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COVID-19 puts region's growing Pride Month festivities on hold

With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to put the kibosh on large events, the increasingly open and visible local LGBTQ community will be forced to celebrate LGBTQ Pride month more quietly this year.

Though the LGBTQ Rights Movement has gained unprecedented momentum in recent years, Rice County’s LGBTQ community remains largely low profile. However, that’s begun to change in just the last year or two.

Last year, the Faribault Diversity Coalition received a grant from the Faribault Foundation to establish a new program called Kaleidoscope. Organized by local LGBTQ activist Faith Jameson, the program is designed to ensure that LGBTQ students feel supported. During the school year, Kaleidoscope met on Thursday afternoons for a snack, conversations and meetings with guest speakers and artists. Jameson said that students who participated in the program ranged from fourth to ninth grade.

Jameson envisions Kaleidoscope as just the beginning of what could be a network of organizations and events for Rice County’s LGBTQ Community. She said that eventually, she’d love to have a Pride Festival in Faribault's Central Park like Mankato, Rochester and the Twin Cities do.

Kaleidoscope primarily meets during the school year, but was planning on organizing a special event in June to celebrate Pride Month. Jameson said it would likely have begun this year as a smaller event, but could have grown into something much larger.

Due to COVID, Kaleidoscope was forced to end in March and abandon its Pride Month plans. Since then, Jameson said she’s stayed in regular contact with the organization’s members, hoping to do what she can to help them feel safe and comfortable at home.

Shifting attitudes  

Public opinion polls show that a record number of Americans support LGBTQ rights and a record number of Americans now openly identify as LGBTQ. While many older Americans have been more resistant, those shifts have been driven by the millennial generation.

LGBTQ Americans were given extra reason to celebrate just last week by the Supreme Court of the United States. In a 6-3 decision authored by conservative-leaning Justice Neil Gorsuch, the court held that workplace discrimination against LGBTQ persons violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Minnesota was the first state to ban workplace discrimination against LGBTQ persons, all the way back in 1993. However, a majority of LGBTQ+ people lived in states without any protections against workplace discrimination as recently as last year. Even with acceptance of LGBTQ persons at record levels, a 2018 study conducted by the University of Connecticut and LGBTQ advocacy organization Human Rights Campaign shows that many LGBTQ youth still don’t feel accepted at home.

According to the study, two-thirds of LGBTQ youth say they've heard family members make negative comments about people like them. Forty-eight percent of those who have come out to their families say they’ve been made to feel bad about their sexual orientation or gender identity.

That lack of acceptance can have lifelong effects. According to the American Psychiatric Association, LGBTQ persons are 2.5 times more likely to experience depression, anxiety and substance abuse compared to heterosexual persons.

Jameson said that fear of facing stigma is one reason why Rice County doesn’t have a more vibrant support network for LGBTQ persons. With few out role models in the community, she said that too many LGBTQ residents of Rice County feel alone.

“I think part of the struggle is that people are still scared of the unknown and they don’t understand that we have a very large LGBTQ community in Rice County,” she said. “We need to provide resources because we want everyone to feel welcome in Rice County.”

Though both of Northfield’s colleges have support centers for LGBTQ students, the city itself has never held formal Pride Month celebrations. Mar Valdecantos, vice chair of the city's Human Rights Commission said that was about to change this year — until COVID hit.

While the Northfield Library had been planning on organizing some events, those events have been postponed to October, so long as the pandemic permits. October has its own significance to the community as LGBTQ History month.

With few organized events locally, local LGBTQ members had the option of attending Pride in Rochester, the Twin Cities or Mankato. At the end of April, Rochester’s Pride Committee announced that it had made the difficult decision to cancel its parade.

Mankato’s South Central Pride isn’t traditionally held until September, so that University of Minnesota, Mankato students can participate. While few plans have been finalized, Executive Director Jeni Kolstad said that there will be a celebration in some form.

While it’s possible that some in-person activities might be able to take place by that time, Kolstad said that many of the Pride Parade’s traditional vendors have already decided to stay on the safe side by switching to a “virtual” format.

For inspiration, Kolstad cited the example of Twin Cities Pride, which has switched to an entirely virtual format. This weekend, Pride goers will have the opportunity to virtually meet with dozens of vendors through virtual hangouts.

Twin Cities Pride Board Member Felix Foster said that soon after Gov. Tim Walz issued his initial “Stay at Home” order, the organization saw the writing on the wall with regard to their in-person Pride Festivities, which often bring hundreds of thousands of people.

However, the organization was unwilling to abandon Pride, the marquee fundraising and organizing event for Minnesota’s LGBTQ community. Instead, the board began developing plans for an unprecedented online celebration.

“We need to come up with something to engage with the community,” he said. “We didn’t want it to feel like Pride didn’t happen this year.”

The event was set to include special messages from politicians, local business leaders and other prominent supporters of LGBTQ rights. But after George Floyd died while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers, sparking an international movement, focus shifted. Instead, that would-be marquee event was replaced by a march in solidarity with the community's POC. The contributions of essential workers during the pandemic will also be highlighted, with members asked to send in videos dedicated to essential workers in their life.

While the “Virtual Pride” will certainly come with its drawbacks, there’s a silver lining too. For community members who are scared of coming out so visibly or have physical limitations that make an in-person Pride March unmanageable, this year’s march will be more accessible than ever.

“We recognize that there are a lot of people that can’t participate in the pride festival or the parade due to a myriad of experiences,” Foster said. “We’re hoping this makes it more accessible for people from their own home or phone to connect with the pride movement.”

Community Ed tackles challenge of providing services during pandemic

Providing services to families, students and adults isn’t exactly easy during a pandemic, but it’s a challenge the Faribault Community Education team has willingly accepted.

“It’s true when there’s a crisis, everyone seems to really come together,” said Faribault Community Education Director Anne Marie Leland. “It’s just made us even stronger.”

As the coronavirus pandemic continues its impact during the summer months, the Faribault Community School and Community Education teams have worked together and continued partnerships to make food, childcare and other programs accessible.

Faribault Public Schools took on the task of feeding students when school closed for distance learning this spring. But it wasn’t just students but adults 18 and older who took advantage of the program. Becky Ford, executive director of Faribault Youth Investment, recognized adults 18 and older had difficulty accessing meals during the pandemic as well. Ford and several other community partners collaborated with Faribault Public Schools to make a free meal box delivery possible in conjunction with the free meals the school distributed.

The school meal and food box delivery that began in the spring resumed last week. Faribault Community School and Faribault Public Schools have partnered with Growing Up Healthy, Faribault Youth Investment, Hiawathaland Transit and the YMCA of Northfield to run the program from June 15 through Aug. 27.

Growing Up Healthy coordinators Carrie Romo, Rosmar Riedel and Natalia Marchan distribute the sack meals and boxes Mondays and Thursdays at various public parking lots. Gary Erickson of Three Rivers Community Action drives a Hiawathaland Transit bus to six different locations: Cannon River Mobile Park, McKinley Early Childhood Center and Evergreen Estates on Mondays and Chester Court near Roberds Lake, Buckham Memorial Library and Nerstrand Elementary School on Thursdays.

As it was in the spring, the boxes are available to any family in Faribault, while the bagged breakfasts and lunches, provided by the district, are for students 18 and under. Boxed items, said Riedel, include items like pasta, rice, canned vegetables and a variety of fibers and proteins.

Currently, Leland said Faribault Community School is exploring ways to distribute activity kits to students in addition to meals. One possibility is to hand out these kits along with the free meals.

The district’s Finance Director Andrew Adams has been a key player in building the community collaboration to expand food access. Faribault Public Schools could only provide meals to students, but by partnering with Growing Up Healthy and other organizations, the outreach expanded.

“It’s a team effort,” said Adams. “We wanted to maximize our impact on low-income families and those who need it. Even our free meals, anyone can get those. They don’t have to be a student of Faribault Public Schools.”

As another food source, Faribault Public Schools, Growing Up Healthy and Faribault Youth Investment have partnered with Channel One Regional Food Bank to provide a “Truck to Trunk” coronavirus food assistance program. For five Thursdays this summer, starting this week, community members may pick up free produce, meat and dairy products 11 a.m. to noon in the Jefferson Elementary School parking lot. Volunteers will place the food in the drivers’ trunks with no contact. No registration or information sharing is required to participate.

Kids World

Childcare has presented another unique adjustment to Faribault Community Education. Kids World, a program of Community Ed, has been up and running since last week.

After offering childcare primarily to children of front-line workers during the spring, Kids World is back to offering its regular fee-based programming per guidance of the Minnesota Department of Education. However, Leland said families have been priorities according to their occupations, as defined by tiers. Rather than offering Kids World programming at Roosevelt Elementary like past summers, Kids World has moved to Jefferson.

To make social distancing achievable, students are broken up into groups of 10 or less according to their ages. Staff also follow a program activity guide to make sure students remain staggered if they do activities outside their designated classrooms, including eating meals. Staff members social distance with each other and make sure children wash their hands frequently.

Compared to previous summers, Kids World needs more staff members than usual. Leland said Faribault Public Schools employees have offset those staffing needs.

“I have to say the staff are remarkable, filling those positions this summer,” said Leland. “They’re just so happy to see kids.”

Other protocols are in place to ensure the health and safety of students and staff members. Licensed practical nurses are on site to take the temperatures of staff members and students each day, and adults are required to wear masks if they drop off their children at the door. Disposable masks are available to parents who don’t have one, and they are not required to wear a mask if they stay in their vehicle. Adult staff members wear masks unless they can’t, said Leland.

Leland credits a number of employees for making the program adjustments run smoothly. Custodial staff members keep the building clean throughout the summer and work around staff members and students. Olivia Sage, Early Childhood coordinator, has developed weekly themes for Kids World while Community School coordinator Vicky Coon has organized the day to day operations. Iliana Pinon, Community Education assistant, is someone Leland considers an “unsung hero” for her work behind the scenes, calling parents to find out their particular needs and maintaining the personal protective equipment supply.

“Everyone is communicating with each other as best they can to prevent any serious illness,” said Leland.

Other Community Education programs are gradually allowing for more in-person interactions.

The drivers’ education classes and behind the wheel have resumed in-person at the Faribault Education Center. The team has developed a new regime of disinfecting cars, and Julia Jelen, former nurse for Faribault Public Schools, provided training for all Community Education staff on ways to be proactive in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

More information about driver’s ed, swimming lessons, and enrichment activities is available online at faribault.ce.eleyo.com or by calling 507-333-6011.

The Mural Society of Faribault’s seventh mural, featuring the first Episcopal bishop in Minnesota Bishop Henry Whipple, was installed on the west side of Central Park’s bandshell over the course of the last two Fridays. The three-part mural was painted by Dave Correll of Brushworks Designs in Faribault. Each panel represents a different aspect of Whipple’s life and the impact he left on Faribault. The panels include a large portrait of Whipple, along with a short biography of his life put together by staff at Shattuck-St. Mary’s. A second panel portrays portraits of Whipple’s two wives, Cornelia his first wife who died, and Evalengeline, who he later remarried. Both wives continued to be involved in Whipple’s work following his death. Evangelic used the money Whipple left her to further his causes. The mural’s third panel depicts Whipple’s relationship with Native Americans, as an advocate and friend. Each panel portrays a different aspect of Whipple’s life. (Michelle Vlasak/Faribault Daily News)

Despite benefits, local officials struggle to expand broadband

With COVID-19 and Gov. Tim Walz’s “Stay at Home” orders forcing Minnesotans to work and study from home, a lack of access to broadband in many rural areas throughout the state is being felt more acutely than ever before.

Expanding access to broadband has been a priority of local legislators and a rare issue of bipartisan consensus at the capitol. Current state law has set a goal of ensuring that every Minnesotan has reliable access to the internet. The goal is to achieve universal coverage with download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second and an upload speed of at least 3 Mbps by 2022. In 2026, those targets will rise to 100 Mbps per second and 20 Mbps per second, respectively.

Leading the charge to expand broadband access been Gov. Tim Walz. The first greater Minnesota resident to be elected governor since Rudy Perpich in 1986, Walz served as representative for the largely rural 1st Congressional District before his election. Earlier this year, Walz allocated more than $23 million in funding for rural broadband projects and asked the legislature for an additional $30 million. In announcing the grant awards, he said that internet is far from a luxury for rural Minnesotans.

“We all know this is far more than just a nice-to-have thing or Netflix streaming in your home,” Walz said at a Capitol news conference. “This is an economic development tool. It’s absolutely critical to equity in education and opportunities across the state of Minnesota.”

Without rural broadband, advocates say that rural communities effectively find themselves locked out of the 21st century economy. When communities gain access to rural broadband, residents can enjoy employment and educational opportunities previously reserved for big city residents.

Rice County Commissioner Jeff Docken has long championed boosting access to high -peed broadband in his mostly rural district. Docken, a farmer, believes that high speed internet has become an invaluable tool for agriculture, small businesses and telecommuters. However, Docken doesn’t expect the state to come near its goal of hitting 100% broadband connectivity by 2022. At best, he said that a five- to eight-year timeframe would be more realistic.

“Right now, there’s no way the infrastructure could get in place by 2022,” he said.

Galen Malecha, who represents most of Northfield on the Board of Commissioners, said that in the southeast and southwest corners of Rice County there’s no broadband service at all and no plans are in the works to cover those areas. Malecha pledged that the board would continue to work on the issue until every Rice County resident has satisfactory access to broadband. However, he said that the economic equation makes attracting providers a challenge.

Northfield Public Schools Superintendent Matt Hillmann said that during the “Stay at Home” order, unequal access to internet was felt acutely by the district’s rural residents. Hillmann said that given how essential the internet is to modern society, such a discrepancy has deeply unfair and unequal effects that must be remedied.

“I have felt for a long time that access to high speed internet should be treated like a utility, no different than telephone access like heat, water,” Hillmann said. “But you can’t expect a private vendor to lay out a tremendous expense to serve 4-5 customers. There has to be public investment., as there was with rural electrification.”

Locally, portions of both Rice and Steele counties remain under served. Mike Wilker of Jaguar Communications said that the further a person gets from Owatonna, Northfield or Faribault, the greater challenge they are likely to have connecting.

“As you get farther outside bigger towns, service is not as good or in some cases nonexistent,” he said.

Jaguar, which was recently purchased by Indiana-based telecommunications firm MetroNet, delivers voice, video, and broadband telecommunication services over its 2,000-mile long fiber optic network ring. Currently, Jaguar covers a wide service area, including all or part of 13 counties throughout southern Minnesota. With backing from the state and federal governments, Wilker said Jaguar is working to expand and improve its coverage further, one customer at a time.

In western Rice County, Blue Earth-based BEVCOMM is working to expand and improve its services. CEO Bill Eckels said that the company recently completed an improved network for Morristown residents and is in the process of hooking them up to it.

BEVCOMM recently purchased Lonsdale Telephone Co., which serves Lonsdale and Morristown. In January, the governor announced that BEVCOMM has been awarded more than $2.5 million in grant funding for three separate broadband projects.

Roughly two thirds of that funding went to a project that will boost broadband speeds in northwest Rice County, northeast Le Sueur County and southern Scott County — an area which includes 417 households, 88 farms, 59 businesses, and 4 “community anchor institutions.”

Other local projects have struggled to acquire funding in recent years. Rice County Administrator Sara Folsted said that with state grant funding limited, dollars have tended to go to areas seen as “higher priority” than Rice County.

“We know there’s underserved areas, but when you’re competing for a small pot of money it’s a challenge,” she said. “We’re not as underserved as some other areas … so we tend to miss out.”

Without access to broadband, many rural residents are instead being forced to turn to satellite providers like HughesNet. While it can provide basic service, Northfield Schools’ Hillmann said that it’s expensive, and quality is sometimes iffy.

“(Wireless) is better than nothing, but it’s expensive and comes with many limitations,” said Hillmann. “It doesn’t provide the same quality of bandwidth that you can get in the city.”

Still, technology is improving, and wireless broadband is beginning to take up a larger and larger share of the market. Regionally Northfield WiFi is leading that trend, with towers in eight local communities providing service to city and country residents alike.

While the technology has enabled rural residents to access levels of speed they were unable to access previously, it does come with challenges. Northfield WiFi co-owner Nate Lyon said that trees, hills and other barriers can pose particular challenges to getting a customer a strong connection.

However, thanks to its unique service model the company has been able to invest its own money into expanding services, rather than waiting for any sort of grant funding. As a result, it’s been able to expand services much faster than other companies.

“America is so far behind because people spend so much time waiting for grants,” he said. “We see a need and we work to cover it.”