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Embracing the lessons of diversity and equity: Spotlight on Central RSDP

It’s hard work, and you don’t necessarily know the answers. It takes time. It takes trust. It means being comfortable with the uncomfortable. It requires openness and intentionality. It’s critically important. And in many cases, it takes place in the context of historical trauma.

These are some of the lessons shared by University of Minnesota Extension Central Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (Central RSDP) board and staff members interviewed about the Central RSDP’s intensive focus on building diversity, equity and inclusivity in their work and partnerships across the region. “I don’t think diversity work is ever easy,” said board member and Extension educator Shirley Nordrum, who is Aanishinaabe. “You don’t know the culture or the people, and are trying to address really challenging problems.”

People walking away down a path in a forest.
In 2019 the Central RSDP supported research on the benefits of nature-based learning and play for Leech Lake Early Childhood Development's Megwayaak Project.

For the past several years, the Central RSDP has undertaken an intentional effort to grow the diversity and inclusivity of the board and community partners engaged in the work. These efforts have resulted in projects with Somali, Latino and tribal communities, including projects undertaken in a bilingual context. It’s work that continues to hold lessons for a board and staff eager to embrace them.

Research and planning

In 2015-16, each regional RSDP developed a Diversity Action Plan identifying diversity aspirations, initiatives and resources specific to the region. “The intentionality of writing the plan moves it up in terms of awareness and importance,” Central RSDP executive director Molly Zins said. “We have to be intentional about this.” 

With this regional plan in place, the Central RSDP saw the need for “ground-level research to understand better what the demographics and needs of our region are,” explained board member and former chair Alison Holland, who works in Extension Learning Technologies. 

The Central RSDP reached out to Assistant Vice Provost for Equity and Diversity Virajita Singh to conduct demographic research in counties with increasing numbers of newcomers. As part of her research, Singh also interviewed community partners and board members, and facilitated board discussions on the findings. Singh’s research identified strategies and resources to increase representational diversity, enhance community climate, and accelerate diverse partnerships. Demographic trends were overlaid with environmental realities, such as populations near impaired water bodies. 

“I think it was really enlightening. I would not have realized that the water resources in our counties were as impaired as they apparently are, and she was able to overlay that with different demographics and population trends,” Holland said. “She was drawing our attention to environmental realities at the same time we look at demographics – making us more aware of the realities of our communities.” 

Individual and group reflection

Projection screen in background with adults sitting around tables.
Central RSDP board and staff members engage in an Intercultural Development Inventory session facilitated by the Region Five Development Commission.

With support from the Region Five Development Commission, the full Central RSDP board and staff participated in an Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) assessment process. The IDI is a research-based tool used by individuals and organizations to build intercultural competence and achieve diversity and inclusion goals and outcomes. In fall 2019, the Central RSDP will also participate in a regional networking discussion with other Central region organizations that have taken the IDI. The goal is to build community partners’ capacity to work together and promote diversity and inclusivity on a regional level.

According to Holland, the group IDI discussion helped the board feel more comfortable with exploring new and different ways of doing things. “[We’re] getting more comfortable with the discomfort of not always doing [things] the same way or not always knowing the best practice because we’re figuring it out.”

Connecting with new communities

As a result of their shared learning, the board and staff updated the criteria used to review project proposals to explicitly give consideration to whether the project idea engages diverse populations and advances new community collaborations. This new Project Partnering Criteria was subsequently adopted by RSDP statewide – something appreciated by peers around the state. “The ideas that have been explored by the Central RSDP board are a big leg up to other regions,” said Northwest RSDP executive director Linda Kingery.

In addition to revising project review criteria, the board and staff looked at which communities have historically engaged with the Central RSDP. In 2019, they spearheaded a Community Connectors initiative for board members to intentionally fill identified gaps. This role formalizes board member efforts to reach out to new and diverse communities. The concept grew out of board conversations as well as a survey asking board members about the types of community connections they are currently making. Survey responses were used to develop a visual of regional connections and gaps. Members now share about a recent community connection or aspiration at the beginning of board meetings. 

“This is helping us move toward parity in terms of how we work with our communities,” Holland said. “There are subsections of the community that know all the resources out there and how to apply for a project partnership, and then there are our newer populations [and others that] maybe don’t have those social connections or the time and resources to attend to things. [This is about] figuring out how we can have some kind of parity around how we’re connecting with the community when everyone’s coming from different perspectives.”

The new practices are making a difference. According to Zins, “This work has hugely affected the projects we’ve supported. It’s been a game changer.” In 2019 the Central RSDP is working on projects with two tribal nations (the Leech Lake and Mille Lacs bands), with Somali grocery store owners and meat processors, with a Somali radio station, and on a bilingual project with the Agua Gorda farmers’ cooperative in Long Prairie, with project meetings conducted primarily in Spanish. Other 2019 projects include a community-based research project with the St. Cloud Promise Neighborhood, which serves low-income families and residents of color, and a project engaging newcomer populations in conversations about how Greater Minnesota communities can be welcoming and inclusive of immigrants and refugees.

Group of kids and a teacher sitting around a table
Central RSDP has worked with the St. Cloud Promise Neighborhood to explore community member perspectives of community issues and the Promise Neighborhood’s role.

The project with St. Cloud Somali community radio will provide education in the Somali language about access to locally grown healthy food in Minnesota. “I believe that the need for providing useful and helpful information in a culturally responsive way about locally grown healthy food has dramatically increased in Minnesota,” said board member and Extension educator Serdar Mamedov. “The Somali community radio is well positioned to take on this important role. I do think the radio is an effective educational medium that allows us to communicate with a large number of Somali community members. To the best of my knowledge, there are no other programs in Central Minnesota that share similar characteristics with our Somali radio project.”

Zins explained that the Central RSDP’s new project criteria now bring a diversity and inclusivity lens to all projects – even if the primary project partner is not from an underrepresented population. For example, Zins discussed diversity considerations with partners in the National Loon Center initiative, in which the Central RSDP has played a leadership role over the past few years. Partners discussed considerations such as how the Loon Center can be a welcoming and inclusive space for all visitors, what languages exhibits might be in, and how the center can raise awareness of the Anishinaabe culture who first lived with the loon. 

“These kinds of questions are part of the conversation I get to have with project teams now,” Zins said. “It’s part of how we work and what we’re asking all project partners to be thinking about.”

Listening and learning

Like all five regional RSDP boards, the Central RSDP is made up of a combination of University and community representatives. Staff and board members interviewed for this article emphasized that diversity, equity and inclusivity work is undertaken in deep partnership with community, with University staff and board members frequently in the position of learning. 

“We do it through listening to our community partners,” Zins said. “We have to be informed by our community partners. It’s how we can learn.” 

According to Mamedov, who works extensively with Somali communities in the St. Cloud area, this means that University staff and community partners work together to co-create solutions, with community partners often in the driver’s seat. “We do not have answers for every single issue that a given community may face, and we should not. Our approach to working with ethnically diverse communities involves collective problem-solving experience,” he said. “We are working together with stakeholders representing diverse sectors of the community and asking them to identify issues and propose solutions and most importantly, to take the responsibility and ownership of the project.”

For example, in summer and fall 2019 Mamedov contributed to an RSDP-supported project that explored market potential for Halal and Kosher goat meat in Central Minnesota. “Goat meat for many of us is considered a specialty food, but for Somali communities is a staple food. At this time, fresh goat meat is not widely available and all they have access to is imported frozen meat, and the quality isn’t the best. Somali community members would like to have goat meat that is raised locally,” he explained. 

Two women standing behind a large flat top grill cooking food.
Central RSDP supported the 2018 Salsa Fest in Long Prairie, which engaged Latino community members and provided vendor applications in English and Spanish.

“This issue was raised by the Somali community, [and the] Central Regional Food Access Network decided to take this as our priority. Our farmers will also greatly benefit from this project. I want them to understand that the Halal meat market is a great business opportunity that they should take advantage of.” Ultimately, RSDP developed a project proposal that was supported by the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) and engaged partners across Extension, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, the Sustainable Farming Association, and local communities. 

Embracing discomfort

Those interviewed for this article shared stories about how this type of work is not easy, and requires tremendous sensitivity. For example, Nordrum described work she recently undertook in her role as an Extension educator in which she engaged homeless people in conversations related to the Minnesota Food Charter. Nordrum felt it was important to include homeless individuals in the conversation because “the people that can speak to that [issue] are the people that are challenged by that.”

Nordrum organized a community meal in which homeless individuals were paid to prepare the meal, and she provided transportation to enable them to participate. “It was so much fun and it was so hard, but I’m so glad I did it because I challenged myself to step outside the normal group that I work with and work with a group that has so many challenges. It shouldn’t be easy.” 

Mamedov described how this type of work takes time. In his Extension role, Mamedov has helped Somali grocery stores connect to grant opportunities. “It takes time to establish that sort of relationship where they want to work with you and apply for this grant and, most important, follow up with that. It’s not a one-time event. It’s something that once we establish the relationship, we keep going.”

A trusting climate among the board has enabled members to collectively embrace challenges inherent in this work, Holland said. “I am really grateful. I feel like the group as a whole [is] really willing to just slowly work through this together and acknowledge that none of us know what the right next step is, but we’re developing a shared language and ethos around what this goal is and trying to fumble our way through it together – understanding we all have the best intentions and we’re probably going to make mistakes along the way. We’re figuring this out together.”

Board diversity

Central to these efforts has been a board itself that has grown increasingly diverse. In the past couple of years, the 12-person board has included a tribal member, first-generation immigrants, a veteran with physical disabilities, and representation of a diversity of ages, race/ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses and community sectors. 

“Over the past few years that I’ve been on the board I’ve observed Molly really thoughtfully reaching out to a cross-section of people to join the board and participate in our work, and I think that having more diverse perspectives on our board has certainly taken us giant leaps in the direction of awareness,” Holland said. “It’s really easy to surround yourself with people like you, and it’s really easy to replace board members with people who are like those [former] board members, and that obviously leaves out a lot of people. I’m just so grateful for the group of people that we get to do this with. Molly has done such a good job of setting the stage for us to be able to do that.”

Adults standing in a group in from of a projection screen.
Central RSDP board and staff members engage in an Intercultural Development Inventory session in winter 2019.

Former board member and past Mayor of Frazee Hank Ludtke agrees that board diversity has raised awareness and understanding of different cultures. “When [Dr.] Okey [Ukaga] was our interim director for the region, that’s when we were first starting to look at this.” Ludtke also credited Ukaga, who immigrated from Nigeria and currently serves as Southeast RSDP executive director, with helping to give the board “more of a worldly outlook.”

According to Nordrum, the work the board has undertaken these past several years sets the stage for new board members who will join. “This is setting the stage for people who come in who may not [be thinking about these things]. I think they’re setting the stage for future board members to continue down that same path of building strong communities.”

Looking ahead

Moving ahead, board members look forward to continued learning. Attention to diversity and inclusivity has now become “part and parcel of the way we do our work,” Zins said. Nordrum agreed, describing the focus on diversity and inclusivity as “constantly front and center.”

Where does the Central RSDP go from here? All interviewed for this article clearly agreed: continued trying, continued learning, continued embracing of the lessons that are there.

Caryn Mohr, October 2019

Caryn Mohr is the assistant statewide director of the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP).

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