A call for racial understanding in Greater Minnesota

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 University of Minnesota 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 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.

“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.”

“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.”