natural focus for the North Dakota Humanities Council. To facilitate this renewed (and renewing) conversation, we will invite leading experts and personalities across the state to contribute short essays (<5000 words) on the history, environment, and values of the state. The format for this renewed conversation will include an interactive online space and print. For distribution of the print publication, we will focus on the “man camps” of the Bakken, leverage existing social networks, and include within each book a QR code that links the printed copy to the online conversation.

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota has developed the tools and expertise necessary to be a valuable collaborator with the North Dakota Humanities Council in these endeavors. We propose not only to solicit contributions (under the advisement of the NDHC), to edit the volume, and to prepare the manuscript, but also to take the lead in raising the necessary funds for the production, publication, and distribution of the final product. The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is a new project and will benefit from the value in the North Dakota Humanities Project name and longstanding leadership.

This project will not end with the book, but continue as a catalyst to engage both North Dakotans of longstanding and new North Dakotans in a renewed discussion of the past, present, and future of the state. 

First, we hope the renew a statewide conversation about “being North Dakotan” by creating a point of departure provided by a cross-section of the state’s intellectual community.

Second, the introduction of the essays in the published volume online produces an online forum from discussion of the ideas in the essays. The combination of a robust online presence, existing social network communities, print publication distributed in a targeted way to new North Dakotans, and the use of QR codes to direct readers of print to online sites ensures that the NDHC web community will have a regular flow of engaged readers. Moreover, the readers will be trackable from across the state to determine whether the program succeeded in reaching the intended audience.

Finally, the renewed conversation on the state of North Dakota sets the stage for the 50th anniversary of Elwyn Robinson’s landmark History of North Dakota in 2016. Robinson’s work has framed the various ways of understanding the past and present of the state for a half of a century and will undoubtedly inspire a new set of reflections which the NDHC will clearly lead.

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