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Not just MLK: Black History Month a time to explore positive history

What began as a way to emphasis the struggle for freedom and equal opportunity African Americans have faced throughout the decades has continued to evolve into a celebration of contributions the Black community has provided to the bedrock of the country – which is the way local public leaders say it ought to be.

“One of the things I’ve realized throughout my life is that the things the we hear about and learn about are the negative parts that display Black history,” said Brian Coleman, the board chair for the Alliance for Great Equity in Owatonna and service learning coordinator for the Faribault Public Schools. “A lot of times the first thing that comes to mind is slavery or segregation. You get all these negative terms associated with it, which doesn’t make it feel positive for us Black people, it just sort of feels like a downer.”

“But it doesn’t have to be that way,” Coleman added. “In a sense, this country is built on the back of these people, and while so many things are rooted around the tension and stress that most people of color have to deal with on a daily basis, intentionally looking at and celebrating successes is what we would all love.”

This Black History Month, Coleman is encouraging everyone – Black and otherwise – to spend time seeking out the untold stories of the crucial contributions Black people have made to America’s culture. From music to art to science advancements, Coleman said you may be surprised what can be uncovered after scratching away at the surface.

Agreeing with Coleman is Dr. Annette Parker, the president of South Central College, who says she feels a personal responsibility as a Black leader within her institution to illuminate such stories.

“The impact of Black History Month to me is that historically we have not told the stories of the many contributions from people of African descent in this country,” Parker said, acknowledging that while Black people have suffered throughout history, looking at only the suffering would give people the wrong snapshot of who they are as a people and a culture. “It’s important that our young people know these contributions, and Black History Month provides a time for us to do that and to not be afraid to talk about it.”

Parker said one thing she would like to see people in southern Minnesota embrace during Black History Month is seeking beyond the traditional names that usually are associated with Black progress and empowerment.

“Don’t just focus on Martin Luther King Jr.,” Parker said. “There are so many other people who have overcome these barriers that have been in place over hundreds and hundreds of years. Yet despite those barriers, they still found a way to contribute to the betterment of our nation.”

Some of the names Parker encourages people to discover and explore include James Baldwin – an American novelist, playwright, essayist, poet and activist whose eloquence and passion on the subject of race in America made him an important voice in the late ‘50s and ‘60s – and Josephine Baker – an American-born French entertainer and World War II spy who was the only woman to speak at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington in 1963. Luckily, Parker says living in the age of information being at our fingertips in the form of the Internet allows for endless opportunities to discover the lesser known but highly important players in Black history.

Coleman also celebrates the time we live in, saying that the recent release of movies focusing on untold stories of Black people in American history has provided a prime opportunity for anyone and everyone to educate themselves further. Specifically, Coleman recommends people check out “Hidden Figures,” the 2016 biographical drama film that focuses on three Black women who were essential to the success of early spaceflight.

“Some of the most positive interactions I have ever had with people of different races have stemmed from that movie,” Coleman said. “This is some positive history – some real life stuff – that really opens your eyes to what Black people were doing without any kind of acknowledgement of their efforts.”

Digging into the various contributions and many areas of positive Black history is just the beginning. Both Coleman and Parker agree that when it comes down to it, one month is simply not enough.

“A year-round celebration is what I’d like to see,” Coleman said. “When it comes down to it, celebrating other cultures should just be embedded in what we do.”

“There definitely needs to be things celebrating Black history year-round,” Parker added. “But this can be a month where people take the time to learn and study about the different contributions of Black people. I think and I hope that it would bring around more respect throughout the rest of the year.”

Legislators want $500,000 to study proposed interstate interchange
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After years of delay, an interchange project important to economic development in Rice County and the northern portion of Faribault specifically may finally be picking up steam.

With state officials keen to foster economic development as the economy recovers from COVID-19, Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, last month introduced legislation that would provide $500,000 in funding for a comprehensive study of the proposed interchange at I-35 and County Road 9. A companion version of the bill was introduced four days later in the House by Rep. Brian Daniels, R-Faribault. The two legislators tried to get funding for the project study in 2017, but that effort was unsuccessful despite support from the city and county.

Officials with the city of Faribault and Rice County met with Jasinski and Daniels Feb. 3 to discuss how to make the proposal a reality. Anticipating hearings and testimony at the capitol, the city and county drafted letters of support for the project and approved them at their Tuesday meetings.

The city’s resolution highlights how the county has not only prioritized the interchange project as a staple of its local transportation plan, but also funded broader efforts to improve access to the I-35 corridor in hopes of securing additional business investment.

That work will continue this year as a two year project to upgrade Baseline Road/County Road 76 gets underway. Work on the 2.3 mile stretch of road, which extends from County Road 1 to County Road 8, was initially expected to begin last year. Instead, the project got caught in the eminent domain process, after landowners refused to cede their rights to the land. The county hoped to get a hearing set up on the matter swiftly but was unable to do so due to a case backlog caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even though the delay forced contractors to resubmit bids, the county is still moving ahead with the two-year project.

Faribault has also made significant investments in the area near the proposed interchange. In its letter of endorsement, the city notes that those efforts have helped to foster direct private investment of $250 million and create or retain hundreds of jobs.

The four townships which have land near the interchange could also benefit from the interchange, especially Bridgewater. Ironically, I-35 doesn’t even run through Bridgewater Township, though Baseline Road runs along its western border.

Still, the Bridgewater Township Board of Supervisors is discussing rezoning the township’s southwest corner for industrial use. That area has been identified as a potential area for industrial use due to marginal farmland and the railroad which runs through it.

The area would also be located in close proximity to the I-35/County Road 9 interchange. Township Board of Supervisors Chair Glen Castore said that proximity is also a factor that makes southwest Bridgewater potentially hospitable to business development.

Improvements to Baseline Road also are a big part of Bridgewater’s calculus. Even though the interchange could take years to develop, an improved Baseline Road will provide access from southwest Bridgewater to the existing I-35/County Road 1 exit via entirely paved roads.

Castore said that he’s had extensive discussions with County Engineer Dennis Luebbe about the interchange, and that Luebbe has expressed interest in creating a working group of officials from the four townships, along with Rice County and the city, to work on the project.

“We want to be inclusive of local governments that are impacted by something of this size and complexity,” Luebbe said.

If local officials are asked to testify on behalf of the project, it wouldn’t be the first time. Back in 2018, Faribault City Administrator Tim Murray testified in St. Paul in supprt of the interchange, saying it would provide both much needed traffic relief and significant business development.

Back then, the intersection of I-35 and Hwy. 21 — the busiest intersection in the city — was traveled by 14,000 vehicles per day. That number has likely gone up, due to the significant expansion projects in north Faribault’s industrial park.

Overall, any interchange would require years of lobbying and millions in funding, pushing the likely completion date at least a decade and a half out. However, Luebbe said that there’s no reason to wait, with costs likely to rise as increased development comes into town.

Should a company buy up the land around the area or locate there, the project could become even more expensive. Mayor Kevin Voracek expressed agreement that the time has come to get the project moving.

“This has been sitting on the plate way too long,” he said. “It’s time to put some smart brains on it.”

In advance of Chauvin trial, city, county enter resource-sharing agreement
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As Minnesota prepares for the upcoming trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged in the May 25 killing of George Floyd, local law enforcement will be on high alert.

On Tuesday, Faribault’s City Council signed off on a mutual aid agreement between Faribault and St. Paul Police. Under the agreement, Faribault could send members of its South Metro SWAT Team and Mobile Field Force to St. Paul if asked. The agreement lays out the terms of compensation if Faribault Police assist St. Paul Police or vice versa. Bohlen emphasized that the agreement would be both reciprocal and voluntary, as he would retain the right to decline St. Paul’s request for assistance.

The agreement could apply not only to a “civil disturbance” but also a fire, flood or other natural disaster. However, Bohlen acknowledged that the agreement was driven by a desire to avoid the type of destructive riots that engulfed Minneapolis and St. Paul in the wake of Floyd’s death.

“The major concern is the two large metro cities,” he said. “That’s where the bulk of the problems, the devastation, the criminal behavior occurred.”

Officials are all the more concerned because even though violent crime rose by 15% in 2020, St. Paul moved to slash its police department. While some members of the capital city’s council criticized the city’s budget for not cutting enough, Councilor Jane Prince said that $3.7 million in savings through attrition could lead to a de facto reduction of 30 to 40 officers.

Minneapolis’s City Council seemed set to go much farther over the summer, when a supermajority of the council had pledged to “abolish” the department. But facing a veto threat from Mayor Jacob Frey, the Council only passed a much more modest cut of $8 million to the police budget in December that kept staffing at current levels.

Some legislators have expressed frustration by the approach taken by Minneapolis and St. Paul towards police funding, and Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, is co-sponsoring a bill that would require the two cities to spend a portion of their Local Government Aid dollars on hiring new officers, with a goal of reaching a staffing level of three officers per 1,000 residents.

According to a report from St. Paul’s Planning and Economic Development Department, the city suffered $82 million in damages. Approximately 330 buildings throughout the city were damaged, and 37 were severely damaged or destroyed.

That damage pales in comparison to neighboring Minneapolis, where Floyd’s death occurred and the Chauvin trial will take place. Between the two cities, an astonishing $500 million in damages were sustained along with the destruction of around 1,500 buildings.

Bohlen said this department is debating establishing a mutual aid agreement with Minneapolis as well. However, St. Paul is a higher priority for Rice County law enforcement because the South Metro SWAT Team is a collaborative effort with Dakota County, which lies just south of St. Paul.

The Rice County Sheriff’s Office signed off on a similar agreement with St. Paul Police more than a month ago. Sheriff Troy Dunn said that it’s not uncommon to have such agreements with surrounding agencies, but the county hasn’t had one with the metro before.

Dunn said he’s hopeful that Minnesota will be able to get through the Chauvin trial without any significant unrest. However, he said that the agreement should help police respond to any difficult situation more smoothly.

“My hope is that it’s calm and we’re able to get through this in a civilized manner,” he said. “But if people start burning buildings, hurting people and putting people in harm’s way, that’s when law enforcement can step in.”