Nancy Edmonds Hanson
Sara Watson Curry reflects that her four years on the Moorhead City Council have taught her many lessons. The largest and the most humbling: “This is a team sport.”
The 38-year-old first-term member of the city council announced almost a year ago that she did not plan to seek reelection. This week, as the city council prepares to swear in her Ward 1 replacement, Brad Gilbertson, at its next meeting, she reflects. “Campaigning is like interviewing for a job. It’s all about you. But when you step into this role, you come to realize you have no singular power by yourself. As a member of the council, you can elevate issues and speak up for them … but, independently, you can’t move a lot of change.
“Team-building is the key.” That comes, she says, with in-depth study and debate of the vast spectrum of matters that the council of eight women and men plus the mayor must decide in their twice-monthly meetings. She adds that over four years, that has led to building enduring friendships with her colleagues and city staff.
Sara, now 38, came to the council – she admits – with little concrete knowledge of the scope of what its members must regulate and direct. She took over the Ward 1 seat that long-time council member Nancy Otto had occupied since 2000. When Otto declined to run again, Sara joined a crowded field of six candidates, topping the ballot with 41% of the vote.
Much of her decision to run was serendipity. “Joe (husband Joe Curry) and I had lived in our house on the north side for a couple years when we learned that Nancy wasn’t going to run again,” she remembers “I wanted to be excited about who represented me.” At first she reached out to friends and neighbors, urging them to run for the seat. When the tables were turned and they asked her the same question, she hesitated. “I had no experience,” she says. So, as her father had taught her, she made a list of all the things she cared about: Multimodal transportation (bikes and pedestrians as well as cars and buses), supporting diversity, encouraging sustainable small-scale agriculture and more.
“Traditionally, women have to be asked at least seven times before they consider it,” she quips, “so it took me a long time to decide.” She adds, “I realized I had a lot to learn.” That on-the-job education, in fact, became one of the blessings for which she’s thankful – not only presentations by city staff on a plethora of topics, but working through the piles of background information provided to support each meeting’s agenda. “There’s a lot,” she reports. “It can run in excess of 300 pages.”
At the time of her election, Sara worked for Great Rides, the Fargo-Moorhead nonprofit that has operated short-term bicycle rentals and sponsored Streets Alive, among other initiatives. That shaped her point of view supporting a network of bike- and human-friendly streets, trails and sidewalks. But she soon learned that more points of view surround that expansion than she what she had taken for granted. Council debates soon demonstrated that views can differ over sometimes-obvious needs, like concrete.
“We were looking at a road construction project in north Moorhead,” she remembers. City policy is that other infrastructure needs may be addressed at the same time, and in this case that included adding some sidewalks. “We got pushback from some residents. I had thought, ‘Who doesn’t like sidewalks?’ Then I learned about how sidewalk policies have changed across the city, decade by decade, and that some residents are opposed to adding them to areas where they weren’t built in the first place.” Eventually she saw the wisdom of the council’s compromise decision: to recognize that when a certain percentage of a neighborhood objects, the overall mandate can be voided.
She points with special pride to several steps the council has taken to make Moorhead more inclusive of people of all backgrounds, including establishment of Indigenous Peoples Day in October and restarting the city’s human rights commission.”
“The community piece is so important,” Sara says as she looks back on her term in office. “Everyone deserves to be heard. People are so much more than just taxpayers. They’re individuals of integrity and beauty, and they want a say in what’s happening in their neighborhoods, and why.”
With no more presentations to digest or votes left to cast on her personal agenda, Sara looks forward to more time concentrating on her job at the Plains Art Museum and time with her son Aldwynn, 2. “2021 will be a big year of change,” she predicts. “I want to stay connected and involved.” She is weighing requests to join the boards of several community organizations.
“This has been a really valuable, huge opportunity to grow in so many ways – to get to know our community, my fellow council members and especially our outstanding city staff. I’m full of gratitude for the good work they do every day.” She pauses. “Thank you. I’m so glad I got to experience this.”