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'To make the best better,' 4-H'ers think outside the box to stay involved
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Striving to make the best out of challenging circumstances, 4-H officials across the country have put on their thinking caps to develop new ways to ensure youth are ‘learning by doing.’

In Rice and Steele counties, extension educators have successfully developed virtual/hybrid opportunities for 4-H’ers and kept them involved throughout the pandemic. Club leaders also began taking a different approach to continue their members’ typical community service and educational projects.

Steele County Extension Educator Tracy Ignaszewski said when the pandemic began to challenge current 4-H offerings, officials took some time to look at what programming might look like in a pandemic. They, like many, have adapted to continue reaching youth and keeping them engaged in learning. Ignaszewski said clubs took a longer pause throughout the summer and started becoming more active in the fall.

In Rice County, Extension Educator Kelly Chadwick said they slowly began offering in-person meetings and events in addition to continuing to offer virtual programs and project kits 4-H’ers put together in their homes.

With 4-H a program known for its hands-on-approach, Chadwick said they had to think outside of the box a little more.

“We will continue to look at the variety of opportunities that are out there, take advantage of them and keep an open mind and be willing to explore,” said Chadwick. “Our ultimate goal is to have youth enjoy being in 4-H.”

Looking ahead to fair time, Chadwick and Ignaszewski said both of their respective county fairs are being planned as usual, and that they’re hoping for in-person opportunities.

Staying engaged

Both Steele/Rice County 4-H’ers had the opportunity to participate in a variety of new virtual offerings, including a cooking club that started last April. Beginning as a supper club, it has since turned into a time to encourage youth to be more confident in the kitchen, teaching youth skills/techniques needed for grilling, baking and cooking/preparing meals. Chadwick said community partners have also joined in on the virtual cooking sessions to share information about their jobs and connect youth with real life experiences.

After receiving feedback from 4-H’ers missing the social aspect of programs, Chadwick said they intentionally built in time where youth can interact and talk with each other during the cooking sessions. Due to the nature of the club and number of youth interested in participating, Chadwick said it might not have been that successful if offered in-person, because it would be difficult to fit all 30-40 participants in one kitchen. The virtual option not only allows for more flexibility with youth being able to participate in their own kitchen, but it can also reach more youth without additional costs.

Ignaszewski adds the kitchen program is also one of the county’s biggest programs 4-H’ers have participated in. From the start, Ignaszewski said they learned that not everyone was on board with virtual programming due to the additional screen time it required. Ignaszewski said they tried to minimize that screen time by sending home project kits which only required a minimal screen time to check in.

“We kept the screen time low, but were still giving them a hands on activity,” said Ignaszewski. “We wanted to keep the hands-on approach.”

Ignaszewski said they’ve also set out to show club leaders through different ways to approach agenda items/meetings with a goal to get youth together and tie in more of a fun/social aspect.

While their typical service projects had to be put on hold, clubs in both counties still found ways to offer a helping hand in a safe way. From holding collection drives in the community, hosting workshops where 4-H’ers created projects to either give away as gifts for fundraisers or use as potential fair projects, mask making and cleaning parks, clubs were able to create numerous community service opportunities for members to participate in.

Rice County’s Big Giants 4-H Club Leader Rachael Johnson said they’ve also found ways to be creative and think outside of the box when developing ideas for community service projects. Johnson said the Big Giants 4-H Club hosted a baby supplies drive and placed boxes at seven different drop-off locations around Northfield and Dundas. Collected supplies were then donated to the Northfield Community Action Center.

“I think that’s one thing we found with the pandemic,” said Johnson. “Finding other things we could do, since we couldn’t do as much in-person. This was something everyone could be involved in some way without having a big group gathered together.”

4-H’ers were also eager to find ways to continue helping the community amid the obstacles, as Johnson said they are the ones who do a lot of the planning and generating of ideas.

The cooking club has also been a hit for members of the Big Giants club, along with Johnson’s 11 and 8 year-old children.

“The big thing with 4-H is that it’s something the families can do all together, which is a really nice thing,” said Johnson.

Committee report drives racial justice conversation
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Close to a year after George Floyd died under the knee of ex-Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, and amid national outrage over the killing of an unarmed Black man, Daunte Wright, by a longtime Brooklyn Center police officer, a renewed focus on Minnesota’s stark racial inequalities continues.

A January report from the Minnesota Legislature is helping to drive that conversation, sparking numerous initiatives aimed at identifying the root causes that have continued to drive Minnesota’s racial inequalities, and potential solutions.

The Select Committee on Racial Justice was created as part of HR1, which declared racism to be a public health crisis in Minnesota. HR1 was passed by the Minnesota House when it returned for its second special session in July.

Committee co-chair Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul said reforms are needed because inequality in communities across Minnesota has gotten worse and that past approaches have not succeeded in extending opportunity to Minnesota’s growing communities of color.

The issue looms large in Rice County, with the share of non-white residents increasing. As of the 2010 census, 86% of county residents still identified as white, but that figure has dropped rapidly in recent years. About half of Faribault Public Schools students are non-white.

Early in the pandemic, an outbreak vaulted Rice County to the top of the New York Times list of U.S. counties hit hardest by COVID. At one point, more than three-quarters of Rice County’s COVID cases were among people of color.

Many lower-income families of colors have difficulty finding quality affordable health care, but in Rice County they are able to rely on assistance from HealthFinders Collaborative. Even with that assistance, HealthFinders Executive Director Charlie Mandile, has said he expects communities of color to suffer long-term economic and health impacts.

Last fall, the Select Committee heard testimony from state and national experts on topics such as the impact of racism on youth and maternal health.

Central to the committee’s findings was the testimony of Camara Jones, an epidemiologist who teaches at Atlanta’s Morehouse School of Medicine and has studied the broad-reaching effects of racism. Jones emphasized that the effects of racism aren’t felt by all of society because it leads communities to underutilize perhaps their most valuable resource — human ingenuity.

According to an analysis from CITI group, the U.S. lost $16 trillion and more than 6 million jobs over the last 20 years because of continued discrimination against African-Americans in terms of education, access to business loans and housing.

Bruce Corrie, an economist who teaches at Concordia University in St. Paul testified before the committee. Corrie calculated that Minnesotans of color have lost close to $300 billion, mostly due to a lack of educational opportunities and skills gaps.

Martina Wagner, Owatonna Public Schools’ Educational Equity and English Language Learner Programming Coordinator, emphasized that another crucial driver of inequality is a lack of teachers of color.

While school districts in Owatonna and Faribault include large contingents of students of color, Wagner noted that the overwhelming majority of teachers are white, often depriving those students of natural role models. Addressing the issue is particularly difficult in greater Minnesota, particularly given the state’s teacher shortage.

South Central College President Dr. Annette Parker offered strong support for several proposals offered in the report’s extensive section on education and noted that South Central has taken steps to expand access along the lines discussed in the report. Parker praised a recommendation that schools expand access to dual credit and other rigorous courses for all high school students, not just the highest achieving. Parker said such programs have attracted great interest in Faribault.

Through the High School to College (H2C) program, South Central recently partnered with Allina Health, Mayo Clinic and Faribault High School to offer students a path into health sciences careers. The program has been so popular that Faribault High School has had to add sections.

Parker also noted that the report’s call for an increase in technical and trade courses in high school is in line with what Faribault is doing. As someone whose own path into higher education started in technical education, she said the impact of expanding such programs shouldn’t be underestimated.

Parker believes the report’s proposal to provide tuition-free community college for students with financial needs could be a step forward. She also voiced support for the report’s recommendation of expanded financial preparation and financial aid awareness programs for high school students and families, as well as an emergency funding program to help students going through financial crises.

“As a community and technical college we’re open to everyone,” she said. “Because we’re affordable as well as student focused we open the doors to higher education for many — but we’d like to help more people.”

Deeply-rooted inequalities

Housing equity makes up about two-thirds of wealth for the median family, and homeownership provides crucial opportunities for families to accumulate wealth and enjoy stability. Racist policies such as redlining have historically impeded access to homeownership.

Even today, the Legislature’s report finds, homes in predominantly Black neighborhoods are appraised at lower values than similar homes in majority-white neighborhoods. Black homeowners find their homes undervalued even when they live in majority-white neighborhoods.

Mar Valdecantos, vice chair of Northfield’s Human Rights Commission who served on the Governor’s Task Force on Housing in 2017, expressed extreme frustration at the continued deep inequalities laid out in the report. She believes that while Minnesota’s racial inequalities are deeply rooted across many sectors, it’s homeownership that remains the biggest predictor of family wealth creation.

The severe inequalities extend to the healthcare system as well. The report notes that Black and indigenous infants in Minnesota are more than twice as likely to die as white infants before their first birthday. Other inequalities include higher rates of cancer and asthma.

Rep. Lisa Demuth, of Cold Spring, served as the Committee’s vice chair and leading Republican. A former school board member, Demuth was particularly conscious of the gaps in Minnesota’s education system. However, she expressed frustration that the final report only included limited input from Republican legislators. While some recommendations may have been worthy, she said that many were not heard or considered by the committee during testimony.

Several members of the committee and the all-DFL People of Color and Indigenous caucus have introduced several bills relating to the bill’s proposals for reform.

Rep. John Thompson, DFL-St. Paul, introduced the most expensive legislation to date. Thompson’s bill would plow more than $450 millions into economic development efforts and other programs aimed at helping the African-American community.

The bill passed the House State Government Finance and Elections Committee along party lines. Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa slammed the bill as racist.

Potential Dundas bypass wins city, Bridgewater support
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After years of discussion, a new paved thoroughfare running straight north out of Dundas toward Dakota County’s population centers could be a bit closer to completion.

At its Monday night meeting, the Dundas City Council endorsed a proposed traffic study to examine the benefits and options for improving Decker Avenue from Hwy. 19 west of Northfield to County Road 1. For Dundas, perhaps the biggest question is how to complete the one block within city limits. Currently, Decker Avenue ends a block short of County Road 1, but the connection is bridged by Forest Avenue. Doubling down on that could be one option, but could lead significant traffic directly into a residential area.

As an alternative, the county could work with stakeholders to acquire a new stretch of land that would bypass the city altogether, establishing Decker Avenue firmly as a “ring road” on the western outskirts of Northfield and Dundas.

Decker Avenue is currently a Bridgewater Township road, but was identified as one of several corridors ideal for investment in Rice County’s 2006 highway plan. It’s expected to become a county road if and when such improvements are made.

If the road is eventually paved, Rice County Engineer Dennis Luebbe believes that it would draw plenty of traffic. Providing a straight connection to Hwy.19 and Northfield Hospital from Dundas, it could be appealing for both drivers and commercial traffic.

Shortly after intersecting with Hwy. 19, the road crosses into Dakota County and is renamed Garrett Avenue. Dakota County has its own vision for that portion of road, and could be considered a stakeholder as part of the traffic study.

If both Rice and Dakota counties improve Decker and Garrett avenues respectively, Luebbe said that the road could provide a more direct route to southern Dakota County than existing County Road 23/Foliage Avenue, known for its twists and turns.

On April 1, Rice County held a meeting at the Dundas City Hall to discuss the future of Decker Avenue with stakeholders, including individuals who own land a potential bypass could cross. The county expressed a willingness to study the issue further if Dundas and Bridgewater would reaffirm their support.

Improvements to Decker Avenue aren’t yet a part of Rice County’s Highway Plan, which was most recently updated last December and runs through 2030. However, MnDOT is scheduled to make improvements to Hwy. 19 in 2026, which could increase interest.

It isn’t yet clear how much the traffic study will cost, but local governments, including Dundas, are expected to pick up part of the tab. However, a paved Decker Avenue could also provide an economic boost to Northfield and Dundas, with a ring road fostering development.

Both Bridgewater Township Board of Supervisors Chair Glen Castore and Dundas Mayor Glen Switzer expressed support for the project. However, Castore conceded that its benefit to Bridgewater Township directly would likely be more limited than to the region as a whole.

“As all of the communities in the area grow, this would have a positive impact,” Switzer said. “Currently there’s only a few paved options for people trying to go north.”