EDITOR NOTE: This piece was written by Milbank High School senior-to-be Shauna Pauli and submitted on August 10. The next OTA event will take place in Sioux Falls on August 28.
Milbank High School seniors Tanner Hackwith and JP Lindquist, junior Shauna Pauli, and sophomore Kaitlyn Rufer took a road trip on April 24 with photographer Craig Weinberg, life coach Cammy Hackwith, and financial advisor Delvin Hackwith. Also in attendance were Milbank Area Chamber of Commerce director Connie Larson, executive director of the Grant County Development Corporation Bobbie Bohlen, and Milbank Area Avera Hospital communications coordinator Amy Thue. Four and a half hours later, they arrived in Bismarck, North Dakota, ready for the OTA conference.
WHAT IS OTA?
Established in 2009, OTA has created a “collaborative network for the region’s creative class, offering extraordinary experiences and engagements that educate, empower, and serve as a catalyst for community-builders and change agents to improve the lives of all people living in MinnesOTA, North DakOTA, and South DakOTA” (to quote the OTA website.)
THE OTA EXPERIENCE
As a first time OTA attendee, I was very excited. I had checked out the website, but I didn’t really know just what I was getting myself into. When we walked into the auditorium, I was already intimidated. I was surrounded by about a hundred people who all looked very creative, collected, and confident. They were people who looked like they knew what they wanted from life and had a plan to achieve their goals. I was a junior in high school and didn’t really know where I wanted my life to go.
As the day went on, we listened to many phenomenal speakers and were forced to network. I began to realize the secret to a thriving creative community: an inspired group of people on the same wavelength. Feeding off of the creativity of others is beneficial and almost vital. The open-minded atmosphere the conference provided made it a safe place for the exchange of ideas.
I asked a few questions to fellow attendees: some veterans, some first timers like myself. This is what they had to say.
Q: What was your initial thought when you walked into the Belle Mehus Auditorium? Were you intimidated? Were you excited? Why did you feel that way?
JP: The theatre was beautiful. I felt like an outsider though, being younger than most.
CONNIE: I was very excited! I had been to an OTA before so I knew we were all in for a great day. I was mainly excited because I knew the group from Milbank was in for a wonderful day and you all had no idea what was going to happen! I love old architecture, so the venue was right up my alley!
CAMMY: As I walked into the Belle Mehus Auditorium, I was super excited and had great expectations. Since I had attended the previous conference I knew that I would be exposed to a lot of great ideas and information and that it was a safe environment in terms of feeling accepted. I actually felt I had an actual purpose in being there this time, as opposed to last time when I wasn’t really sure why I attended since I wasn’t sure I fit the mold of everyone else there. This time, I was excited to expose the high school students to everything the conference had to offer. I was a little nervous about the breakout sessions that I heard they were going to try this time and the insecurities rose up again as I compared myself to all of the creative people I assumed were in attendance. I soon realized that we all had different things to bring to the table and they were all valuable to the creative and community minded mix. The most important thing that we all shared was the excitement to be inspired and to see the need to think outside the box in order to instigate change in our own environments that we all have hope for.
Q: At OTA, we were essentially forced to interact with others. The intent behind it was to network and share ideas. What was your favorite activity at OTA? Did you like the book exchange, or the lunch, or the small group discussion best? Why? Who did you meet?
TANNER: The book exchange was a great idea that forced people to interact with each other, but I personally enjoyed the lunch the best. The large group was split into 4 or 5 smaller groups that attended different restaurants. I was at Fireflour Pizza, located downtown Bismarck. The food and interaction with other creatives was an awesome time!
BOBBIE: I am avid reader so I loved the idea of a book exchange; what a person reads tells you a lot about their personality. I met a woman from North Dakota who had not brought a book. My choice was the “Work of Wolves” by Kent Myers, a South Dakotan author. I explained it is a favorite of mine for several reasons, the backdrop is an Indian reservation and I was raised on a reservation. She shared with me her work. She makes jewelry from Cottonwood Trees based on an Indian legend. We connected over the story and the book.
DELVIN: I enjoyed the lunch format that got us into smaller groups over a meal.
CRAIG: Forced interaction has never been something I would seek out. This being my second OTA event, I was much more prepared. The book exchange was an interesting idea that I would have liked a little more explanation earlier… I know there was some of that but it didn’t translate well for me. Maybe I just didn’t pay close enough attention. Splitting everyone up into different groups at restaurants around town made a lot of sense. Food always tends to bring people out of their shell. My first OTA event in Fargo had the food all in one huge room and honestly didn’t do much to encourage mingling, OTA Bismarck did. The name of the most memorable person I met evades me but he is a long storytelling cowboy who actually turns out to be distantly related to my wife’s family.
Q: Which of the speakers inspired or motivated you the most? Do you remember any quotes? Why did you like his or her message?
KAITLYN: The one speaker that inspired me the most was Candy Chang. I loved her because she started a community “Before I Die” chalkboard wall that people from her community could write on. The whole point was to get everyone together and connect in a different way, other than just a wave when they see each other on the street. A quote I really love from her was, “A community chalkboard is about knowing you’re not alone. It’s about understanding our neighbors in new and enlightening ways.”
CRAIG: Geno Church hands down was the most impactful speaker for me. I loved that his initial appearance tended to lend itself to an urban almost hipster midlife crisis New Yorker… Once he began to speak that initial impression faded away into an awe at the insight into the workings of people that this man has. The message from him that still sticks with me was that people want us as businesses to have opinions. Whether they hate you or love you for it, they want you to have one. He used the Chick-fil-A company as an example. They took a position on a very touchy cultural subject and got hated and picketed on one hand, and on the other they sold more chicken than at any other time in history – all because the company ownership was willing to have an opinion on our culture.
JP: I liked Geno Church. You can’t just sit at the screen and get things accomplished. You have to get out and be a good person and show that you care so that your customers will share their experiences.
Q: What was your biggest gain from attending OTA? What do you plan to do with your knowledge? Where do you want to go from here? Do you have a plan of how to achieve your result?
DELVIN: Take chances to build community instead of just existing.
AMY: My biggest gain from OTA was being reminded that with creative success, there is risk. Every risk does not result in immediate success. But risk with failure is better than never stepping outside of my comfort zone. I do not necessarily have a plan, but I know it is important to surround myself with creative people to help me see the possibility in the future.
CONNIE: My main goal is to always look for new peers to network with so when I hear new ideas/events/business plans, I have others to bounce thoughts around with. I love it that whomever you meet there is always someone willing to share and help. They understand that it doesn’t hurt to help others as everything always comes full circle and the most successful are those who work together.
KAITLYN: Attending OTA definitely made me a more confident person. It also taught me that if you have a passion or dream to do something, you just have to put yourself out there and go for it. Shauna and I have already started a little community project!
TANNER: OTA is very motivational and inspired me to strive to make a difference in my community. Although I am currently off to college and working in the mission field, Milbank is definitely a place I will remember and possibly return to someday. I ask myself, “Will Milbank show potential in the next five to ten years?”
Q: Pick a quote from the conference that resonated with you the most! What does this quote mean to you? How does it apply to your personal life or career? How can you apply it to the impact you can leave on your community?
BOBBIE: “Failure is no more fatal than success is permanent.” This reaches me on several levels. I believe we allow fear to interfere with inspiration. “What happens if we fail?” When you start thinking about failure not being permanent, it gives you independence. Creativity happens when we are fearless.
AMY: “Adventure is never a calling to comfort,” Brian Jackson said. I feel that I am always on the verge of adventure, but it is difficult to cross that line outside of my comfort and safety zone. It is my mission to be a little more adventurous and open my eyes to the possibilities that surround us every day.
CAMMY: I am drawn to this one by Brian Jackson, “Without stepping out, your greatest successes are nothing but a dream.” I often lack the courage to step out and listen to all the things in my head that convince me that it’s too risky and it’s better to be safe. We all have dreams, even dreams for how we want our community to be, but unless we have the courage to step out and really take some risks, nothing will improve. It’s a lot easier to get the courage to step out when you know that you are not alone and others are right there with you and are doing the same thing. I think that is what OTA is all about.
I would definitely encourage anyone interested in learning more about the world and themselves, stepping out of their comfort zones, and making their community a better place to attend OTA. It was a beneficial experience I will never forget. I learned more about effective communication and the actual achievement of goals than I have anywhere else. If I had to sum up the OTA experience in a few words, this is what I would say: