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With classes cancelled, arts center assembles take-home totes for area 'Littles'

Normally during this time of year, the Owatonna Arts Center would be abuzz with children on a break from school, and taking a different sort of class during the summer.

This year, as the center begins to reopen slowly with limits on the number of visitors to the gallery, a full slate of opportunities hasn’t yet been possible.

As an alternative, the center, through its community hub is partnering with another area organization that has had to make some major adjustments during the pandemic. According to Executive Director Michelle Redman, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southern Minnesota started matching “Bigs” and “Littles” again in early June. However, there are still limits on what adult mentors and their youth mentees can do together.

“We’re again allowing our ‘Bigs’ and ‘Littles’ to see each other in person with the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control,” said Redman, adding that in-person visits were still being limited to outdoor activities for the month of June. “Visits could include bike rides and walks, along with virtual meetings.”

During the spring, being able to meet and do activities together online was one of the primary means through which mentors and mentees kept in touch — and Redman said it continues to be a popular way of seeing each other safely during the pandemic.

In order to give each pair something to create together, or apart, the arts center reached out to BBBS last month and found funding to create 300 take-home art totes for “Littles” in Owatonna.

Having secured donations from area businesses and the center’s own endowment fund — helped in large part by membership dues — Arts Center Creative Director Silvan Durben has ordered materials and said he hopes to drop the finished bags off at BBBS in mid-July.

Durben, who’s working with Owatonna Middle School art teacher Nicole Melgaard to come up with materials, said it was important to him to provide basic tools that would then let the kids’ imagination run wild. Instead of a step-by-step craft, the totes will contain sketchbooks, oil pastels, watercolors and encourage children to also pull in collage material or other things found at home in their creations.

“We’ll also probably include a little information on things like how you can use the oil pastel to create an image, then take watercolors and wash over it and create some other effects,” said Durben. “We’re probably not going to have a lot of kids’ classes this summer and young people will need something to do. Hopefully they’ll enjoy using these materials, as well.”

The sketchbooks themselves will be bound with brass fasteners that can be opened and closed back up, allowing children to add paper or take drawings out of their books. Durben added that he hopes to connect back with BBBS in the future and see if any area “Littles” have work they would like to share back at the arts center.

“When we talked to Silvan, I really loved the idea of being able to let the youth show their creativity as opposed to guiding them into what to make,” said Redman. “To have the arts center reach out to us with this, it was a great surprise. We love that people are thinking about the youth in our community.”

In Steele County, Redman added that the organization currently serves roughly 320 “Littles” — with the majority living in Owatonna. As of late June, BBBS had almost the same number of children waiting to find a mentor through the program. With the added challenge of trying to recruit and start mentorships during the pandemic, Redman said there were just over 260 future mentees awaiting a match late last month.

“We put matching on hold from March 16 through June 1, when everybody was in lockdown,” she added. “Now, we’re full steam ahead and moving. We really need that volunteer recruitment, and that’s a hard thing to do right now — especially during social distancing.”

In addition to the incoming art totes, Redman said the organization has been helping participants find other ways to stay busy from a distance — including a few “connection kits” that Bigs can check out with ideas and supplies that can be used virtually. Mentors and mentees painted pots together from a distance, planted seeds and even did individual scavenger hunts to compare their findings over a video call.

Durben hopes drop the assembled totes off at the BBBS office in the next couple weeks. From there, Redman and her team plan to get them in children’s hands by August. With exhibitions at the arts center for the rest of the summer still being hammered out, visitors may even be able to see work generated from the art totes on the gallery walls some time in the near future.

Public-private partnership seeks to ensure student internet access

As uncertainty looms over the learning format for the 2020-21 school year, a state public-private partnership is aiming to eliminate any gaps in student internet access.

The program, Partnership for a ConnectedMN, seeks to supply students with technology and internet access before the start of the coming school year. In addition, the partnership is intended to create solutions to the lack of reliable, affordable broadband access in communities across the state.

A press release issued by the governor’s office last week announced that business and philanthropic leaders have raised $1.65 million for the cause as of Wednesday.

Partnership for a ConnectedMN is led in the private sector by Best Buy, Comcast, Blandin Foundation, Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation, Minnesota Business Partnership, and 12 other nonprofit organizations and private businesses.

The students the state is placing a priority on serving through the program include those considered most in need, including indigenous youth and students of color, students from low-income families and those living in rural Minnesota.

Any technology could prove beneficial for students, depending on the learning format students face this fall. The Minnesota Department of Health and Minnesota Department of Education recommend last month districts prepare for either a completely distanced format, hybrid option of distance and in-person instruction or an exclusively in-person learning. A final recommendation is expected later this month.

According to the Department of Education, at least 25,000 Minnesota students lack the technology and high-speed internet access considered essential for academic learning, out-of-school activities and services such as telehealth. Of those, a disproportionate number are classified as low-income, students of color or indigenous youth.

Northfield Superintendent Matt Hillmann called the partnership “an excellent step forward,” and spoke of the district's work to expand broadband access to students once the distance learning process began in March. The 65 Northfield students who didn’t have internet access prior to distance learning qualified for free service through Charter Communications thanks to a community partnership. Also, Northfield Healthy Community Initiative paid internet installation costs for 15 families through an initiative undertaken with NorthfieldWiFi.

The district purchased 50 hot spots, covering the remaining families. Hillmann said he anticipates students will still receive needed broadband access this fall even if the district doesn't receive Partnership for a ConnectedMN funding.

Still, Northfield Public Schools is evaluating the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act parameters to possibly secure additional hot spots, because that option is seen as the easiest way to provide student internet access.

“I’m thrilled with this development, and it’s a starting point,” Hillmann said.

Owatonna Superintendent Jeff Elstad said the district plans to apply for grant funding, adding the initiative will help in providing hot spots for students who wouldn’t otherwise have internet access.

All students within the Owatonna schooldistrict without internet access who were seeking coverage were provided online service last spring.

Elstad said the district is still preparing for the three possible learning formats for this fall.

“We will not be making that decision,” he said of what the format will be. “COVID-19 will be making that decision for us.”

'It’s something we’ve wanted for a long time'

Faribault Public Schools Superintendent Todd Sesker said the district will likely apply for funding when the application process begins later this month. Faribault provided internet service to approximately 130 students and families last spring as distance learning began.

“That’s not sustainable long term,” Sesker said of the approach. “We have to make sure all that infrastructure is available.”

“It’s something that we’ve wanted for a long time, and hopefully with the help of private industry and government, we’ll be able to give everyone equal access to the internet,” he added.

Any Partnership for a ConnectedMN funding Faribault receives could help bridge technological gaps after the district agreed last month to ensure one-to-one iPads to K-5 students.

At Tri-City United, new Superintendent Lonnie Seifert agreed that the partnership “will help, or it can help us in the fact that it makes the education we’re providing equitable for all of the students.”

To Seifert, in some cases boosting internet speed is also essential to combat slowdowns when multiple users are online.

Last spring, TCU expanded internet access to those without regular access through a hot spot grant. TCU IT/Facilities Director Carl Menk directly worked with families, internet companies and businesses to set up as many means for internet access as possible. The school had external WiFi access starting in April, and the district was developing a partnership with Palmer Bus to set up two vans as mobile WiFi access. Students without internet access were delivered texts and packets.

'We need to work together' 

Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan have prioritized the governor’s Emergency Education Relief dollars, with approximately $14 million earmarked for districts to prioritize devices and connectivity. The Minnesota Department of Education has prioritized distribution of those dollars and the discretionary Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund to districts with the highest numbers of youth receiving special education, students of color, homeless, English language learners and those who qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch.

In the release, Walz said he is “grateful to see Minnesota companies step up and help meet the needs of students. We need to work together — as individuals, state agencies, private companies and schools — to face the opportunity gap and make sure that Minnesota is the best state for each and every child to grow up and receive the best education possible.”

Twins Baseball

Minnesota Twins manager Rocco Baldelli, second from the left, speaks with Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler, Tommy Watkins, and Jake Cave, left to right, at a baseball camp on Monday in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

Peter Vang and Tanaya Walker Vang of Shoreview take shelter from the rain May 17 after shopping at the St. Paul Farmers Market. (Christine T. Nguyen/MPR News)

Alleged killer pleads not guilty in husband's death

Dressed in bright orange prison garb and seated alone behind glass, Lois Riess entered a provisional not guilty plea Tuesday in the March 2018 killing of her husband, David, in their Blooming Prairie home.

Riess, who appeared in court virtually from the Steele County Jail where she’s being held, also entered a provisional not guilty plea to using her husband’s credit card and withdrawing money from his bank account after his death.

District Court Judge Jodi Williamson, in a Mantorville courtroom, set bail for Riess, 58, at $10,000 on the theft charge. Riess waived bail on the murder charges, but may revisit that at a future hearing.

Williamson declined to set a date for a future hearing, noting that social distancing restrictions necessitated by the ongoing pandemic and the number of schedules that need to be checked made finding a time during the short hearing difficult. Riess is being represented in both cases — the theft and a pair of murder charges related to David Riess’ death by public defender Lauri Traub. The theft case is being prosecuted by Dodge County Attorney Crysta Parkin and in the murder file by Assistant Attorney General Matthew Frank.

It’s not uncommon for outstate county attorneys to request help from the Attorney General’s office in prosecuting first-degree murder cases which carry a mandatory life sentence.

Riess returned to Minnesota late last week after being extradited from Florida where she was being held following a December murder conviction in the April 2019 death Pamela Hutchinson, of Fort Meyers. Riess pleaded guilty and received a life sentence for killing Hutchinson. In exchange, prosecutors took the death penalty off the table.

Florida prosecutors argued that Riess killed Hutchinson because the two women had similar appearances, allowing Riess to assume the dead woman’s identity and continue leading authorities on a nationwide search for her following David Riess’ death.

Riess was taken into federal custody in late April 2018 in South Padre Island, Texas.

COVID pandemic highlights Minnesota's racial inequities

As COVID-19 cases continue to mount, both local and national statistics show that the impact of the pandemic is being felt particularly acutely among immigrants and people of color.

According to Deb Purfeerst at the Rice County Department of Health, just 23% of individuals with confirmed COVID-19 cases in Rice County were white, even though the 2010 census showed that 86% of county residents are white. Although Steele County hasn’t been hit as hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, its more limited statistics provide a similar tale. While the county is overwhelmingly white, it’s Black Steele County residents who have faced the brunt of COVID-19.

Recently released numbers show that the trend is nationwide. According to an analysis of data from 640,000 confirmed cases released by the New York Times on Sunday, Black and Latino individuals have contracted the virus at three times the rate of white Americans.

According to the Times’ reporting, the disparity can be seen in rural, urban and suburban areas alike, and among all age groups. However, people of color and immigrant communities have been hit particularly hard in Minnesota even in comparison to other states.

That’s hardly surprising considering that despite its inclusive reputation, Minnesota is among the most unequal states when it comes to disparities in educational attainment as well as key economic indicators.

Working hard

During the pandemic, many local people of color and immigrants have continued to work hard, filling essential jobs at local factories and stores. Repeated outbreaks at meat processing plants in rural areas of the state have hammered immigrant communities.

Local factories have had their own share of issues, which at one point led Rice County’s case count to be among the fastest growing in the nation. Northfield activist and artist George Zuccolotto said that he isn't particularly surprised by the outbreaks among the immigrant communities.

“People in a lower socioeconomic bracket because we can’t afford to take a week or two off work,” he said. “We don’t have the pleasure of taking work home or the ability to take a few weeks off.”

Zuccolotto is seeking a seat on the Northfield City Council as a first-time candidate. He said that he was motivated to run because he believes that city government doesn’t include nearly enough representation of low-income and immigrant communities. He believes that this lack of diversity in leadership was reflected in the way the city approached the COVID-19 pandemic. He criticized its response for placing far too little focus on the needs of low-income and marginalized people.

Over the years, he said that city policy has led to a de facto segregation for Northfield. Affordable housing developments are mostly concentrated on the north side of town, which has a very different socioeconomic profile than the rest of the college city.

Zuccolotto said that economics have helped to drive the division, but he also expressed frustration with city leadership that he sees as unwilling to tackle the structural issues that allow the inequality to persist.

“People love to show support and say Black lives matter… but when it comes to actually doing the work, it feels like they don’t want to be bothered to change anything,” he said.

Mar Valdecantos, who serves as vice chair of the Northfield Human Rights Commission and Director of Neighbors United in Northfield, said that too often, companies don’t take enough measures to protect their workers.

“Now, it’s up to every business to do what they deemed necessary,” she said. “Unfortunately, most are not doing a great job of making sure there’s a great distance between workers.”

Ways to help?

One measure that could save lives and prevent the spread of COVID is requiring that everyone wear a mask. According to the University of Washington, near-universal wearing of masks could save anywhere from 17,000 to 28,000 lives between now and Oct. 1.

Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm has endorsed a mask requirement, which has already been implemented in some states, and the cities of Edina, Mankato and Rochester. However, Gov. Tim Walz has yet to take action.

In addition, Minnesota has one of the largest gaps in homeownership rates in the nation. 77% of non-Hispanic whites have their own home, compared to less than half of Hispanic households and less than a quarter of black households.

Communal living can increase the risk of contracting COVID. While the risk can be reduced if proper procedures are followed, the virus can survive in the air for hours and on surfaces such as door knobs for days.

A lack of affordable single-family homes throughout the state, and affordable housing in general, has helped to pack more people into tighter spaces. Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, has worked extensively on that issue.

Draheim, who owns a Weichert Realtors branch in Mankato along with other businesses, was tapped to chair the Senate Select Committee on Home Ownership last spring. Out of that committee came a series of bipartisan bills designed to make homeownership more affordable.

Draheim has said that reducing regulation is important. He says that Minnesota’s - is among the strictest in the nation, and that by loosening it the state can open up the door for more people to benefit from homeownership.

In addition to potentially reducing the rate of COVID spread, efforts to meet the growing demand for affordable single family homes have numerous other benefits, helping families to build sustainable wealth and stable communities.

Timely discussion

The issue of deep racial inequity in Minnesota was brought to the fore at the end of May, when Minneapolis resident George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin sparked an international conversation about race.

Soon after Floyd’s death, some protests turned violent, drawing condemnations across the political spectrum and forcing Gov. Walz to call in the Army National Guard. According to the city of Minneapolis, more than 700 buildings were damaged or destroyed.

Nonetheless, Floyd’s death evidently proved a flashpoint for many Americans, drawing attention to long festering racial inequalities. Nearly overnight, public opinion on the “Black Lives Matter” movement shifted substantially. According to the Pew Research Center, roughly two-thirds of Americans now say they support Black Lives Matter, and even more say they’ve had meaningful conversations with family, friends or neighbors in the past month about race.

Those conversations have extended to the state legislature, with the “POCI” (People of Color and Indigenous) caucus, composed of 19 DFL members of the State House and State Senate, at the center of the debate.

Rep. Todd Lippert, DFL-Northfield, said that he’s listened to the concerns of members of the POCI caucus as well as people of color in his own district, and has found them to be raising many of the same concerns.

“I’m hearing from my colleagues who are people of color that Minnesota is one of the best states to live if you’re white and it’s one of the worst states to live in if you’re Black,” he said. “That’s a result of policy choices that we’ve made in our state, and the work of this next election and next decade is about how we close those racial and economic disparities.”

Education and Health

Closing racial disparities in education is a crucial and necessary part of the state’s strategy to boost educational achievement — which business leaders say is needed to ensure that Minnesota’s workforce continues to be competitive in the global economy.

In 2015, lawmakers set a goal to increase the number of Minnesotans age 25-44 with some sort of postsecondary education to 70% by 2025. Four years in, the proportion has only increased modestly, from 58% to 61%. A major factor weighing down the overall educational achievement of the state’s workforce is racial inequality. While two thirds of white Minnesotans have some sort of postsecondary credential, only about a quarter of Latino and Native American Minnesotans do.

To meet its goal, Commissioner Dennis Olson of the Office of Higher Education has said that more than two-thirds of the 120,000 credentials the state still needs to issue will likely need to be earned by people of color.

Locally, HealthFinders Collaborative has been at the forefront of conversations around racial inequality for some time. Since 2005, the nonprofit organization has provided basic services for low-income residents.

Many of HealthFinders’s patients are low-income immigrants from Somalia or Latin America. Most of its donors are from Northfield, but most of its patients are in Faribault, and the nonprofit recently moved into a large new clinic to accommodate its growing number of patients there.

HealthFinders Director Charlie Mandile said that too often, immigrants don’t seek the treatment they need for a variety of reasons. In addition to cost, immigrants may be concerned about their immigration status or may be unable to fluently communicate in English with a provider. To help ensure that immigrants feel comfortable seeking care, HealthFinders has assembled a mostly volunteer team of providers, nurses and staff, some of whom are fluent in Somali or Spanish as well as English.

Even after a decade on the job, Mandile said he’s still astonished at the disparities that exist between people of color and whites. He said that while de jure segregation may be off the books, de facto segregation remains a fact of life in many Minnesota communities.

“I think that structural barriers have made it easy for white people in Minnesota to live a happy and prosperous life while people of color have been challenged to do the same,” Mandile said. “We didn’t create these policies, but we have a responsibility to fix them.”

HealthFinders Director of Operations Daisy Sanchez has played a crucial role in putting together that community outreach as well as organizing training sessions surrounding the issues of racial and cultural sensitivity.

Sanchez said that it’s important for people to be cognizant of the fact that immigrants and people of color face specific challenges. By boosting their cultural awareness, Sanchez said that white Minnesotans can make sure they are being truly inclusive to all people.

Sanchez lamented that while Minnesotans often profess to support inclusivity, the needs and issues of people of color are often rarely discussed. By contrast, she said that HealthFinders has managed to successfully integrate an intrinsic cultural diversity into its operations.

“We want to have these conversations with everyone in Rice County,” she said. ”By opening up hearts, we can make positive change in the community.”