Ode: Returning to South Dakota, I thought they'd throw me a parade
My story begins, as all good stories should, on the White House lawn – the Fourth of July in 2004. As you can imagine, it’s a pretty impressive, exhilarating and intimidating place to be. To your right, the cabinet secretaries. To your left, the president’s dog, Barney. This was the destination of a dream for a very unusual 8-year-old from Milbank, South Dakota, a pretty strange kid who set out to be President with the support of everyone around him – teachers, pastors, mayors and family.
I was sitting with my father on a blanket. He was an electrician from small town South Dakota, who was one of the hardest working and sincere people I knew. I would have done anything to enjoy the respect that he enjoyed.
My dad had never made much money. Four kids and a high school education will do that to you, and he wasn’t part of any circles of power. But every time I would come home from some far away place, we’d hop in the work truck and he’d point out the projects he had been a part of – maybe it was a light on a flagpole or a cross hung on a church or the athletic facility built when he was on the school board or sandbox he had filled as a Jaycee. There was something very real and tangible about the legacy he had, and I envied it deeply.
Sitting on that blanket surrounded by brilliant coworkers, part of a real inner circle of a president of the United States, I considered what I might point to. Tens of millions of dollars had been spent on campaigns that I had been a part of. I had worked in varying degrees in 20 or more states. And yet, I couldn’t think of one thing that I had improved. In fact, I could think of communities I had had a negative impact on. As Iowans, I’m sure you know my type. But, there was no tangible legacy of my work, the money that had been spent, my time here on earth. Nothing to point to.
By some measures, I was at the pinnacle of success – the peak of the political mountain, 100 feet from the president, two days before his birthday, mind you – and I couldn’t have been more unhappy. By all visible signs, I had everything 8-year-old me had dreamed of. But something felt broken and it needed to be fixed.
So, I chose to do something about it. Same thing anyone in my place would do – I quit my job; I packed up and I moved to South Dakota. I had always felt connected to this place, this geography, these incredible skies, these vast prairies because they both humbled me with its vastness and reminded me how very, very small I was, but it was was enough and big enough to stretch out – a place broad enough for my questions, my creations, my dreams. Some choose to see it as empty. I see it as filled with endless, infinite possibility.
I also had this sense – I’d been away for about a decade – I had this sense that the good people of South Dakota had been waiting all of those years and may throw a parade when I returned, carry me through town on their shoulders. You know the drill. That didn’t happen. When it didn’t, I thought I could just impress them with my worldly wisdom, perhaps some of the things I’d learned in far-flung places and fancy degrees. They weren’t at all impressed.
Less than a year after getting back, I applied for a local leadership program. It’s what you do when you want to get involved with community. I got word back that, although my application was strong, they concluded that they weren’t certain I would be around long enough to be worth the investment.
To say this time was a dark time is a bit of an understatement. I genuinely felt like a man without a community. I was surrounded by 4 million people in the three-state region and felt completely alone. This was the bottom. I had been trying so hard to force myself onto and into community that I had missed something important. I couldn’t build community through sheer will anymore than you can improve a country by building a wall around it.
Some find transformation through the divine or a diet or a visit to Burning Man. My transformation came through a geeky book called, “Connected” and a professor named James Fowler. His theories of “three degrees of influence” blew my mind. Now, we’re about to get a little bit geeky here, but to know and love me is to know and love network theory. And I hope you’ll forgive me.
It made sense that the active decisions impacted the decisions and behaviors of those around me – those I was connected to, those I spent my time with. We’re the sum of those people we see on a regular basis. But the idea that we would only have impact not only our friends but our friends’ friends and our friends’ friends’ friends – well, that made everything matter, right?
I could close my eyes and imagine a good close friend like Dr. Justin Smith Ph.D. (He insists on the Ph.D.) I would imagine a step behind him– his friends’ friend, his brother, Nolan, a police officer in Arizona, who I might never meet. And I could imagine Nolan’s friend, a man whose name I don’t know, and his best friend, a man whose name I wouldn’t know and would never meet.
On matters ranging from health – on things like obesity or likelihood to start or quit smoking – I had an impact on their lives. On behaviors like altruism and creative risk – I had an impact. Who we know doesn’t only matter in the jobs we get, but in our general state of happiness. It was inevitable that the invisible side of community is where the power is held and what keeps it stable – not the bricks and mortar.
I’ll spare you the math, but if you think about those friends and all the friends they have and the friends they have, I realized that everything I do through my network reaches over 1.4 million people. And, don’t forget, those ripples return to us. Imagine this – and this isn’t new agey psycho-babble or social media hype, this is science; this isn’t social media hype, this is measurable – you act in a positive, generative way among your community with impact reaching your friends’ friends’ friends’ – people you may never know. And they, in return, act slightly more creative, altruistic or collaborative, impacting you.
Knowing this, It was clear that I only had one choice: I needed to connect. As it turns out, you’re alone until you’re not alone. Because, believe it or not, the people around me wanted connection as much as I did.
Community and connection were always there, but they had become so present like the water around a fish that they had disappeared to me. This was a culture of creativity and innovation. It turns out that I am the descendant of tinkerers and builders, folk artists and poets, designers and problem solvers. Possibility thinkers all.
My birthright – it turns out – was not political office, but public service. It’s clear now that I will never be president, but I am called to be present in my community. But, these people, this community, had been making down payments on the legacy I thought was lacking – my legacy – long before I was born and each and every day of my life without me even knowing it.
And, it turns out my father’s legacy wasn’t in the things he built or things you could touch. Lesser men measure their worth in skyscrapers and empires. My dad’s legacy was in people, relationships and community. This is what I had inherited, and what I hope to leave as well – a thriving, growing, vibrant network of people seeking to make the world creative and connected and focused on community. My transformation has meant looking for the invisible threads of humanity through story and relationship that are the most important things about being human and then actively fostering their growth.
By doing something, I was becoming something. It became a habit and practice and deeply integrated. And, by virtue of networks and influence, others became something as well.
Now, I’ve hosted bubble parades and barbecues. I’ve collaborated with homeless neighbors on design projects and Oprah on a Twitter chat. I’ve built three state networks, risked my house for the sake of the region’s creatives. I’ve hosted dinner parties and even purchased little 1968 International Harvester sky-blue delivery truck to spread possibility as far and wide as possible.
And now, I’ve committed to potlucks, right? Potlucks around the world to help host global conversations, bridging vast divides between urban and rural, conservatives and liberal, Iowa State and University of Iowa.
Because it seems, if you want to feel celebrated, you must celebrate. If you want to feel loved, my advice is to love. And, as I found out, if you want to be connected and part of a community and part of something bigger than yourself, you simply must reach out and connect.
Hugh Weber is the host of a new radio on South Dakota Public Broadcasting, called The Potluck Society; and the founder of OTA, an organization he founded that connects and celebrates the creatives who build community in North DakOTA, South DakOTA and MinnesOTA.
Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. It is produced by Siouxland Public Media.