by Deb Seminary

Most people do a lot of backseat driving when it comes to civic issues and community involvement. They do a lot of talking, possibly even complaining, but that’s as far as it gets. Maybe it’s a lack of knowledge or a fear of failure? But then there are people like Tracy Wanek who see a need and jump right in with both feet and without hesitation.

When Tracy Wanek moved to Bismarck, she felt a few things were missing. Soon she, and her husband, Dan, went to work on many projects. “I feel it is something both Dan and I found in ourselves when we moved back to Bismarck,” said Wanek. “We were involved and volunteered when we lived in Chicago, but when we came here we thought, ‘there is stuff to do, let’s get going, let’s do this!’”

Wanek grew up on a farm in the southwest corner of North Dakota. Her parents, along with her older brother and his wife, still live and work on the farm. One of the key reasons they moved back to North Dakota was the proximity to family. “We go plant potatoes in the spring,” she said. “We helped put the cows out to pasture three weeks ago.”

Wanek’s husband is also from the same area of the state. “We don’t quite have that high school sweetheart story, that is too cheesy,” she explained. “His school closed down and he came to my high school. We were such good friends, best buddies all through high school. It was when we were in college that we realized, ‘this will work, this will do quite nicely.’”

They both attended college in Chicago, Wanek at Loyola and her husband at DePaul. Tracy majored in Mathmatics and Statistics, along with Computer Science. Wanek feels she has used her education through her involvement with many area organizations. “I was treasurer and fiscal guru for Urban Harvest,” she said. “I was also treasurer for Dragon Jane and helped with a lot of fiscal planning during my term as PTO President at Will-Moore Elementary. I feel that analytical, attention-to-detail side of me is really useful. I started actuarial science and it was too confining. I thought that I could handle the ‘putting things in boxes and making them all nice,’ and I do love that, but I also need to use the other side that can have big ideas and create things.”

Wanek’s husband also majored in Computer Science. “Dan is brilliant,” she explained. “I call him a computer artist. We are actually just two nerds. We would sit on our back porch in Chicago and just do math!”

The Waneks moved back to North Dakota in December of 2003 and immediately got involved in area civic organizations. “We started networking and found ourselves working with the Peace Coalition and North Dakota Progressive Coalition (nowND,” said Wanek. “That involved a lot of legislative work and wasn’t really where my heart was at. It was important I was involved, networking and meeting people. Then we joined the Missouri Valley Resource Council (MVRC). Dan and I helped put together the presentation that was taken to the city commission proposing plastic recycling bins. What is going on now is still the trial run that came about from that proposal.”

Wanek formed some lasting friendships during her time with MVRC. “I met Ramona (Redding Lopez) on a MVRC Buy-Local committee and we decided to start Urban Harvest,” she said. “It was also at MVRC that the initial discussion for the Community Gardens began. We decided MVRC wasn’t big enough to get the Gardens accomplished, so we started our own group.” (see box)

Wanek and three other women started Urban Harvest, now in its sixth year. Urban Harvest is a grassroots effort to encourage people to explore Downtown Bismarck and support local growers, artisans and organizations. It is held on six Thursdays beginning in July. (see box)
She was also instrumental in starting the Bismarck Community Gardens. “We had community gardens in Chicago, and I missed that,” said Wanek. “My dad was a math major, too, and then he became a farmer, so I am just carrying on the tradition.” There are now over 400 plots at the Gardens, with participants caring for one to several plots.

Wanek has also been involved with Dragon Jane, a performance art group, over the past five years. “Dragon Jane was art residencies here and there, mostly in school districts,” she explained. “We also performed for a lot of area events. It was very flexible, which was wonderful.”

Recently, Wanek has been scaling back on some of her involvement. She began working at Horizon Middle School this past year, and her whole family made adjustments. “Starting actual, regular employment meant I needed to cut back in other areas,” she noted. “But, it’s hard not to get excited about things. People will tell us about something they’re doing and I’ll think, ‘oh, that sounds like fun, let’s do it, I’ll help!’”

Someone once gave her a chart to show how much time she has available for all of the needs in her life: physical, family/social, spiritual/important, and personal. She found some areas were being neglected and her children needed her in different ways. “So when I ask myself, ‘will I do this other thing?,’ because I am a chronic volunteer,I look at the chart and realize the time has to come from somewhere,” said Wanek.

She realized as her family life changed, her time commitments needed to as well. “I was feeling like I was neglecting the personal section, and most of us take out the personal time entirely for several years. I was getting a lot through all of these other things, but not ever slowing down enough. I wanted to get to a place where we weren’t totally going all the time. As our children are getting older and changing, parenting becomes a whole new game. I feel there is so much more than just being physically present, but very mentally and emotionally present, especially for Christian. This is my new goal. I’m not parenting as assertively, but I need to be available when they need me.”

The Waneks now involve their children in most of their activities, and for the most part the children enjoy it. “We try to find a good balance,” she said. “We tell them to help for 10 minutes, then they can play in the park. It shows them what is important to us.” Wanek know the message is beginning to resonate with her children, sharing that her son Christian’s eighth birthday landed on Earth Day and his wish was to pick up trash.

Someone once told Wanek she has an overactive civic gene, which she believes may have been passed down from generation to generation. “My mom was always very willing to volunteer and be involved with things,” she said. “There were some geographical limitations being on the farm and the farm took most of her time. She co-wrote and co-edited the Adams County Centennial book and is on the board of the nursing home and does a lot of fun things. And my grandma, who still lives on the family farm, usually has a long list of where she has to be every week. She is 85 and drives to town to help the ‘old people’.”

Wanek said her grandfather was one of the earlier recyclers. “My grandpa used to take his own bags to the grocery store all the time,” she explained. “He was such a curmudgeon. He would swear about people wasting bags. My mom gave me his old canvas bags when he passed away.”

Many people have inspired her to make a difference, said Wanek, and she is carrying on this tradition through the work she does in her own community. “I have been lucky to have so many fabulous people along the way, parents and grandparents and mentors and everyone I’ve worked with on these many projects,” she continued. “That is a story everybody tells, of people that inspired us daily.”

(Box this, too)
Tracy’s Mantra:
To Be of Use

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Marge Piercy

(Box) The Bismarck Community Garden is located just west of the Municipal Ball Park, south of Memorial Highway and east of Hannifin Street. Bismarck Parks and Recreation provides the land and the water. Interested individuals and families put in their own garden, keep it weed free and enjoy the harvest. There is a $10 fee to rent the plot.

Urban Harvest was founded in the spring of 2005 by a group of four women. All were North Dakota natives who moved out-of-state, then returned to Bismarck to raise families. Outdoor public marketplaces were thriving in the cities and towns where they had lived or visited. Such a marketplace here in Bismarck/Mandan could give this city the economic and cultural outlet it was lacking. And so, Urban Harvest was born. Great crowds and participation by vendors, musicians, community organizations, and shoppers alike made it clear Urban Harvest was filling a niche, and the community was supportive of its continued growth.
Thursdays, July 8th – August 12th in Downtown Bismarck.