Emily is one of our Trailblazers and has committed herself to all rural endeavors possible for her community of Flandreau, South Dakota.

City: Flandreau, South Dakota

Who is your community? This may be a group of friends, organization of affinity or a geographic location. My community is my hometown of Flandreau. When I put together the idea of having a studio here, so much of the programming is motivated by the desire to give back to the place where I grew up and fill gaps for what might be missing. My family is a “transplant” family, so I didn’t have a swarm of cousins or aunts and uncles here. I had neighbors and friends, teachers and business owners, classmates, church family and job families through my parents’ work. I can’t separate my youth from this town, and now I’m raising my children here as well.

Give us a behind-the-scenes look at your average day. My average day is about 40% home life (mom, wife, laundry, sleep), 30% studio (prepping, social media/marketing, programming, bill-paying) and 30% other community organizations (Bridge Flandreau, Flandreau Development Corporation, Church). There are a lot of meetings in my world, a lot of time on a laptop making sure I not only create an event but also tell people the where and when!, and every now and then I remind myself to play and create and find that spark again that drives the next round of meetings and planning. And sometimes I do laundry and clean my house as well!

What challenge in your life or work are you most interested in overcoming? I’m most interested in overcoming the mantra, “If you want it done right, you do it yourself.” That seemed to work well for me in school, but not so much in the real world. It’s safe to think I can just rely on myself (no one else to let down that way), but it’s pretty lonely, too. I need to let go of my idea of “right” and enjoy engaging with more people in the process. There is a richness created in the relationships of kindred community builders that can rarely be found elsewhere, and I don’t want to take that for granted or cut myself off from it.

If you could do any job, what would you do and why? I am doing that job! Studio 52 gives me a creative freedom I could not find teaching in a high school English classroom. I get to be mom first and schedule in what creative whims and whimsy where I can. That studio space has become like a second home for my kids. At this stage in their young lives, they need me more than I need a 9-5.

What is the most beneficial aspect of living in the OTA region when it comes to your career? Living in the OTA region gives everything a very authentic feel. People say it like it is. There’s no “have your people call my people” thing. I AM my people and you ARE your people, and we just get things done. Living in my hometown, specifically, takes out so many barriers to accomplishing a goal. I don’t need to page through a directory, hoping to get some live person to talk to about a question or an idea. When I get a crazy idea, I know exactly who to talk to. And if I don’t, it usually takes about one phone call before someone else connects me to whomever can get it done. Woodworkers, quilters, designers, photographers, welders, accountants, teachers … It’s amazing the wealth of talents and connections that lie within a small town. I’m grateful to the constant generosity and support I feel from my community. They make Studio 52 possible.

At what intersection do you live your life? I live at the intersection of motherhood and creativity.

Where do you think good ideas come from? Perspective. How do we see things? How can we think of something differently? Through a different set of eyes? How does our education inform our decisions? What else should we expose ourselves to to gain insight on a challenge or community issue? How do we problem solve? All the pieces that come together to form our thoughts and our take on the world seem heavily rooted in creating our perspective.

What’s one current trend you think will change the world? One current trend I think will change the world is the makers movement. Coming back to a hands-on, do-it-yourself, problem-solving, skill-mastering mindset can unleash the type of thinking that moves technology steadily forward.

What’s the best way to put inspiration into action? Putting inspiration into action can best be done by building a foundation to follow through. That might be a support network of friends or professionals, connecting with go-getters, or just making sure that the sometimes doubting little voice in your head stays on your side!

What’s the greatest risk you’ve taken? I don’t think I’ve taken it yet. They all seem like such big risks at the time (new jobs, getting married, having kids, starting the studio…) but then once you’re living in the reality of that decision, it’s just what is. I’ll keep you posted on this one …

What’s your biggest failure, and what did you learn from it? What’s the word limit on these boxes? =D I have failures every day. Parenting failures, studio failures, friendship failures, work failures, communication failures. I try to let those failures become teachable moments. It doesn’t really matter the size of the failure, they’re all valuable learning experiences. It’s easy to get bogged down in the “if only” or “I could have” moments of those events, but I try to remind myself that these are amazing pieces of evidence that lead up to the fact that I am trying!

Who do you hope to leave a legacy for? I want to carry on the powerful legacy my parents have given me and hopefully set an example for the next generation, especially my children–Anthony, Amelia and Atticus–that a life spent in the service of others is a life well spent.

Who is the most connected person in your life, and what personal characteristics make him or her so well-connected? My brother, Robert Firman. He’s a Lt. Colonel in the Air Force and he took every one of his small-town, South Dakota ways of connecting with others onto an international stage through the military. He is personable, intelligent, dependable and goes out of his way to serve others. Who wouldn’t want to be connected to that!?

Who is the most creative person in your life, and why? How could I possibly choose just one!?  I’m blessed to have so many creative people from so many different walks in my life. I’m thankful to live in a time of social media that helps to keep these connections alive. It’s the creative relationships, whether from high school, college or beyond, that provide an infinite source of perspective and inspiration–lifelong learning just a click away! However, if I have to play by the rules and choose just one, it has to be my mom, Denise Firman. She tried a painting class at the studio a couple of years ago and hasn’t quit since! Her problem-solving skills are second to none. Now with three kids of my own, I have a new appreciation of just how creative a mom needs to be!

Who is the most community-focused person in your life, and how do they impact their communities? Growing up as the daughter of Anthony Firman, he taught me how to think beyond myself and work in the service of others. His 36 years of dedication, service and love for the students of the Flandreau Indian School are awe-inspiring.

The most community-focused person with whom I have recently had the opportunity to connect is Amy Doom of Wagner Horizons. The patience, resilience and grace with which she carries on her calling to community service is a model I hope to emulate.

What makes you a Trailblazer? I moved back to my hometown a decade ago, filled a vacant teaching position at the high school and got reacquainted with the idea of living in the town I thought I would never live in again. Not because I didn’t like it here, but because that was the norm. You grow up here but you can’t wait to leave. It’s the same thing the high schoolers feel now (I know because I quizzed them during the Earth Day program). I left and that was ok, if not expected. But then I bucked the trend and moved back. Since then, I’ve tried to help Flandreau be where my husband and I want to raise a family, not a place where we feel “stuck” as I sometimes hear from friends and neighbors, but a place where we choose to be. I want to give back to this place that helped raise me and give my kids (and every other kid) some awesome, small-town South Dakota childhood memories.

I try do that by filling gaps: There wasn’t an Easter Egg Hunt to take our toddler to…now there is.

There was no safe place for little children to have a chance to celebrate Halloween (if you’ve ever tried to go door-to-door with a toddler, you know the benefit of having Halloween in one place!). Now we have a party every year for families at the 1940’s dance hall in our city park, and hundreds attend.

People were leaving town for their children to be able to be involved in soccer. After meeting a few people with soccer in their backgrounds, we helped get the local soccer league going and I still coach the PeeWees (I’m tall, they’re not, they have no idea I don’t know how to coach soccer!).

My baby girl was 2 when she looked at me with her big brown eyes and said, “I’d like to be in a dance class.” It would have been easy to drive to any of the four surrounding communities that did have dance programs and enroll her there, but Moody County had no dance program, which means there were other little faces looking up at their mamas with their own visions of tutus and sequins whose families maybe couldn’t make the drive to find the class… I recruited the teachers and we now have dance year-round (this was also how the need for a studio space came about…well, hello deserted cell phone store!).

The summer rec program didn’t offer any classes for pre-school aged children, so I started teaching painting classes through the studio. Lots of happy little artists!

Our community theatre had a long-running children’s theatre that was no longer operating, so I offered to direct that. Seven years later, we had close to 70 kids participating and had to split into two shows just to fit on the stage! It was bittersweet to hand that program to a traveling theatre group, but if you’ve ever tried to nurse a baby backstage while calling out lines, you know why it was time to move on.

The senior citizens center closed leaving a void in options for our community elders. Not wanting to see one of our most important demographics go without some programming options, I started a weekly Gentle Yoga class with a visiting instructor. Now it’s a Gentle Stretching class that I lead.

My father wanted to retire from his position on the Flandreau Development Corporation board. I said I would be interested in helping and was elected to fill his spot and am now the President of the board.

Flandreau’s women-owned business far outnumbers that of the men-owned businesses. Knowing how much I appreciate the opportunities to network with other female entrepreneurs, I put together a Women in Business breakfast modeled after one I attended in Renner, and I am thrilled to report we had 30 women (including one baby) in attendance!

I sit on committees for the hospital, community housing, economic development and community events and marketing. My kids and I gathered signatures on petitions when the city council wanted to do away with some of our city parks and then we happily donated our time to the committee to get new equipment at one of the “saved” parks.

After the position my father helped create and held for 36 years was left vacant, I took on the role of part-time Chaplain for the Flandreau Indian School. We got the funding back up and as soon as we found a full-time replacement, I stepped down to get back to full-time parenting (that full-time parenting thing was short-lived!).

This fall, I’m hoping to close the gap for kids who would like to be more engaged in STEAM activities, so I’m working with EmBe in Sioux Falls to start a First Lego League team for kids ages 9-14. My relationship with EmBe started two years ago while we worked to bring Girls on the Run to the local public elementary school.

In addition to all of the physical things, it’s been great to help establish social media pages such as the Moody County Sales page for members to have a one-stop rummage, job listing, community events and notices page as well as Facebook pages for various community organizations such as The Breadbasket food shelf and The Crystal Theatre.

When my brother was deployed to Afghanistan, we collaborated with other active military members to create and recruit members to the Kabul Girls School page, which worked to connect military service members deployed to Afghanistan with boxes of school supplies for Afghan girls. This is a very hands-on way to help local families who feel powerless in the fight against terrorism, and who are watching their family members get deployed, to have a hands-on means to affect real change in real time. Hearing about all the South Dakota “small world” reunions happening overseas was a reward in itself!

I also run Studio 52 (basically an inter-generational community education space that houses everything from Zumba and Yoga to knitting and painting classes to the occasional bubble parade ;-). The board of directors is currently working to establish a community nonprofit to be able to find more resources to aid in the areas of increasing the arts, cultural understanding, community building and health.

On the occasions when I’m able to get back into the school as a substitute teacher, it’s great to be able to help my family try to keep ahead of the grocery bill and overdue library book fines.

Two years ago, I was part of a small group of concerned citizens who wanted to address the subject of race relations in our community. We offered a community book study focused on barriers to multicultural leadership and had a fantastic cross-section of community members engage in a discussion I never thought would be possible here. When we got to the discussion of barriers to multicultural leadership, over and over we came back to the topic of racism. We knew it wouldn’t be easy but was definitely something that needed to be addressed. After working with our study facilitator out of SDSU Extension, a grant application was submitted to host community-wide racism discussion circles. I now sit on the steering committee of the Bridge Flandreau organization (created from an action step of the book study) that engaged 76 people from all across the community (public school, Indian school, Native, Non-Native) in the grant-funded discussion circles throughout the winter.

Flandreau is an amazingly diverse community for its size, with an ever-growing population of Hispanic and Filipino residents in addition to the 300 enrolled members of the local Santee Sioux Tribe and 300 enrolled members of other tribes from across the country who now call Flandreau their home. To continue building relationships and creating opportunities for inter-race relations, we’re now working on implementing the latest group’s action steps such as re-establishing a PTA, a Welcome Wagon, and fixing the Crescent Street Bridge/Dam/Big Sioux River area.

In a more wide-reaching effort that I hope will benefit our community as well, I am honored to sit on a state-wide board that is helping to develop a bi-cultural leadership conference for South Dakota. The more conversations we’re able to facilitate through Bridge Flandreau, the more we begin to see one another as people who just want a chance at a good life for ourselves and our children.

The rewards of these discussions and new relationships go beyond what I’m even able to put into words. The ongoing journey has been a challenge; heartbreaking and a blessing all at once. But isn’t that what one tends to find within community? My mother said once that the definition of empathy is “to feel your pain in my heart.” I’m only beginning to understand her wisdom. As I said at the beginning of this not-so-short answer, I want to help my community be a place where people want to live, where people want to raise their children, and a place that my children may want to come back to. I do that by bringing innovative ideas to the table, establishing relationships in the community with other, like-minded individuals (and some who aren’t!) and experimenting to make those innovations reality. Thank you for the opportunity to share a part of the story that is happening in Flandreau and for the additional support to continue!

What project do you plan to focus on as part of the Trailblazers Program? Focus is a key word here, isn’t it? =) I want to keep doing what I’m doing with Studio 52, but in addition, I’d like to focus on creating a rural business incubator to help create more job opportunities for the micro-enterprises and entrepreneurs in my community. I specifically want to target women and minorities who need an affordable, professional space in order to take their businesses to the next level.

This space is one part co-working, one part shared front desk staff, one part I-can-close-my-door-when-I-need-to, and one part perfecting the essence of the best of small-town cheering/generosity/support/pride that comes from knowing that we’re part of something good, exciting, creative and bigger than ourselves! There is a vacant main street property that would be the perfect space to house this endeavor! Not only does it get to be part of a downtown revitalization, it helps to create more jobs, bring people of different cultures and backgrounds together, and helps keep a rural town thriving through our small business owners.

I’d like Studio 52 to have it’s main office there as well as whatever role a traditional chamber of commerce office might do to help people connect with local culture, events, recreation, people and commerce. (If only you could see what’s in my head with the hanging flower baskets, multi-cultural mural, announcements bulletin board, and bike rack rentals, you would fall in LOVE!!) This will be a physical symbol and presence on main street that celebrates the entrepreneurial spirit, working together, multi-cultural “we” thinking and building of community one relationship at a time. The possibilities are endless!!

What change / advancement do you hope to achieve as part of the Trailblazers Program? I hope I can be an example of big thinking in rural living. A lot of people in small towns seem to take on a “less than” attitude as compared to someone who lives in a Minneapolis or a Chicago, or sometimes even a Sioux Falls. I think that is totally wrong, self-limiting and sad! Small towns have so much to offer no matter what career someone might want to seek. If you can’t do that career here, by all means, go to where you can. But have you thought of how to bring that career to you? How to create that opportunity for others? I want to help people see their towns through a lens of possibility and a question of “Why not?” I want to empower people to be change-makers and community builders, and to have fun doing it! These are all the same goals I have for myself, but it’s much more fun to have others along for the ride. =)

The Trailblazers program is sponsored by Midco®, the regional provider of business and residential internet and networking, cable TV, phone and commercial IT services.