OWATONNA — Slightly more than 100 concerned citizens of Owatonna packed the commons area of Owatonna Middle School Wednesday to ask “Who are we as a community?”

The session featured discussion on what it means to make Owatonna a safe, welcoming, and cohesive community for people from all walks of life, and the goal is to foster positive relationships across similarities and differences. The event was sponsored by Owatonna Forward, United Way of Steele County, the Owatonna Human Rights Commission, and the Owatonna Public School District.

Bukata Hayes, who spoke to students at Owatonna High School earlier this year, facilitated Wednesday’s discussion, and he promoted the idea that “regardless of race, we all deserve respect.”

“We are changing, (and) our community is changing,” said Hayes, the executive director of the Greater Mankato Diversity Council. “How can we be proactive in addressing that change?”

Rebecca Moore, “a native Owatonna girl” now working and raising a family in this city, wants “a community that sees diversity as its strength,” she said. “I care deeply about this community and who we are.”

An incident in February at Owatonna High School, when racist social media posts by white students ignited a firestorm among the student body that ultimately led to a lockdown of the building and law enforcement called to the scene, has shaken that sense of self for many in the community, Moore said. However, it also sparked discussion.

Though Hayes already shared his “wisdom and guidance” with students and staff at OHS, the entire community can benefit through meetings like Wednesday’s, Moore said. However, those in attendance need to “be honest with yourselves and each other.”

Everyone in Wednesday’s crowd was there because they “want to learn more,” and/or want to “be more involved,” and/or “want to be part of the solution,” Hayes said. “There will be no assigning blame.”

Core beliefs outlined by Hayes for Wednesday’s conversations included “we believe all children should be safe,” “all people should be safe,” “all play our part,” and “all have a role.”

He also asked everyone to abide by four agreements: “speak your truth,” “stay engaged,” “experience discomfort” — because “discomfort is growth” — and “expect and accept non-closure.”

“This is the first in a series of three,” he said, adding. “We won’t fix it all tonight.”

Future sessions in this series will concentrate on “Who do we want to be?” and “How do we move toward our ideal community?”

Hayes asked the group to describe their thoughts when they first learned about the events at OHS in February. Responses ranged from “disappointed,” “scared,” “frustrated,” “sad,” and “afraid,” to “fear” and “embarrassment.” Some wondered “Where did we go wrong?” and “How did we get here.”

Jasmynn Stechmann and Clare Keltto, both 2018 graduates of OHS now at the University of Minnesota, shared perspective from the handful of individuals at their table, as well as their own thoughts.

“We felt powerless ... We don’t want people in our community to feel this way,” Stechmann said. “We want to make sure all people feel included in our community.”

Other groups commented on the “rush to judgment” and “kneejerk reactions” from some in the moments after initial details began to trickle out of the high school in February. They also had “visceral physical reactions” and wondered how to discuss the imbroglio within their own households.

Hayes then asked a second question: “What do you believe were the thoughts and emotions of (the) community?”

Many wondered if this had been an underlying issue that finally exploded to the surface, and some noted a lack of trust between students and staff, but most felt this is a problem that can be solved. Others cautioned against victim blaming or allowing February’s conflagration to become a polarized issue like the current political backdrop in America.

Still others called attention to “social media acceptance of disrespect” and the way social media drove a wedge through the community. Some expressed disappointment in what they viewed as a vacuum of leadership from the city, as well as annoyance with those in the community who want to ignore this issue.

“We work with who is here,” Hayes said. “We have a roomful of folks who answered the call.”

Those in attendance Wednesday “see this is a community (issue) we need to be part of (solving) together,” said Jeff Elstad, Owatonna’s superintendent. “I’m inspired by our community.”

Feelings of “confusion and angst” expressed Wednesday are understandable in the wake of February’s incident and aftermath, and “our community needs to hear those emotions,” Elstad said. “We all play a role in keeping our children safe.”

“It is not solely a school issue,” but, rather, “all of us,” Hayes seconded. “We’re all part of that.”

“Continue these discussions with others in the community,” Hayes urged the audience. After Wednesday night, “Who (else) are you going to talk to?”

Reach Reporter Ryan Anderson at 507-444-2376 or follow him on Twitter @randerson_ryan.

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