More than 250 people stopped by the Red River Valley Fairgrounds on Saturday for the first-ever Unityfest, an all-day event with music, speakers and kids’ activities that aimed to celebrate tolerance and diversity in North Dakota.
The event, which started at 11 a.m. and continued until midnight in the Hartl Ag Building, was organized by the nonprofit Unity North Dakota that originally formed last summer in response to white supremacist Craig Cobb’s attempted takeover of Leith, N.D.
But Scott Garman, the nonprofit’s director and co-founder, said members decided to keep up their broader work after Cobb’s arrest last November and departure from Leith earlier this year.
“We really thought after that happened that we should stay together as an organization and just work with North Dakotans and work with the communities in building stronger, more tolerant communities,” he said.
Unity North Dakota previously held a rally in Leith last fall, as well as a benefit for the Leith legal defense fund in Bismarck in December, but Saturday’s Unityfest was its first attempt at an annual event.
Several people showed up to speak to the audience throughout the day, including political candidates Todd Reisenauer and Ryan Taylor, Fargo School Board member John Strand and Miss North Dakota USA 2014 Audra Mari, who shared her experiences with bullying.
In the evening, bands The Statmods, Les Dirty Frenchmen and DJ Vooch performed, and Garman said face painting, crafts, movies and games for kids kept the youngsters entertained throughout the day.
Free-will donations raised enough money to cover the event’s costs, he said, and dozens of volunteers showed up to help put on the activities.
Garman said he was pleased with how this first attempt at Unityfest turned out, but said the annual event is “only going to grow from here.” The nonprofit would like to expand Unityfest to a two- or three-day event in future years, he said, and also would like it to rotate to different cities around North Dakota.
Unity North Dakota next plans to continue with its other efforts, including developing a state-specific curriculum that elementary schools could use to teach students about tolerance and diversity, as well as a nonpartisan push to enact comprehensive hate crime legislation in the state.
Garman said the group also has decided to hold three or four roundtable meetings each year to bring together politicians, activists, community organizers and others to continue working on its broader goals.
“We want Unityfest to be an annual yearly event, a celebration of tolerance and diversity in North Dakota, and we want the roundtable discussions to help us get there,” he said. “We feel that if we include as many people as possible from different backgrounds and different political belief systems, we can get there together.”