A native of Wahpeton, N.D., and longtime resident of Grand Forks, Robin David thought she had a pretty good handle on local culture. That was, until she was given the task of showing newly arrived Bhutanese refugees around the annual Potato Bowl French Fry Feed.
"I remember trying to explain it to them in advance and saying, well we have this week where we celebrate potatoes, and you know it just started to sound so bizarre," David said.
But, David realized, this is what has made her work with new Americans so rewarding.
"You learn so much about your own community and what's special about it when you get to share it with others."
David recently sat in a downtown coffee shop, poring over immigration statistics for Grand Forks, the kind of activity she expects to be doing a lot of over the next two years. David was a 2018 recipient of the Bush Fellowship from the Bush Foundation in Minneapolis, meaning she has been granted up to $100,000 to help her develop her leadership skills.
The fellowship is awarded to community leaders in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota and their Native American communities. The last time a Grand Forks resident received it was in 2001. A hallmark of the fellowship is its flexibility. In awarding it to David, the foundation is investing in her and giving her the freedom to engage in activities and opportunities that will make her more effective in her work with new Americans and the Grand Forks community.
In addition to spending 17 years with the UND Honors Program, David was a founder and president of the board of the Global Friends Coalition, a nonprofit organization that helps new immigrants acclimate to Grand Forks.
"They're looking for people who have shown that they can make an impact on their community without a lot of resources," David said of the fellowship. "So in my case I had some English degrees, no background in nonprofit management, nothing in leadership. It was simply there was a need in the community."
David first applied for the fellowship last year, and though she did not make it to the final round, was so inspired by what she learned during the process that she applied again, this time with success.
"I just saw it as a perfect fit, but it was very much a long shot," David said.
Though her work with the Global Friends Coalition is not done, David said an important tenet of the fellowship is that recipients use their flexibility to move in a new direction. David said she would like to shift from nonprofit leadership to community-based leadership. She is working on a certificate in community engagement from Neighbor Works America and will begin work on a public leadership certificate from the Harvard Kennedy School in the fall.
David believes an important part of helping new Americans is working toward a more connected community overall.
Immigrants make up only 3.5 percent of the region's population, David said, and refugees only comprise a small percentage of that. According to David, Grand Forks has a low number of refugee immigrants for a community of its size.
Over the past 10 years, roughly 100 refugees moved to Grand Forks per year, David said. In the past year, that number has been cut in half due to changes made by the Trump administration. Because there is not a large immigrant community, David believes it is all the more important to help new Americans connect to their new neighbors.
"If you think about the analogy of the lunchroom when you're in high school, you don't just walk up to a table where you don't know anybody and sit down and meet them," David said, "You need opportunities to create those connections."
This might be particularly important to refugees who are resettled in Grand Forks after spending years in refugee camps.
"They are told 'We have a spot for you in this city' and they might have never have heard of that place, but that's where there's room for them."
At the Global Friends Coalition, David has tried to connect to the greater community, a mission she plans to continue as she takes advantage of the Bush Fellowship.
"My goal is really to connect with a lot of organizations and sectors I haven't before," David said. "I've worked a lot with nonprofits, education and the arts. I've not had the opportunity as much to work with the business sector."
In addition to her studies, David is chair of the city's immigration integration initiative and has gotten involved with the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp. David said that while she cannot run for elected office while funded by the fellowship, she hasn't ruled it out as an option in the future.
"I know what I want to do," David said. "I haven't figured out exactly the best place to do it."
One month into her fellowship, David is looking forward to new opportunities. She said she drew strength from 17 years of watching her students graduate, stepping into the unknown.
"It's a lot scarier to do that when you're in your 40s with a mortgage and kids to just say, 'I'm going to try something new,' but the fellowship was a really amazing opportunity to be able to do that, to be able to start over."