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Greater Minnesota’s communities respond to calls for racial understanding

Minnesota’s summer of protests, violence, and personal and political reckoning brought issues of race and racism front and center in 2020. For many Greater Minnesota communities, however, making their towns more welcoming to everyone was a priority long before then. Motivated by a variety  of concerns, many leaders have partnered with Extension to look more closely at their communities, become educated about the experiences of people of color, and create local change that makes a difference.

Extension has been redesigning community leadership and civic engagement programs to address diversity, inclusion, and racism — an effort that has certainly accelerated since this past summer. In 2020, eight communities intentionally welcomed underrepresented audiences into Extension leadership programs. And from Grand Marais to Mankato, community groups have invited Extension to facilitate learning about cultural competency, unconscious biases, equity, racism, and intercultural competence.

Extension’s programs, always conducted with local partners, use education, mentoring, assessments and a variety of other tools to help communities envision a more inclusive future. We are proud to work with these partners who are making a difference.

Reasons to create change

“For us,” says Nicole Griensewic of Southern Minnesota’s Region Nine Development Commission, “it’s about our workforce. We know we need to be a region that is viewed as a welcoming place. Not only do we need to attract workers, we have - and will  need to continue focusing on retaining our talent.”

Other communities are driven to fill leadership gaps. Extension’s Ben Winchester has calculated that in Greater Minnesota, one of every 34 adults must take on leadership roles for elected offices, non-profit boards and committees. “Communities that start new leadership programs often recognize that their community needs people to step up — whether their name is Anderson, Ahmed, or Hernandez,” says Holli Arp, who in 2018 led Extension’s leadership and civic engagement educators to explore ways to invite underrepresented groups into local leadership.

Still other communities believe they need the perspective of diverse leaders to respond to their changing rural demographics. “More than 39 percent of students in Willmar’s Public Schools have a home language other than English,” says Toby Spanier, leadership and civic engagement educator and leader of the Vision 2040 educational cohort. “So there’s no denying that other cultures are part of the fabric of rural communities. In order to serve all residents well, we need people from those communities to be part of the fabric of leadership, too.”

It takes a village — working to address racism

Following are stories from communities across Minnesota that are finding ways to be more inclusive.

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Lessons from communities

When communities decide to address inclusion and racism, they are asking residents to change assumptions that have been part of American culture for centuries. At a recent conference, Extension joined leaders of the Region Nine project to consider what they learned from starting the initiative. Here are their thoughts:

  • It takes time. Trust needs to grow. People need time to talk through concerns.
  • The process of starting initiatives is complex. It’s not linear. Be prepared to adjust your sails as you steer.
  • Local cohorts, trainings, discussions and assessments can all be a catalyst for local action.
  • School districts are strong partners for equity efforts. Schools are on the front line of creating welcoming communities for all students.
  • If your project wants to include diverse voices, you will need to partner with organizations and groups that are trusted in the communities that you want to hear from.
  • Be prepared to question policies and practices your community has relied upon to get things done. Systems that have worked well for residents so far may not work for your new neighbors now.

Reviewed in 2020

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