Minnesota Cities Magazine
More from May-Jun 2018 issue

Creating Welcoming and Inclusive Communities

By Danielle Cabot

“Black family in Delano moving after new home burglarized, scarred by racist graffiti,” read the Star Tribune headline, dated March 16, 2017. A multirace family came home one Sunday—just three months after moving to the community of nearly 6,000 people—to find slurs, racist symbols, ruined belongings, and a threat.

While the spray paint could be removed, the damage to the family’s relationship with their new community was permanent. Despite personal outreach and messages from the mayor, a downtown vigil held three days later, and widespread community condemnation of the act, the family moved to a more diverse city.

“Heartbreaking. Heartbreaking for the family. Heartbreaking for the psyche. Disappointing,” says City Administrator Phil Kern, reflecting on how it felt immediately after learning of the crime.

Delano residents, including local students, participate in “Kindness in Chalk DayHate crimes, unfortunately, don’t always happen “somewhere else.” As the demographics of Minnesota change, more communities will grapple with what it means for predominantly white populations to transition to a more diverse makeup—including people of color, people of non-Christian religions, and new immigrants. Key findings from 2015 U.S. Census Bureau Population Estimates indicate that “All race groups have grown recently in Minnesota, but between 2010 and 2015, the state has added four times as many people of color as non-Hispanic white residents.”

But the City of Delano, whose slogan is “A Spirit of Community,” has not taken the hate crime and loss of the family lightly. It is one of many communities across Minnesota that is taking action to create a more welcoming and inclusive environment, not only as a response to acts of cruelty, but as an investment in the future vitality of their city and the values they wish to carry forward.

Organized response

In addition to the vigil and outreach, a resident-led organization called Delano United was quickly formed, and is hosting engagement and educational events. One highlight was a Kindness in Chalk Day last year. Over 2,000 people scrawled messages of positivity and kindness on sidewalks across the city. City officials, including Mayor Dale Graunke, are active in the organization.

The city also created the Spirit of Community Commission, an official advisory committee to the City Council. The commission “is the city’s approach to helping create that welcoming environment,” says Senior and Community Services Coordinator Nick Neaton.

The commission is forming plans to strengthen ties and outreach to neighborhoods, Neaton says. They are partnering with the local newspaper, which has for years sent out welcome kits to new residents with coupons and information. The commission is working to boost the city’s presence in the kit and expand delivery to include renters as well as homebuyers.

The commission is also in the process of developing a hate crime response plan, and will eventually be able to create policy recommendations designed to ensure that “welcome” is part of the city’s institutional fabric.

Nothing to fear

For Dr. Ayaz Virji, moving to Greater Minnesota seemed like the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Virji moved his family to Dawson (population 1,467) from a successful practice in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to answer the call to practice family medicine in a small community.

At first, he thought he and his family had smoothly transitioned into life there. His neighbors and patients warmly welcomed them. But during the 2016 presidential election, Virji, who is Muslim, says the polarizing dialogue around treatment of Muslim people in the U.S. started to peel away at that warm, fuzzy feeling. Knowing that new neighbors and friends had voted for someone who wanted to put him on a registry for his faith became too disturbing to bear.

“I thought many times of just leaving, because we went through 10 rounds of Islamophobia after 9/11. My wife was chased with a baseball bat once, and I have to worry about safety,” Virji says. “But we decided that we would stay and try to make a dent and try to do the right thing.”

Pastor Mandy France, who at the time was an intern at Grace Lutheran Church in Dawson, reached out to Virji and, with his permission, organized a series of three interfaith dialogue events where he could speak about his faith and family.

Photo of Mayor Dale Graunke and City Administrator Phil KernThe talks had highs and lows. Virji was called the anti- Christ. Someone smeared bacon on France’s car. But the vast majority of attendees were receptive, respectful, and appreciative of the educational experience—and Virji says that support and enthusiasm is what keeps him going. Ultimately, the talks drew attention from the press, including a feature in The Washington Post.

“There’s nothing to fear here; we’re all the same,” says Virji. “The principles and the values that unite us all are the same. The outer covering is diverse, and that’s wonderful because we can learn from one another, but we all want the same things: we want love, we want respect, we want compassion and generosity and charity and dignity and hope, and we want to raise our families and be able to pay our taxes. We all bleed.”

Virji sees the adoption of inclusionary mindsets and training as critical to the future of rural communities. “You’re going to see talent in all shapes and colors and sizes, and if you don’t do outreach, if you don’t do inclusionary training, you could lose those minorities that otherwise could have provided such a benefit to a small community,” he says.

Inclusive community resolutions

Several cities, including Robbinsdale, Willmar, and Moorhead, have decided to set the tone for their cities through passage of resolutions that center on inclusive values. For Moorhead, new residents bring economic benefit as well as cultural enrichment, says Moorhead City Councilmember Mari Dailey.

Dailey was the original author of a welcoming resolution that has been adopted by Moorhead and several communities on both sides of the North Dakota-Minnesota border. “The impetus actually came from the labor movement, concerned about discrimination against workers,” she says.

Dailey was asked to draft the resolution when two area residents started planning a white supremacist rally in Fargo-Moorhead. The rally was ultimately postponed and has yet to be rescheduled.

“The underlying message is we will not tolerate hate,” says Dailey. “It zaps everyone’s energy, and the hate becomes the focus, not what is best for the community members—not what is best for the future of the community.”

In Moorhead, Dailey says, they see value in new immigrants who may have limited English language skills and are able to take entry-level positions that would otherwise be vacant. In addition, because of the universities in the area, there is also a pool of immigrant workers with valuable professional skills.

“We’re in a part of Minnesota, as many in outstate are, where we need the workers to keep this economy strong,” says Dailey.

Economic importance of diversity

Ayaz Virji will speak at the League’s
2018 Annual Conference Moorhead isn’t alone in recognizing the promise of additional workforce members. In a commentary published last February, Minnesota Chamber of Commerce Senior Vice President for Advocacy Laura Bordelon said, “New Americans are significant and substantial contributors to the development and growth of Minnesota’s economy. They play critical roles as workers, entrepreneurs, consumers, and linking Minnesota to the world economy.”

Minnesota Compass, an organization that gathers data about population and social indicators, recently released its 2018 Compass Points report. The report indicates that regions outside the metro are projected to see a decline in the number of working age people between 2016 and 2030. While a few counties outside the metro are projected to see growth of 2 to 9.9 percent, other counties are projected to see declines of 10 percent or more.

Beyond the numbers, what values will be passed on in local government institutions to more diverse future generations? That is a critical question for some city leaders. For Delano’s Kern, preserving the connections that create that sense of belonging—while welcoming others to become a part of that spirit—is key.

“Our community is a close-knit community that takes care of each other. For communities like ours, where people know each other, there are a lot of benefits to that,” Kern says. “But with that comes the onus that we need to intentionally make sure that we’re seeking out and being open to others when they get here.”

Danielle Cabot is communications coordinator with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: dcabot@lmc.org or (651) 281-1233.

Read the May-Jun 2018 issue of Minnesota Cities magazine

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