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Former Minnesota Lynx guard Maya Moore, left, walked away from basketball in 2018 to devote her time to reversing a conviction against Jonathan Irons, who was released from prison Wednesday. Now, two of her former teammates at UConn are taking a similar path. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings, File)

Better Together: community reading circles highlight issues of race, race relations

Since wrapping up the final Better Together community engagement sessions in November, the planning committee has been kicking around a variety of ideas on how to keep discussions around tolerance and equity moving forward in Owatonna.

“We had so many great ideas that came from the community members, but when COVID hit, our planning sort of went to the back burner a little bit as priorities in life shifted,” said Rebecca Moore with the Better Together planning committee. “When George Floyd’s death happened and the national dialogue that really brought race and race relations to the forefront emerged, we reconnected and agreed that we need to get something going right now.”

Moore said that the death of Floyd, a Black man who died in Minneapolis while in police custody, hit close to home in Owatonna, both with the proximity to the incident and the multiple protests that took place locally in the aftermath. Because Better Together aims to tackle difficult conversations and help the Owatonna community “be better” and move forward, Moore said it was clear that it was time now to get something in the works again.

“Better Together wants to be a positive impact on the community and bring people together to discuss these issues,” Moore said of the group that launched following a 2019 racial incident at Owatonna High School with the goal of inclusivity and helping residents understand the region’s diverse cultures. “We had the idea of starting a community book club, but wanted to make this as far reaching into our community as possible.”

The Better Together Planning Committee is launching the Community Reading Circles, a community-wide initiative where small groups of five to 10 people read one of the selected books based on the topics of race, white privilege, anti-racism and related topics. The reading circles are open to anybody interested in participating, though Moore said there is a specific emphasis on allies during this first session.

“This first time is really designed to be geared more toward people who need more education on these issues and who maybe aren’t living with these problems in the forefront of their lives,” Moore said. “We wanted to put a focus on that piece, but everyone and anyone is welcome to participate.”

The books selected for the first round of reading circles include “How to be an Anti-Racist” by Ibram X. Kendi, “So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo, “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Beverly Daniel Tatum, and “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander. Moore said that these books were selected as they reflect the current national dialogue.

In the week since announcing the reading circle, Moore said they have already had 25 groups of five or more people sign up. People are welcome to sign up as a group or as an individual to join a group that the Better Together committee selects for them.

“I think it’s really brave to be willing to have these uncomfortable conversations with people you may not know,” Moore said. “All of this requires courage, because these are some courageous conversations.”

Those interested in leading or participating in a reading circle can register by emailing by Wednesday, July 8, with the book they are interested in reading and discussing. The reading groups will begin on Monday, July 13, with a completion goal by Labor Day weekend . Moore said that circles are able to set their own schedule and how they would like to meet to discuss the books, whether it be in person or virtually. Depending on social distance guidelines at the time, the Better Together committee plans to host a summit for all reading circle participants to come together and discuss the different books and resulting conversations sometime in mid-September.

“Our hope is that the reading circles are successful this summer so that we can continue doing them,” Moore said. “Perhaps one every quarter or season of the year, but we want to hit on different issues and topics and keep the conversation going. We’re just getting started her, we want to continue and expand our knowledge and get everyone comfortable talking about these things.”

Fireworks still on without July Fourth festival in Blooming

While much of Blooming Prairie’s annual Independence Day celebration has been cancelled, fireworks will still take place as usual Saturday night at Victory Field.

A “No Button ‘Button Sale’” will also be up and running through the weekend, with collection jars set up at a number of area businesses to help fund next year’s Old Fashioned Fourth of July. According to organizers, roughly 10% of festival expenses are typically covered by button sales.

“We will also be doing some fundraising next year, but proceeds like the money from the parade units, our button and beer sales are all used to start up the next year’s festival,” said Becky Noble, executive director of the Blooming Prairie Area Chamber of Commerce.

Noble said she also sent out a mailing to people in and around town asking for help fundraising for next year’s festival. Overall, she added that the pandemic has caused a slowdown in sponsorships as businesses and individuals try to weather the economic impact.

The chamber announced the decision to forego this year’s festival in early May, with Noble citing the cancellation of the Austin Fourth of July parade as one of the final things to tip the balance. She added at the time that both Blooming Prairie and Austin share a lot of the same parade units, and that many of these groups were already making the decision to not do summer parades as they were unable to meet and practice this spring.

“They need to practice,” added Noble. “One big reason that it was called off is that the parade units weren’t going to come, because they have bands that weren’t able to get together to practice.”

Still, fireworks are able to happen and will take place as usual the night of the Fourth. Noble said residents will be able to watch from Victory Field, just across Main Street from the high school, or from the First Lutheran Church parking lot across the street. While she said many should be able to see the display from their cars or driveways, those that do get out are encouraged to keep a safe distance between households.

“It always starts on time,” Noble added, “and it’s usually done in 20 to 25 minutes.”

Other fireworks displays in the area include the Early Edition Rotary show at the Steele County Fairgrounds in Owatonna and the Faribault Fireworks at the Rice County Fairgrounds in Faribault. All three displays will start at 10 p.m.

Steele County sees first death attributed to COVID-19

The first death in Steele County attributed to COVID-19 has been confirmed, according to a Thursday morning press release. The Minnesota Department of Health notified Steele County Public Health Director Amy Caron with the confirmation.

“Our sincere condolences go out to the family during this time,” Caron said. “We hope that someday a vaccine will be created to help combat this virus, so others do not have to suffer.”

According to MDH, the deceased from Steele County was in the 80 to 89 age group. Of the 13 newly reported deaths in the state, eight were in an assisted living/long-term care facility, though it is not clear at this time whether the death in Steele County came from a congregate care setting.

Steele County currently has four facilities that have been identified by MDH to have been exposed to COVID-19, Medford Senior Care, Prairie Manor Care Center in Blooming Prairie, Timberdale Trace in Owatonna, and Valleyview Assisted Living in Owatonna. Exposure is defined as a person diagnosed with COVID-19 who either visited, worked, or lived at a congregate care facility while they were contagious.

Representatives from Prairie Manor and Valleyview have confirmed that the Steele County death was not one of their residents. Both Medford Senior Care and Timberdale have declined to comment for this story.

The current cumulative positive cases of COVID-19 in Steele County is 223 people. Approximately 173 of those cases are out of isolation and deemed healthy at this time. The ages of positive cases range from 1-year-old to in the 70s. Caron said there are currently two Steele County residents that are hospitalized due to COVID-19, needing extra care to assist them with the symptoms of the virus.

The virus that causes COVID-19 is spread primarily by respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It can also spread when people touch surfaces that have been contaminated by an infected person and then touch their eyes, nose or mouth.

Minnesota’s COVID-19 toll continued to rise Thursday with 13 more deaths and 500 new cases reported, but trends in intensive care cases still suggest a hopeful, downward trend.

The newest deaths brought the total to 1,458 since the pandemic began. But the average daily count since mid-June remains in the single digits.

The count of people currently hospitalized rose to 274, but the number needing intensive care dipped to 123. The daily ICU count is the lowest its been since late April. Despite the jump in cases reported Thursday, overall hospitalizations have trended downward over the past few weeks.

Minnesota now has 37,210 positive tests for the disease during the outbreak. About 86 percent of those testing positive have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.

Among those who’ve died in Minnesota, nearly 80 percent were living in long-term care or assisted living facilities, nearly all had underlying health problems.