Creating welcoming, inclusive communities goes beyond ‘Minnesota nice’

GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPER GROUP Southeast Minnesota Together held a gathering at the Chatfield Center for the Arts last Tuesday afternoon, with speakers sharing about how to build inclusive communities.
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

Southeast Minnesota got together and got beyond.

“How do you reconcile ‘Minnesota nice’ and staying motivated in your work?” asked Molly Hilligoss, moderator of the Southeast Minnesota Together event entitled “Beyond Minnesota Nice: Creating Welcoming and Inclusive Communities,” held last Tuesday, April 30, at the Chatfield Center for the Arts. The gathering was a meeting of people interested in developing relationships with immigrants, refugees and those with whom one is simply not well-acquainted – inviting newcomers to feel comfortable in their chosen home communities.

The Southeast Minnesota Together website outlined the organization’s mission, citing, “Southeast Minnesota Together is a regional collaborative network of organizations and individuals developing and pursuing strategies to address our workforce shortage. Southeast Minnesota Together also seeks to strengthen regional connections and build local capacity in communities across the region, which can be leveraged to address other social and economic issues affecting Southeast Minnesota.”

Its site relayed that it handles issues such as regional transit, diversity and inclusion, workforce housing, marketing, and community design.

The meeting held in Chatfield started with an invitation that read, “The average person moves 11.7 times in their lifetime. As we think about economic growth in the region and our current and projected workforce shortages, it is imperative to consider why people choose to relocate or stay in your community. Creating welcoming and inclusive environments is key to economic vitality. We are pleased to present an opportunity to explore Minnesota’s changing demographics, what it means for economic vitality, how communities are taking action to become more welcoming and inclusive, and discuss some steps your town might take.”

Hilligoss addressed the question of how to reconcile Minnesotans’ propensity for being “Minnesota nice” — or always open to other people, if only on the surface, with the real matters of taking action to offer inclusivity. A group of five panelists, representing cities ranging in size from 50 people to more than 100,000, tried to answer that question.

Panelists speaking during the community discussion explored welcoming models and success stories. They included moderator and Welcoming America Midwest program manager Hilligoss, former Austin mayor and representative of Apex Austin Bonnie Besse Rietz, Intercultural Mutual Assistance Association (IMAA) representative Rawhi Said, Dee Sabol of the Diversity Council, Katie van Eijl of Project FINE, and Kindra Ramaker, of Mayo Clinic.

Said commented that he had grown up in a refugee camp in Bosnia and, as an immigrant and a naturalized American citizen, he felt he should pay forward the welcome afforded him upon his family’s arrival in the United States. His work at IMAA, an entity that has been doing inclusion and diversity training since the 1980s, has since adapted to the current political climate that does not welcome people from elsewhere as openly as once might have been done.

“It’s getting out of your comfort zone. We can achieve anything at all in our lives when we leave our comfort zones,” he said. He gave an example. “We have a huge Somali community in Rochester, and I went to school with a lot of Somali people, but I never had any Somali friends. But recently, I went for Somali tea with a friend, and I learned about the Somali community that way.”

He elaborated on his own heritage. “I’m a Bosnian-American. I feel that I have to pay the welcome forward because it would be almost un-American if I didn’t do this work and pay it forward.”

Project FINE representative van Eijl stated, “The stories and people I work with keep me motivated, and also, I think about ‘Minnesota nice.’ I grew up in central Minnesota believing that Packers fans were evil, and now, I live in Wisconsin. We all joke about ‘Minnesota nice,’ but we’re passive-aggressive. It’s OK to be proud of where you come from, but acting like you know everything isn’t OK.”

van Eijl added that one thing that has kept her going at Project FINE is being able to take a step back. “When one of the women I work with pointed out that there were cultural differences that I hadn’t even thought of…it’s that I don’t know everything and that I should always take a step back,” she reiterated. “When we’re working to advance the welcome in our communities, the biggest thing to realize is that we don’t know everything.”

A representative of Southeast Minnesota Together, identified only as “Fatima,” countered some of the impressions given by those who felt that “Minnesota nice” is accompanied by passive-aggressive behavior and told about her arrival in the United States as a single mother. “It’s not my accent…I was a newcomer in 1993, a mom with children, and ‘Minnesota nice’ was very important in helping us find a home…don’t underestimate it. ‘Minnesota nice’ means being open-minded and respectful – you start with respect.”

The day’s agenda also included group sessions during which gallery members joined together to brainstorm how to expand opportunities for inclusion, with each group appointing a member to report their suggestions and solutions to the rest of the participants.

Ideas brought forward encompassed inviting people to dine together and reinventing a “welcome wagon” concept to let people new to a community know they have been recognized as newcomers. It was also suggested to hold discussion groups to foster understanding of diverse populations and to add intercultural customs to established town celebrations to share in those customs.

The keynote speaker of the day was Wilder Foundation Project Director Allison Liuzzi, who spoke on “Our Collective Narrative.” As project manager of Minnesota Compass, Liuzzi works with a team of researchers to describe and measure progress on topics related to a shared quality of life in Minnesota. She has particular interest in demographic trends, employment and workforce development and immigration.

Sponsors of the event included the University of Minnesota Extension’s Southeast Regional Sustainable Development Partnership, People’s Energy Cooperative and the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF). For more information on Southeast Minnesota Together, log onto