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Give the wins away. --Greg Tehven

Weaving Big Connections from Small Acts

--by Awakin Call Editors, syndicated from awakin.org, Jan 02, 2019

Greg Tehven thought he needed to leave his home state of North Dakota to have a meaningful life.  But when he went to college, he discovered the art of applying small town values to a university setting.  This began a trajectory of service - Pay it Forward Tours with college students; Students Today, Leaders Forever; world travel; and ultimately a return to North Dakota where he co-founded Emerging Prairie, a startup news and events organization.  Greg is the curator of TEDx Fargo and hosts  1 Million Cups , an organization that supports entrepreneurs. He is an adjunct professor at North Dakota State University's College of Business.  He is a husband and a new father.   Greg’s path demonstrates that small acts in smallish communities create big connections.   His story reminds us, that in service, there is no such thing as small.  What follows is the edited transcript of an Awakin Call interview with Greg. The full recording is available here.

Preeta Bansal: So Greg, let’s start with your commitment to build local community in Fargo, North Dakota. Can you tell us a little bit about your connection to Fargo?

Greg Tehven: I'm a fifth generation North Dakotan. I grew up in a rural environment, where my family homesteaded five generations ago. North Dakota was the only state in the in the United States that had a declining population from 1930-2000. We all had a lot of discussions about how the best and brightest were leaving the state. So growing up, I thought the worst possible outcome for my life would be to live in North Dakota.

I grew up in a rural area, where we had deep connections to our family, church, and neighbors. I grew up learning incredible values from my family and the community.  But I thought there must be bigger and better things, in the urban environments, or on the coast.  

Preeta: And that changed for you?

Greg:  Yes. I graduated High School and went to the University of Minnesota. We had 55,000 students on campus.  I craved community, so I began building it on campus with my peers.

We started a student organization which became a national non-profit. We spent seven years doing service trips called Pay it Forward tours. I burned out, wandered around the world for a year.  In my wandering, I longed for where I started. I longed to know my barista and my neighbors. So I came home to Fargo in 2011 and started building community there.  

Preeta: What a great story.  Can you tell us a more about the Pay It Forward Tours? 

Greg: Yeah, sure. So I was a freshman at the University of Minnesota, living in a residence hall with 800 people. I’d just returned from summer camp.  I had a curly afro. I wore necklaces and bracelets to remind me of the amazing people I'd met in Australia. When I was in Sydney, I was with the folks that ran the National Student Leadership Forum on Faith and Values.  They told me the story of these guys that wanted to do something good for their country.  They used the idea of the Pay It Forward model which had been made popular in the Kevin Spacey movie and Catherine Ryan Hyde’s book.  They took college-age students around the coast of Australia to do service work and tell stories of their service journeys.

When I got to the University of Minnesota, four of us sat up late, eating Top Ramen and Easy Mac.  We said,  “Hey we should change the world.  Let's get our classmates on a bus and go do a service project over Spring Break. Let’s pay it forward. Let's go do community service in five different communities and then explore these communities.” And so we did. The idea was hatched in September.  In March of 2004, we had our first Pay it Forward tour with 43 travelers. It was an incredible journey, exploring new communities and asking nothing in return.  This was the beginning of ‘Students Today, Leaders Forever.’

Preeta: Wow, that's amazing. So in all that time when you worked with youth to foster acts of kindness for weeks on end, what did you learn in terms of how to teach young people about kindness?

Greg: We learned that it took an invitation; like asking someone, “Hey do you want to go on this trip, and help?” Some folks went because they needed friendship; others because it was better than going home for spring break; others went because service was their thing.

I went on 25 pay it forward tours!  I learned that anyone can serve. Service does not discriminate on age, gender, sexuality, religious orientation, financial resources.  And the real value of service was what happened to us on the inside as we connected with ourselves, and discovered our path and built friendships.  Service was a counterculture to the M.T.V. spring break, go to a warm environment, drink a lot of alcohol, maybe make poor decisions.  Instead, we were saying, “hey we're a generation that cares and we want to do something positive for others.”

Preeta: Wow, can you just walk this through and give us a visual of what these tours look like? 

Greg: So as the organization evolved, we would charter buses from different college campuses. We would get a big charter bus and thirty five to forty five folks would pile on. They brought suitcases, sleeping bags, pillows, and snacks.  Some had friends going on the trip, some might not know anyone. So we’d go from Minneapolis to say Madison, Wisconsin.  On the bus, we would get to know each other, playing games like Bus Twister.  Then we would arrive in a community, a community partner that was willing to host us.  We stayed in a synagogue, the YMCA, or a school.

In the evenings, we did get-to-know-you activities, exploring self, sitting in a circle. People stayed up late chatting. We woke up the next morning and did three hours of service. I remember once, we worked at a senior home where our role was to capture the stories of the residents. I met the first ever University of Wisconsin cheerleader there. We might play games in the memory care unit. Then we might do a tour of the University of Wisconsin, or explore something interesting in the community. Then we traveled three to six hours to our next city.

On that bus ride, we'd reflect on what we learned.  We took naps. Then we'd be in a new city. Maybe Chicago, and work in a Latino community at a school. We stayed in the school, learned about each other, woke up in the morning, did a direct-service project, and then traveled.

When the organization got bigger, all the buses would converge together in Washington D.C. 6-8 buses would gather and we’d up and do a huge project in the Anacostia river. I've spent so many hours cleaning up that river, pulling out tires, shopping carts, microwaves. We’d get to know the local organization and learn about the history of the neighborhood. There’d be three hundred volunteers in the same yellow t-shirt. Then later that evening there'd be a huge celebration where each of the buses would share stories of what they learned, what they saw, their impact, and what they were going to do about it.

The mission of the organization was to reveal leadership through service, relationships, and action. We served others in the community, and built relationships with one another; but then we challenged ourselves to apply what we learned and make a positive impact.

Preeta: That's amazing that as a college freshman, you created an organization that brought 300 people together.  How did you learn about leadership at such a young age?  

Greg:  That was part of my university journey. The co-founders of the organization, were two other white men from rural environments and me; there was also a Filipino woman from Carson, California. We led the organization in a way where the four of us had equal responsibility and decision-making authority.  We made decisions based on consensus. We believed that the strength of the organization would evolve from the strength of the leadership core.  We had weekly meetings for lunch where we weren't allowed to talk about work. We had to talk about our childhoods, our families, our hopes, our dreams. That was really helpful. 

Then as a white Christian, middle to upper class kid going to the University of Minnesota which was so diverse, I think that's where culture really hit me. Not everybody grew up like me, not everybody had the same background, perspective, and origin. I really had a weird dance with power and privilege, of trying to understand the dynamics of my inherent privilege.  At times, that was comfortable and at times it was incredibly uncomfortable. For example, asking a woman if she was going to go and sing Christmas carols at Christmas.  She looked me in the eye and said, “Or Hanukkah!” I was like, wow!

My language, my worldview was formed by people just like me. But the University of Minnesota was such a diverse environment.  That really helped me understand that there was more to the world than just my upbringing.

Preeta: Wonderful.  Back to your Pay It Forward Tours. What does ‘Pay It Forward’ mean to you?

Greg:  Well often times folks would ask -- why are you here? Why are there buses of kids doing this service work? We’d bring up the story of pay it forward and how small acts of kindness make ripples.  We shared our hope that others would do service and make a difference.

In my freshman year of college, Irene, one of the co-founders, and I, flew out to California and met with the author of ‘Pay It Forward.’  She talked about how the book came to be.  She was stranded on the side of a road with a car fire.  A random stranger put out the fire, said ‘pay it forward,’ and left. She still has no idea who that person was.  It just kind of resonated on a give-first mentality, the generosity of doing things for others without asking anything in return, just hoping the small acts of kindness make ripples. And that's why I resonate with the ServiceSpace movement -- because they say, ‘hey, let's do small things, or big things; let's just love and serve others.’

Preeta: So in the prairie where you grew up, there is so much about individualism and finding your own way in the world.  There’s pride about rugged individualism.  How did you find resonance with others or talk about Pay It Forward in that context? 

Greg: I think for some it was really hard. I was in the business school where we learned to monetize, maximize profit, return resources for shareholders.... I didn't connect there. I found myself more interested in the international students or people from the College of Liberal Arts. Then, one of our co-founders built a nonprofit major within the business school.  This helped us find other social entrepreneurs. We talked about benefit over profit.  We got excited about applying what we learned in business school to achieve greater impact for others.

Back home, it was hard too. I’d had an opportunity to go to a great university.  In my first year after school, I made twenty thousand dollars and lived in my great aunt and uncle's basement.  My parents thought I was foolish. Why would I spend that much time and money to make what I could have made as a junior in high school? But we were motivated by something different.  Still I felt isolated, and had to reach out to a broader support system.

I met Audrey when I attended the Shinnyo-en Foundation retreat in the Bay Area. I found other people committed to service.  So I was motivated and energized. But the motivation was about the pursuit of independence.  I realized community isn't built through a bunch of folks that are independent. Community is built by those that can depend on each other. 

Preeta: What influences might have led you to be more drawn to these values. Are there people in your life growing up, or historical figures that attracted you towards this sense of give first?

Greg: I never grew up studying servant leadership and I didn't get told I had to volunteer in my community. My parents just modeled what it meant to be a good neighbor.

I remember when a neighbor, even 20 miles away, would get sick.  All of a sudden for three or four weekends in a row, people would gather in our home. Mom provided food and Dad led conversations about how we could help these folks. I was a kid, and I didn’t really understand.  But three or four weeks later, I’d end up at a fundraiser where everyone was raising money to support a family or to rebuild a house that had burned down.  

My dad is a farmer.  In the neighborhood, they had this unwritten rule that if somebody was still in the field, another person who’s finished up for the day, would just pop in and help out. At the end of the year they would tally it. Like if somebody gave more time, they would compensate accordingly.  A lot of this interaction was built on trust; and a lot of it was built on a long-term view of let's take care of each other.  

And every holiday my dad would deliver baked goods made by my mom, to the neighbors, especially the elderly folks.  He wouldn't just go and bring bars or cookies. He would go and be present and linger. 

Preeta: Wow that is amazing. I am curious with that upbringing, with a background in agriculture and family background in farming, what led you to the business world?

Greg: I think it was the idea that I could make money. I was told I'm smart, so I should make money.  That meant I should go to business school.  I was incredibly unhappy -- but that led me to start building a nonprofit.  

Preeta: So let’s fast forward a little bit. You finished business school, you were done with the University of Minnesota and then you traveled the world right?

Greg: Yeah.  I think in my experiences as a student leader, I lost myself. I was more interested in the metrics of how big we were, how much money we had raised, how much staff  we had.  During a labyrinth exercise, an inner journey exercise, I realized I just needed to leave.  So I worked with my co-founders to remove myself from the organization. Then I wandered around the world for a year.  I wish I could tell you I went to go see the great sights and meet great people. But I was actually just leaving my life. I went overseas so my cell phone wouldn't work, so I wouldn't have great Internet reception, because I had kind of lost myself. I didn't have hobbies. I didn't have friends outside the organization.  I really spent a year on an inner journey.

Preeta: That's amazing! I’m struck by your language --I lost myself -- you say that with a lot of clarity at this point in time. What did that look like, as you were experiencing it?

Greg: So the first thing I did when I went on this journey was to walk the Camino de Santiago. It’s a pilgrimage in Spain rooted in the Catholic tradition.  I walked for thirty-seven days.  Early on, when people asked me what I had been doing I took all the credit for ‘Students today, leaders forever’. My language was around self-importance. I took the collective impact and said it was all me. It was just disgusting, but I was trying to reclaim my identity. My identity was engulfed in my work. I began feeling extreme disconnection and loneliness. I didn't really know who I was. 

Preeta: That's an amazing amount of self-insight and self-awareness at a fairly young age. Did you have tools that helped you get this inner clarity?

Greg: I think I had some guides who gave me some hints.  But I went on the Camino because a friend had said it was an amazing experience. I didn't even know where it was. I knew it was in Europe, so I flew to Paris. I didn't have a map. The first day I got on the road and I kind of got in the currents of the experience -- people giving me information, or leading me to the next step.  

Later, I ended up in West Africa with Peace Corps volunteers. The young woman  I was dating at that time was stationed there.  I got all these incredible teachers, but it's not because they said they were going to teach me. I just was aware. Then I ended up in Sydney, Australia in a really strong Christian community of service. While I was there, I broke my ankle. An elderly family took me in and nursed me back to health.  That was an incredible journey too. But it was painful.  So no, there weren't tools, or guides, or a How-To book. I just had this sense, and  I just explored...And I think the conclusion of that year overseas was that I was enough. I remember reflecting on a bicycle ride in New Zealand. I actually am enough. I'm not better. I am not worse. I'm just enough and that's all I need to be to move forward.

Preeta: Wow, that is so beautiful. I'm not better or I am not worse. I am just enough. So what brought you back home after that? When did you realize that it was time to stop running away and how did you make that decision of where to come back?

Greg: So I had applied for a scholarship to study overseas at the University of Manchester in the U.K.  I ended up getting that scholarship. I had twenty-seven thousand dollars to study anywhere in the world.  But I couldn't start until twelve months from then. So in the meantime, I planned to go work in a school in Bismarck.  Then at the last minute one of the most generous people I know, said, “Greg come and learn from me. Take a year; think of it as a leadership retreat.” There was a gentleman involved in technology who had done very, very well and was trying to redefine our downtown. So I started to work with him.

I lived in the urban environment and I fell in love with Fargo. It was in 2011-2012, when I planned the first Tedx event in North Dakota. I decided to forgo graduate school because I wanted to be part of the energy and excitement in Fargo.  I stayed in Fargo with some friends, to create a unique community -- a community that is inclusive, that is about art, culture, and love. With a small group of folks, we've committed twenty years to doing whatever we can to improve the quality of life for our neighbors.

Preeta: That’s so exciting.  I want to spend time talking about what you are doing in Fargo now, but before we get to that, in the process of coming back home, you mentioned that ‘Smart People’ were supposed to go away. What was the reaction of those in your community or in your family when you came back home?

Greg Anybody that has gone on a long journey knows that re-entry can be difficult.  I had spent a bunch of time in a village in West Africa. I came home wanting to cook different foods. I wanted to live without a car. I almost resented money. I had a really hard time connecting with my family and friends in the area.  So I built new friendships.

So yes, at first, it was really difficult to re-enter.  Folks were surprised I didn’t go to grad school. But that never really worried me, because it was so clear to me to make my community better.  I don't even remember any struggle around that -- it just seemed so obvious.

There's been no strategy underneath my work, other than responding to the call and finding the opportunity to make a difference. A faith mentor of mine had explained to me what a call was. In 2010, I spent some time at Stanford studying social entrepreneurship and my friend, who was a former Stanford professor, told me that a call was generally 3 things. It’s downward mobile, it seems impossible, and you can't get it out of your head. Fargo in 2011 was downward mobile for me.  It seemed impossible. What will I do to make an impact? And I couldn’t get the thought of staying in Fargo out of my head. So I just consented and trusted whatever pulled me to this place.

Preeta: Wow, I love that definition of a call. So you’ve been in Fargo, since 2011.  I’d love to talk about what you’re doing there.  Can we start with how you built community?

Greg: Well, I think we just kind of stumbled into it. Right when I got back from wandering around the world, I was invited to give a TEDx talk in Minneapolis at TEDx Twin Cities.  I ended up giving a talk on the unlearning curve. I talked about all things I had to unlearn from business school when I wandered around the world, so I could be a better version of myself.  I asked the curator -- if I give a talk for you, will you coach me to how to create a TEDx event in Fargo? He did.  He followed through, and it was great.  

So that was the first project.  We ended up doing three TEDx events that summer. We wanted to have great talks from a variety of folks, in a very safe, art-inspired environment.  The response was strong.  The events sold out.  It was during TEDx that I decided I wouldn’t go to grad school. 

Then a group of friends said hey, we want to help local folks tell their stories. There are so many heroes in North Dakota, but the stories aren’t told. So 14  of us gathered to create a blog. We produced 2 articles from it.  Then all of a sudden, this energy started up. We connected the community into this swell of activities -- people volunteering, contributing, and creating possibilities.  And that's really why I didn't go to grad school.  I just wanted to be part of this community and contribute to supporting entrepreneurs, risk takers, and problem solvers.  It's been one of the best journeys of my life.  

Preeta: Your TEDx event, I believe, is one of the biggest TEDx events around the world.  You seem to have an ability to drive scale.  What did you do to make your events such big draws?

Greg:  It goes back to what my parents did -- they gave first. Our premise is to give first. For TEDx, the organizing principle for the team is to write a love letter to our audience. We ask, how do we create a day and a half of experiences, where people are cared for, where there's the attention to detail, where there's maybe food they haven't tried before, or an inclusive environment they’ve never seen? We have prayer rooms for folks; we have gender inclusive bathrooms; we have food choices that meet all folks’ needs; we have an ASL interpreter; we have childcare.  We want to make sure everyone is welcome. We really think about reducing barriers for entry.  When we reduce barriers for entry, whether its price or access, or another sort limitation, more people can participate.

The other thing is energy and love.  We believe we cannot out-give our community. So each year we serve and create this environment.  As a Christian, I believe I can’t out-give God. Maybe a more secular approach would be, we can’t out-give our community.  We just try to give as much as we can to our audience.  I think people respond to the marketing tool of love. When we truly love others, people want to be part of that environment. It’s back to the same things we learned as student leaders:  if we keep the core of our teammates in a positive environment, more positive ripples occur.

Preeta: That's beautiful. So how does that intersect with your business training? When you talked about ‘Students today, leaders tomorrow’ you talked about fundraising.  When you talk about providing this amazing food to your TEDx attendees, there is some financial energy in that.  So I’m curious how pay it forward shows up in your life now?

Greg: Yeah, I mean it's a tension, its a challenge -- how do we aggregate the resources? Nipun, whom many of us have met, gave me the best business principle I've ever heard.  He said that some people use a metaphor of a community and a tree. If a tree adds value to a community, the community will water and nurture it. But if a tree does not add value to the community, the community will let it die.  We've had this abundance mindset, that if we add value to the community, it's all going to work out.  That's been difficult for my teammates when there's a deficit, or things aren't going well. 

But having done this for seven years now, it always has worked out. We've really worked hard on the problem we're trying to solve -- the inclusivity. My business school background is nice because it gave me a language to connect with a corporate C.E.O. or a bank leader.  Then it's about building relationships; then adding value and demonstrating. If people want to solve a certain problem, we align with that.  Maybe their resources could be helpful.  And what we need just seems to just show up!  But it takes a lot of work on relationship building.

Preeta: Wow, I think you can be a teacher to so many, as we start unpacking a lot of those issues. With Tedx, did you have a particular favorite moment?

Greg: We have done nine TEDx events so far and in the last two years.  We've had over fifteen hundred people out there.  This year we're expecting around twenty-two hundred people. When we do our curation, we look at our challenges in the community and who might have an idea somewhere in the world to help solve that problem. Then we bring in headliners -- so we've had big names Olympians, corporate folks, celebrities.

But I think one of my favorite talks was last year where a high school student gave a talk about what it means to be a Muslim female in Fargo, North Dakota. For some reason, the only technology challenge we had in the entire day was during her talk. So she had to open up with this line saying, ‘I am a Female Muslim,’ three consecutive times. And there was this tension -- what would she say? At that time in the community, there were some hate crimes happening.  But she gave this amazingly powerful talk about her journey, her hope, what she had done in her high school to increase understanding of people from different parts of the world. Our crowd gave her a standing ovation. 

They did not give standing ovations to the celebrities, to the fancy folks. They gave it to the young woman that spoke from her heart, telling her story and and shaking.  I had dinner with her a few weeks later. She works at Target, the retail store.  After the TEDx talk, people now come up to her to take photos or give her money or just say thank you. I watched the confidence in this young woman grow and it was just so, so special for me.

Preeta: Beautiful! So you're also running an incubator for a startup, the Emerging Prairie. Can you tell us about that?

Greg:   Just like college students feel vulnerable, I think entrepreneurs are vulnerable too. We want to create an environment to support entrepreneurs.  Emerging Prairie is a social enterprise that interfaces with organizations like TEDx or 1 Million Cups.  We exist to connect and celebrate the entrepreneurial ecosystem. 

We have a different approach than some. We believe entrepreneurs need access to each other, platforms to share their work, and customers. We focus on the first two -- we help them meet each other.  Then we give them platforms such as TEDx or 1 Million Cups; or we have a big Drone conference, or an Edge Tech Conference.  We give them the space to share their ideas. We do not help on customer acquisition.

There are four community principles that drive our work. They are educating our community - how do we create more opportunity for learning and awareness?  Then how do we infuse the arts in everything? We have almost all of our events in arts venues. We try to hire artists for performances, for creative exercise. We build on the bright spots.  We don't want to be the next Austin, Texas, or Bangalore.  We want to be the first Fargo. We try to find the value we have and build on it. The last is to practice radical inclusivity -- whether that is food choice, time of day, honoring of holidays, or price-point.

An unpublished principle that comes from the whole ServiceSpace world is how do we increase the amount of love in our community? How can we go the extra mile to serve people that show up? How can we serve our teammates? How do we provide love and care to an elected official, to the new person in the community, or the person that's been there for generations?

Preeta: I was going to ask how love fits into all of that. Can you give an example of how that principle has been applied?

Greg: Yes, so I think of our speakers.  They fly in to give talks. We have a concierge service setup.  Let’s say there's a bank in town that gets one hundred fifty volunteers for TEDx organized. These folks will pick our guests up from the airport.  They'll have chocolate covered potato chips that are unique to the region.  They'll have a bottle of water.  They’ll give them a tour  and welcome them to our community. The guest will go to their room and there will be a gift. There will be a dinner for them that is beautifully designed, with local art and entertainment. The whole process is designed to help them with their idea. We will introduce them to people like them, people that can apply their idea, whether it's in education, service, or technology.

I think that’s how the spirit of love shows up. The common way people describe our work is -- "I don't really know what they do, but I really love the energy.”   I think people are actually just describing love. They just don't know how to use that word to articulate their positive feeling of being welcomed, included, a part of something.

Preeta: It's extraordinary that you've been able to use a mainstream platform like TEDx and infuse it with love.

Greg: I think our teams care about others. They do the little things. Also I try to create pathways where we don't let resources be a barrier to going the extra mile. But on the flip side, there's the negative.  We struggle with burnout or anxiety at times.  

So currently one of the challenges in our design plan, is how do we build the rhythm in our organization for rebirth, reenergizing, giving people the space to rest, versus the go-go-go more-more-more model.  One of the challenges of success is when people want us to go bigger or stronger. We try to take an inventory on the inside, and ask what are we capable of?  Then ask how can we design a structure where we don't have burnout, where people don't move on because they get exhausted?

Preeta: Do you have turn over in your organization? And how do you manage it?

Greg: We’ve certainly had it. A lot of that falls on me. I failed to realize that my teammates, who are mostly millennials, want to know their career path.  They want to know what’s coming. For a while, the organization was worried about staying alive.  So the focus was on survival versus abundance.  Just within the last 6 months, we really started to think about rhythm. How do we build a rhythm? How do we create spaces for folks to grow and develop? How do we create more spaces for co-creation?  There's been a challenge when new teammates come and resist some of our models.  They resist an abundance mindset or they resist a give-first mindset because the world has taught us to be transactional.  But then the team starts to realize that our approach does work and our strength grows.

And for me, I had to do self care. In 2017, which was arguably one the biggest yields of my journey, I took more time off.  That’s a good reminder for me to rest. 

Preeta: And when you say yield, how do you measure that?

Greg: Outcomes, impact, I heard more positive ripple stories. Maybe it's an agriculture term?!

Preeta: (Laughs) Now that you mentioned agriculture…. You are working to bring tech, drones,  and other new opportunities to Fargo, an area of the country that has been really committed to agriculture. How do you think that's impacting people's connection to the land and the agricultural rhythm of the area?

Greg: I think it's a great tension point. It's also a generational transfer of responsibility on the family farm. We have low employment in our region.  I think back to when the US went from a horse-drawn carriage to the car. There was great concern as we moved to a machine-powered vehicle.

When I think about it as a connection to land, I think it brings interesting points of views. As technology replaces jobs, does it replace the need for individuals? My sense is that tech actually can create more community. I'm of the viewpoint that technology improves the human condition. We create more food for more folks.  We create more access.  Maybe that's a bit too optimistic, but I'm watching technology, especially drones, serve as replacements for jobs that are dull, dangerous, and dirty. In North Dakota, we have a lot of blizzards.  Drones are now able to drive over the power lines and check if they are working. My hope is that technology can create a safer environment for folks to live and work.

Preeta: So I want to touch a little bit about your spiritual upbringing.  I think you're Christian?

Greg: Yup, that's my heritage and my current practice.

Preeta:  Can you talk a little bit about how important that was for you growing up. How has that shifted over time? And are you drawn to other traditions as well?

Greg: So I grew up in the oldest Swedish Lutheran church in North Dakota that my great great grandfather helped build.  As a kid, I'd go on Sundays, but it was more out of habit and obligation.  When I went to university, I found my faith to be a strong core of connectivity, origin, strength, and comfort. Jesus’s experience drew me to wanting to serve others. But then in university, I started exploring different practices, like meditation. And I would say now, at thirty three years old, that I believe in Jesus. I subscribe to his principles of love, generosity, and kindness. But I see these principles in so many of the world religions -- they’re all about love.  So I find myself comfortable in a variety of environments, honoring other traditions.  My faith is the core that I fall back on when I have to make a life decision.

Preeta: That’s beautiful. It seems like you’ve really embraced your Christianity, but in a way that doesn’t see diversity as a threat. I'm wondering in a very conservative place like North Dakota -- and I can say that because I'm in Nebraska, with strong conservative beliefs and strong Christianity --how has your openness been received by others?

Greg:  I think part of the beauty of working with entrepreneurs is they are generally open-minded folks.  But I also seek opportunities to find folks of different backgrounds.  Yesterday, I was in an environment where there were a bunch of folks from India that work at Microsoft in Fargo. I just look forward to hearing about their stories, their traditions, and what it was like to grow up in Mumbai or Bangalore!  For me it hasn't been uncomfortable. When I get outside Fargo, that's where the disconnection comes in.  Some of the language doesn't feel very open.  It seems like folks aren’t considering what it's like to be from a different place. That can be really hard in the smaller towns, and I have struggled to know how to navigate that. I get frustrated. And I’ve really felt confused. How do I want to show up? How do I have a conversation to maybe offer a broader perspective?

Preeta: Have you thought about how you can use your platforms, maybe TEDx or Emerging Prairie or some of the others to help people become more conscious?

Greg: Oh absolutely, absolutely. Last year at Fargo, coincidentally the day after President Trump banned the transgender community from the military through a tweet, (and I'm not sure the ban actually happened), we had a young woman who is transgender give a talk on her journey. It was nerve-wracking, because we knew the sensitivity of the topic. I was worried.  But she gave her talk and there was a standing ovation, led by our Republican Governor.

We work really hard to find folks of different perspectives, different abilities, different backgrounds, especially in TEDx, because we've got an environment where people are there to hear ideas.  They're a bit more open-minded.  I think it's made a really big impact on helping people value diverse perspectives.

Preeta: That’s awesome. How do you scaffold speakers like that? You know, it’s one thing to identify diverse voices.  It’s another to really help tell their story in a way that feels true to them.

Greg: The TEDx Fargo team committed early to a speaking coach and a design coach.  We have 2 women that are just amazing.  They help the speakers design their talks, they help them with visuals, and they help them give their talks live.  We’ve built a reputation for doing this and it gives folks confidence.

It takes a lot of effort on recruitment. It takes showing up in a lot of environments, traveling, listening to referrals.  We found that it truly is magical when a bunch of diverse folks are able to share their ideas in a mashup, where the crowd is really responding. But it goes back to our commitment to serve the audience really well, so the audience serves the speaker. If the speaker is being served, the speaker will do his or her best to honor the audience. So it's a cyclical environment, where if we do it right, everybody wins.

Preeta: Yeah, that’s awesome. It's definitely a hard act and it sounds like you guys have been skilled at doing that. So we're going to shortly go into kind of a more of a three-way conversation, bringing in Audrey and others who may want to help co-create the space.

But before we do that, I want to ask you a bigger question. Zooming out, across your many efforts to create community, whether at university, the ‘Students Today, Leaders Forever’, or Emerging Prairie. or TEDx. or so many other projects, are there any big lessons you’ve come away with or you're mulling over, about building community?

Greg: Well, I would give one lesson and one question. The lesson is having a long-term view generally wins.  It's been said, if you want to build community, it takes ten years, and that ten year clock starts over every single day.  We've tried to set our vision twenty years out.  It goes with the idea – ‘If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together’.  We’re trying to build togetherness with a longer journey of support.

The second is the question of how do I balance being a community builder with being in the community.  That's been really really difficult.  Am I in the community or am I not? And where is my responsibility? And where is my participation -- how does that blend?  That's been hard for me, over the years.

Preeta: Can you give an example of how that tension might have come up?

Greg: So for example, at an event, one person wants to get to know me. Another person interrupts and asks where the coffee is. How do I be present to serve and engage? How does it work when different people expect different things at different times?  When are we on and when are we off? How do we rest, how do we be our self?  How do we show up, when we don't have responsibility, just to attend and participate like others do?  Does that make sense?

Preeta: Yeah, really, really well-said… Now let’s have Audrey join the conversation.  

Audrey Lin: Great, thank you, Preeta. Thank you, Greg. 

To kick off our Q&A portion, I’d like to share what Mark Winn in Guernsey wrote.He said – ‘Greg doesn't fully get this, but he has been a huge mentor to me.  Observing how he carries himself in his community has been fundamental to how I behave and act. I would go as far as to say that, in the field of grassroots community building, he has been one of my biggest influences. The mantra of his to create the place that you want to live in and how he lives and breathes that, in everything that he does, has been fundamental to the way we do things. The  Genuwine Foundation and its mission to make Guernsey the best place to live in by 2020, would not be the same without Greg. He is not only changing his community with how he is and what he does; he's changing the world as well.’ So those are really kind words from Mark, and I'm sure, there are so many people that would have similar comments having known you. But along the lines of mentorship, who have been your key mentors and what have you learned from them?

Greg:   Mark is somebody that I look up to and have learned with. As far as mentors go, in high school, my Spanish teacher, Mrs. Scott, helped me understand how to engage with folks with different backgrounds. She was a wise soul that called my bluff as an ornery high schooler.

Another mentor is my learning partner, Scott, in Brooking, South Dakota.  He does community work. There's a gentleman in Kansas City named Andy Stoll who works with the Kauffman Foundation who also is driven deeply into community. Nipun from ServiceSpace is somebody that I've long looked up to. The idea of ServiceSpace mentors me, the invisible volunteers that selflessly serve so many of us folks and pull the invisible strings to change the world.

That's played a really, really big influence in my life. And I'm also reminded of Les Anderson who was the principal in Minot, North Dakota who used to run student council conference.  The key takeaway for me about Les was he always let students have the microphone.  I think if we want to live in a world where everyone is valued, we have to give more people the microphone, the opportunity to be heard.

Audrey: Yes.  Along those lines, in listening to you, I’m see that you personally strive to be the change you wish to see in the world; but you also design spaces for that kind of change to take place in systems.  How do you negotiate the balance of working on a personal level and then zooming out and to work on a systemic  level?

Greg: I wish I had a better answer for this one….I get together every Friday with a group of friends. We talk about our faith.  We talk about community.  There's a lot of encouragement for how we are in our own lives.  A lot of that looks like how I love and support my wife and our new baby.  That’s the focus of my inner work. 

At a community level, it gets difficult.  Because as a leader of an organization that has fiduciary responsibility and manages the team, how do I mentor? I don't know how to manage. I am an awful manager. Ask anybody that I've ever had to manage…

Audrey: I find that hard to believe!

Greg:  I struggle with it.   I find that I have a stronger ability to encourage volunteers than I do paid staff.  That's been a tension for me.  With volunteers, it seems a little more natural because the transaction has been removed. But then how do I interact as somebody paid to do something, with someone else who is paid to do something?  How do responsibility and accountability work? That's been a challenge I’ve had.

Audrey: What have you learned from that kind of dynamic as you experiment with it?

Greg: Well, I think I have, unfortunately allowed my life to create an environment where I'm time-poor.  In a professional environment with teammates, when I'm time-poor, I'm more quick to be stern or aggressive.  I'm working on creating more time in my life and being more available for others.   I think part of what attracts people to our organization is the ability to have relationships within a team. I've been better at building relationships outside the team than I am at building relationships inside.  That's been a disconnect for me.

Audrey: That’s the great question of time, the 21st century question. So if you figure it out, tell us your tips….You mentioned your wife and your little baby and I thought you could tell us about your family. We hear a little bit that she runs a flower shop. And you're now father to a 4 month old daughter, is that right?

Greg: Not quite, 3 months. Yeah, so my wife Christy, I just feel so grateful that I get to do life with her. We've been married for a little over two years. She is patient, kind, and generous without even knowing she's generous.  She runs a flower shop called ‘Love Always’. It was named in honor of a great grandmother who used to sign her letters ‘Love always, grandma.’ Her grandma did that and her mom did that. Christy happens to sell flowers, but her pursuit is to spread love and joy in our community. So her team often goes the extra mile.  They give a little bit more than necessary, to spread love and joy through floral design.

And it's working. I feel like my wife's a celebrity; whoever I meet is like, ‘oh I love her flowers, they are so amazing.’  When people find out I'm married to her, my stock goes up because they're like, if Greg knows her, then he must be OK…. Then a little under three months ago, we were so fortunate to have our healthy baby join us. Being a new parent is quite a journey.

We named her Harper; her middle name is after a woman named Lucy who is a philanthropist in the Twin Cities.  She's one of my heroes, because she's very unassuming.  She’s incredibly generous, she's in her 80s, and has given me all kinds of advice.  I've just felt so open with her.  So we wanted to name our daughter Harper Lucy, after this woman who is an explorer, who is generous, open, and one of our heroes. 

Audrey: Aww. And what is parenting teaching you?  And this other work with the community, how has that been for you and what are you learning from that process?

Greg: Let me try to slice that from a couple of ways. There is this idea of work and life as being separate.  Christy and I have said, in our family, we want our work and our life to be blended. We want to be the same person at work as we are at home.  So my wife brings Harper into the flower shop. I've had Harper onstage at our events. We want to bring Harper into our work versus separating her from it.  I saw that in Burkina Faso, where the generations are more integrated than in the US culture.

The second is selfishness. I mean I didn't realize how selfish I was until I got married.  I was able to work on my selfishness in a healthy way. But then having a child is really an exposure to selfishness.  As in how do I love a child that can't give me anything?  I mean we just heard Harper giggle a couple days ago, which was amazing.  She's giving joy and love so I think I’m learning about that.

Then I think about, in the modern era of digital, what are the baby’s rights to photos online? Should we post photos of her, should we not? What does privacy mean for a newborn? We've had a lot of great conversations about what is appropriate and respectful for her.

Audrey: Right, right. I wonder that all the time. 

And thinking about that, shifting towards the next generation of youth:  you’re a relatively young person yourself and you are working with a lot of millenials.  You also teach students at college.  So I'm curious, from your vantage point, what do you notice as motivators in youth today?

Greg: I just sense a real craving for belonging.  The students that really respond to what I teach are the ones that feel comfortable going off-script. You can imagine I have a non-traditional teaching approach, trying to get voices heard, trying to get perspective, getting them to laugh using humor. I just sense the real craving for belonging -- people want to be part of something, they want to have a role, they want to contribute.  

Audrey: Oh, interesting. Can you share a bit about your unconventional classroom. I know, is it as an adjunct professor at North Dakota State?

Greg: Yeah, so this is one of those things we do courtesy of the University.  We bring speakers in to talk about the lesson of the day and I interview them. But our assignments are around failure -- like go and try to fail three times or…

Audrey: Really?

Greg: Yeah, we do like summer camp models, where they sit in groups and come up with the worst company idea they could ever imagine.  Then we give that idea to a different group.  Then the next week they have to come back and tell us why it's a great idea.  We just create more play, more playing with ideas, and playing with possibilities.

Laughter is an amazing tool.   I think sometimes our education system is designed in a rigid, absolute way.  So I try to create an environment where we could ask the speaker funny questions, or where we work on the worst ideas, or play with the terrible concepts. But that helps teach them what works and what doesn't.  They come in the classroom, with their personalities, their ideas; then they start talking more and lingering after class.  

Audrey: Can you share an example of one of the worst projects or ideas that you worked on?

Greg: Well yeah, a classic was -- in Fargo, to open up an ice cream shop in December where the average temperature is sub zero. But then the next group figures out that you could have it as an ‘Ice Bar’, it could be mobile, with outdoor lamps and blankets.  Then people would come from around the world. And I'm like wow, I would actually go somewhere that actually had an ice cream shop outside in a Tundra.  That would be really interesting. Maybe, as somebody from California, you would be less interested! But I think it could be fun..

Audrey: Well I mean, yeah, it could be interesting. I mean here it rains and you know, we don't know how to drive on the streets and so, yeah, I can imagine with the snow (laughs)

Here’s a question that came in online around money and scale: can you tell us about your relationship with money and scale?  It feels like you're all about relationships with communities but money and scale are often at odds with that role. How do you negotiate that?

Greg: (laughs) I just had an hour long conversation on this topic earlier today! There’s a certain tension, right? I’ve realized that I can’t scale myself since individuals can only have so many relationships. So how do we build teams to hold more relationships?

The money thing is hard. I mean my greatest concern in the organization is just believing in abundance, believing that the money will show up.   It's been difficult to find partners that want to solve problems and share resources. But there’s also humility, in being able to ask. I remember a couple in our community that sold their company.  I know they want to be involved, so I asked them for a large amount of money. That was really embarrassing because I don't have enough money to do this all myself. But yeah there's a huge tension.

On the scale for TEDx or the different conferences, I don't feel the pressure there as much. There's definitely a drive to get more butts in seats, to serve more people, but there isn't a desire for scale from a revenue perspective. At our ‘1 million cups’ which happens every Wednesday morning, we have the largest attendance in the nation.  But we don't charge anything.  We just try and serve more people and serve them better. I’m also fortunate that we live in a very prosperous, generous community, where folks are giving. I guess that’s a long rambling way of saying it's difficult. 

Audrey: That’s great. Yeah, it’s definitely an interesting topic with no clear-cut model or answer. It's really inspiring actually, to hear the way you're living into those questions and taking actions to experiment around those designs, so thank you for that.

I know we're running a little low on time, but one other question that came up goes back to that year of wandering the world.  You mentioned that you realized your identity was wrapped up in your work. Since then how have you integrated that insight? You've done all this local work in Fargo, you’ve gotten married and become a dad.  How do you negotiate the difference between your identity and your work now?

Greg:  During that year of wandering, I remember sitting in Chiang Mai, Thailand, drinking what I thought was not a very good cup of coffee. Not enough caffeine. I did an inventory there.  I felt as if I had a scalpel scraping away part of my heart, getting rid of the clutter and noise.

And so I think as it shows up now, it's actually just creating space for reflection. Walking to work helps. So does going on retreat. I went to the Gandhi 3.0 retreat in Ahmedabad, which was really helpful. I guess I have a blended life where I do multiple things but I just think I'm Greg.  I think my values are aligned with the organizations I work with, so I serve my values whether it’s this organization or that. And I think it's less thinking about the quantity of what we’ve done, versus how I want to show up, how we want to show up, who we want to serve and how we want to serve them.

When I look back in my life, I'm so grateful for the lessons and the experiences; but I don't feel as if I'm my past anymore. I remember being very worried about being a one-hit wonder during the Students Today, Leaders Forever journey. Then, one of our TEDx MCs said something that was really funny.  Her name was Tanya. She said, “You know, Greg, when I thought about MC-ing this event with two thousand people, I was so nervous.  I was nervous because all I thought about was myself. I thought about how would I sound, would I be funny enough, and would I say a name wrong. But then I realized I need to serve the audience. And when I realized my role was to serve, I was no longer nervous because I had a job to do, to love and care for the people in the room.” And I think as that relates to me, when we tie it into identity, I think more about the problems we want to help solve, or the barriers we want to help reduce. It feels less about identity and more about a direction. It gets into calling; I feel as if I'm resisting the temptations of ambition; and it’s more about how to respond, to be there for my wife or my child or whatever.

Audrey: Right, right.

Greg: Is that somewhat of an answer?

Audrey: Definitely. It’s a beautiful answer.

Greg: Another helpful thing for me and this might be helpful for others is I've quit doing as much goal-setting. I used to be very ambitious on goal-setting. I’ve let go of that kind of westernized approach to ambition.  I just kind of think about value-based -- of how I want to be, versus what I want to do. When I was wandering around the world for a year, I thought a lot about  -- am I a human being, or am I a human doing? And how do I set up my life up to be a human being, not just a human doing.

Audrey: Yeah! Another 21st century question. That’s beautiful, thank you. So we're in the last few minutes of our conversation.  We have one final question for you, before we close with a minute of gratitude: how can our greater ServiceSpace ecosystem be of service to you, and all that you are being and doing in the world?

Greg: You know, I think if somebody wants to come visit, that would be amazing. You know our home is designed for visitors.  Just show up and come visit. That would be an amazing gift. 

Audrey: Wow, we ask you how we can serve you and you say, ‘Come visit!’ That’s so beautiful. Definitely a reflection of all the relationships you cultivate.

Listening to you, I feel really inspired by the genuine way you're walking your talk and holding space for so many people in your local community. And really looking to be of service in whatever form that takes in Fargo.  The ripples of your service reach so many other places of the world. So thank you so much, Greg and yes, I will definitely come visit you in Fargo (laughs).

Greg: Awesome, that’s the first one of 2018 if you get here soon…

Syndicated from Awakin Calls, a weekly interview series and community podcast that highlights the work and inner journeys of individuals who are transforming our world in large and small ways. This interview was edited by Bonnie Rose. She is the Senior Minister at the The Ventura Center for Spiritual Living. Their mission is “be love, share love, serve love.”  Bonnie also encourages greater love in the world through her blog, www.dailybeloved.org.    



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