Josh is one of our 20 Builders and works in both Sioux Falls and in Freeman, South Dakota.
Name: Joshua Hofer
City/Town: Freeman, South Dakota
Where else can we connect with you online?
Who is your community?
My community is the rural, the people of the Freeman, South Dakota, area, my home area that I have returned to after around 6 years out of the region, and those that cleave to the same values I do in this world. I am a peacemaker, an artist, a connector, and an instrument for social change.
Give us a behind-the-scenes look at your average day.
I spend the first eight hours of my day filling the role of Grants Coordinator for the Development Department of the Washington Pavilion of Arts and Science in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The Washington Pavilion is a 501(c)3 organization that is one of the only facilities in the world to unite the sciences, arts, and education under one roof.
When I’m finished there, I spend the rest of my waking effort and time working on a project that I co-founded in 2014 around a proposal for common brand and idea creation in Freeman, focused on the arts and agriculture. In 2014, we secured a $150,000 OurTown Grant for the hub of our venture that we call the Freeman Arts/Earth Center. After some necessary administrative delay in 2015, we are back up and building toward solutions for the future we believe we have in sight.
I’m tired, but I embrace the challenge.
What challenge in your life or work are you most interested in overcoming?
Rural decay and dwindling cultural and economic vitality. We just emerged from one of four “boom times” in agriculture in America in the past 100 years, taking place in the 1910s, 1940s, 1970s, and the last one spanning 5-7 years. Ask a farmer if that felt like a “boom time.” The situation was not good even then, and it just got a lot worse.
Young people are not returning to rural environments. I know I have seen statistics saying otherwise, but it’s not true in rural South Dakota. If rural towns are lucky enough to have just stagnated, the outlying rural populations have almost certainly dwindled. A way of life is being decimated by policy, efficiency and basic economics. Bottom line, it takes fewer people to work less land than it did in decades previous, and without economic solutions and innovative thinkers leading the way, the rural as we know it will die.
We propose a scene-change. We seek nothing less than economic solutions for an environment with the deck, public policy, and popular culture stacked against us.
If you could do any job, what would you do and why?
I would run my own business, or work with people who jive with my beliefs and truly value my opinion. While that could be for-profit, I would also be interested in leadership in the civic and non-profit realms. I strongly desire entrepreneurship and environments where my professional and academic experience can collaborate with open thinkers interested in building better organizations, better people, and better systems. At heart, I am a connector; being put in a situation to lead and think and share innovatively while also utilizing a very strong communications skill-set would be a dream scenario.
What is the most beneficial aspect of living in the OTA region when it comes to your career?
It is where the largest group of “my community” resides. Perhaps that will broaden over time — but for now, I am interested in building the systems of those I care about.
At what intersection do you live your life?
I live, suffer and grind through the intersection of Precedent and Meaningful Change.
Where do you think good ideas come from?
Hard work, research and paying attention. You are never the smartest person in the room, and the best ideas are seldom going to be your own.
What’s one current trend you think will change the world?
A re-discovering of locally-focused systems and economies. I am convinced that we are victims of our own boundaries. Much like inefficient and insensitive border-drawing and the inflicting of beliefs upon those who lack the economic and military power to resist has caused so much suffering in the world that we, too, live in worlds where the bubbles we live in are assigned and do not make sense.
For example, we live in a split state. Why does a united South Dakota, (West River, East River), make sense? It doesn’t. Why do we live in the “Midwest” with people from southern Indiana, whom we have little in common with? Do Kansas and Minnesota truly belong in the same region? Does the fact that we have an organization called “Arts Midwest” really make any sense at all? I question our basic notions of how society is constructed, our conception of who we are as a region, a nation, and what is truly healthy for our society moving forward.
This world needs to re-focus on locally-based systems and functions of administration. Freeman is an attempt at cracking that nut through branding and focused coordination. We can’t re-draw borders with anything short of a revolution. But we CAN build better systems and organizations within the constraints put upon us by those with money and power. Anything less than a rigorous evaluation and solutions-finding process from the leadership of our civic, non-profit, and for-profit business and organizations is a sham.
What’s the best way to put inspiration into action?
Make bold, educated decisions informed by the present environment and good information. This requires putting properly incentivized people into situations that are beneficial for them. While this could seem simple, it is actually phenomenally challenging, because I believe people do not take the time to truly listen and understand the aspirations and beliefs of the “other.”
What’s the greatest risk you’ve taken?
When I graduated from my Masters’ program at Indiana University from the School of Public and Environmental Affairs with a focus on the creative economy, I decided to come home and work on an OurTown grant for my community rather than leverage that degree into a proper position in an urban setting like many of my classmates did.
It was really scary and still is, to a degree. I grew up a farm boy, selling sweet corn and helping my father on the farm, but I built a professional platform on skills best suited for an urban world of the arts, culture and innovation.
I felt then, and continue to feel, that Freeman, and this region, are worth my time and effort. At the same time, I have chosen a winding and possibly never-ending path. At the same time, the web I weave is my own, and that is an empowering scenario, even as I feel I have not yet found success in this world.
What’s your biggest failure, and what did you learn from it?
I grew up an athlete and a performer. I dreamed of performing in the biggest halls in the world. I ran into some brick walls and am re-creating my brand as an administrator and leader.
I have learned that sometimes really stubborn and driven (or just headstrong) people need to get hit really, really hard to change direction — so I’ve learned to take my licks. Some of those have been body blows that I have found have left scars that I did not imagine at the time, but I have an extremely strong sense of self, and it has taken a lot to knock me off my path.
Perhaps that’s what it took. I’m hoping to not get knocked of this one. This one is really going to hurt.
Who do you hope to leave a legacy for?
I am driven to allow my family, area, and community to build healthier and brighter futures. This demands intense and rigorous leadership that demands I contribute where I can, connect who needs to connected, and for me to be silent when I do not know what I am talking about.
I build solutions for my people.
The Builders Program is a group of individuals who thrive on possibility and use all opportunities they are given to grow both in their careers and in their passions. OTA seeks creatives who are tenacious and strong-willed movers and doers and are driven to make a significant impact on the people around them and the community they call home. These people recognize their talents and capabilities and find ways to continuously grow and learn from them. Why is this you?
I am the right person because whether I make the cut for this group or not, I am going to continue building the future of the area and my community in a way that will exemplify and complement what you are trying to do. Through extremely fortuitous circumstances, I have had unique experiences that have dramatically changed how I view the world. How many young people come in to contact with the people I have worked with in Freeman? How many farm boys from Freeman, South Dakota, get to learn from banking professionals from Europe or world-class design firms on community design?
I have had the opportunity to interact with some of the most rare and dynamic people I will ever meet and will not waste the opportunities I have been given to observe and learn. I have been blessed and empowered. I want to share and build on these gifts.
I believe I am amid an absolutely dynamic and extremely fortunate set of circumstances that are allowing me to take a leadership role in the creative sphere. While I am learning how to take advantage of that, I’d love to have some help and also be able to contribute to the cultivation of creatives in the region.
What project will you focus on as part of the OTA Builders Program?
First and foremost, I am representing and working on the Freeman project — a building of brand and identity in a community that has been traditionally inward-focused and must now become truly entrepreneurial to survive.
Freeman is a place of astounding cultural and heritage-based vibrancy per capita. A town of around 1300 people, the community produces an ethnic heritage festival called “Schmeckfest” that draws thousands each year in spring, regularly creates multiple outstanding ethnic and heritage events each year and has produced outstanding individuals of astounding artistic and entrepreneurial achievement over the years.
We build on the premise that an area such as this producing individuals that can create two full oratorios within a span of five years is not normal, should be celebrated, and could provide opportunities in a dire world becoming harsher by the day. The oratorios were presented by full choirs of over 50+ participants presented at semi-professional level, with world-class soloists and orchestra members, many from the community.
This is bizarre. This is wacky. This must be part of our answer.
The Freeman project seeks to catalyze economic activity based on these anomalies. It is a brand-building and facility-raising activity that spurs business and artistic development in an environment that must have big ideas and innovation to survive. We strive to build an area and a community that people are proud of and that young people can come back to and call home.
Second, I am interested in the cultural regions of the United States and how that overlays into the sociological, psychological and political landscape of our nation.
I am interested in the application of this concept the current national Arts regions as we consider them, how that connects to arts funding nationally, and how that informs culture as we know it. I haven’t decided if I would like to take that thesis in a political direction or stay in the Arts — but, I am interested in further investigating how the origins of people inform the business and personal decisions of our region.
For instance: Why are Mitchell and Sioux Falls fundamentally different places? They are. Why Freeman and Sioux Falls? They are different not because of the business or people within them, but rather the generations of personal development and unique cultural DNA built into these unique regions.
What change / advancement do you hope to achieve as part of the OTA Builders Program?
I strive to build more equitable and sustainable systems with an eye on culture, creativity and innovative leadership.
We are trying to build an arts center and drive an innovative branding effort while I am also following my own entrepreneurial pursuits.
The situation is dire – and has been dire for the past 20-some years, whether people in the rural sphere have embraced it or not. In the current economic situation, they now most certainly will. We must present solutions, we must turn our inward-facing communities outward, and we must fervently seek economic answers that are built on actual dollars, not abstract thought and meaningless tradition and precedent.