A Drop of Ink
Change. There will be a lot of it in the coming years for rural Minnesota. Among the changes already occurring in our communities is our growing ethnic diversity. It carries great promise for our communities if we can welcome it.
Among the Blandin Foundation’s Nine Common Dimensions of a Healthy Community is the need to be inclusive. To be inclusive, we must also be welcoming.
“A healthy community is a place where all people can meet their economic, social, physical, cultural and spiritual needs, work together for the common good, and participate in creating their future,” Dr. Kathleen Annette, president and CEO of Blandin Foundation says. The keywords in her statement are “all people.”
Our communities are becoming more diverse. We see it in the children performing in our elementary school choir concerts. We see it in the youth on our high school sports teams. And, we see it in the faces of those shopping at the grocery store. This diversity in our communities will become even more evident in the coming years. That is a good thing. These newcomers are our future.
To better understand Greater Minnesota’s need to develop new leaders, the University of Minnesota Extension Service’s Ben Winchester conducted a study. He found that “older residents, those with high incomes, and business owners were most likely to say they had been asked to lead.”
Compare that limited group to how many think they have something to offer. According to a Blandin Pulse survey, 87% of rural Minnesotans said that they could “make an impact and improve local quality of life.” They represent an immense, untapped source for bettering our communities if we are willing to reach out to them.
“If I were to visit your community, attend a town hall meeting of average folks, and pose the question, ‘Is your community a welcoming place?’, I have no doubt the answer would be a resounding ‘yes’ from the crowd. Unfortunately, that is likely a lie,” Doug Griffiths, co-author of “13 Ways to Kill Your Community,” writes.
Being welcoming is more than a friendly “Hi” on the street. It is more than giving someone directions. “There is nothing wrong with just being friendly, but admit that is all you are, and stop telling yourself your community is welcoming when it takes so much more than being friendly,” he writes.
Being welcoming means spending enough time with someone new to hear the stories that are part of their lives. Do they have kids? What do their kids do in school? Where do they work? What do they like to do after work? It means listening. It means introducing them to others in the community and seeking them out so they know your caring about them wasn’t a one-time effort. It means inviting new people over for a small gathering.
Our efforts to be welcoming can’t be that of just a few in the community. It must be built into the culture of our communities. If we can accomplish this, we will see it pay dividends in the years to come.
“Outsiders bring new energy and ideas to your community. They bring money, and they spend it too. They bring kids for your school. They bring volunteers for community events. They start businesses. They buy houses. They grow the economy. They bring fresh perspectives to old challenges,” Griffiths writes.
There were once far more places in our communities to gather and to get to know one another. Places where we met new people and where we strengthened bonds of friendship. Even in our small towns, the streets were once lined with retail stores where we bought shoes, men’s and women’s clothing, hardware, and gifts for weddings and birthdays.
Many are gone today. First, the big box stores in regional shopping centers decimated our main streets. Now it is Amazon that ships even the most basic of our shopping needs to our front doors further undermining small-town businesses. All those chance meetings while out shopping in our communities offered opportunities to socialize.
We once had bowling leagues, card clubs, leagues and social groups that met regularly that were gathering places where we were introduced to new people who weren’t part of our limited circle of friends. They’ve faded away as people choose to sit at home in front of their TVs and computers.
The disappearance of these gathering places where we built relationships that allowed us to work together to better our communities poses a challenge for us. What are we doing to build new places where our citizens can meet? What are we doing to organize events in those places that are welcoming and bring a diverse group of people together?
Being a welcoming community sets the stage for being an inclusive community.
Inclusion doesn’t mean just using the talents of people who come from different ethnic backgrounds. It also means including your youth, senior citizens, residents from lower-income groups, and different genders. We are seeing better gender representation on our city councils and school boards for the most part. However, county boards are still dominated by white men in rural counties. No more than one woman, and often none, are represented on western Minnesota county boards.
In rural Minnesota, the unemployment rate is at a record low. Part of that problem is that we have been losing population since the 1960s. Rural Minnesota needs a people creation plan. We have the jobs, and we need people to fill them.
“Migration will increasingly drive growth,” State Demographer Susan Brower says. “Many Minnesota counties are experiencing slowing or negative natural change due to continued low birth rates and larger groups of people entering the later years of their lives (and dying.)
“Counties from edge to edge of our state will be more reliant on migration if they are to grow in the future,” she says.
For the growth to happen, we need to expand our affordable housing. We need adequate and affordable daycare. And, we need to be welcoming, inclusive communities. Rural communities that build a reputation for being welcoming and inclusive will be those that thrive; those known to be indifferent or cold will continue to waste away.