OWATONNA — How would you describe your cultural experiences within our community? Who do we want to be as a community? Who do our children need us to be? What does all of that look and feel like?

These were the hard-hitting questions asked of the roughly 100 people in attendance of the second installment of the Better Together community engagement series on Tuesday night. This was about the same attendance number for the first session held in June, but the crowd was noticeably different.

“I’m so happy to see members of law enforcement and the Owatonna City Council here,” said Rebecca Moore, a member of the Better Together planning committee as people started filing into the Owatonna Middle School on Tuesday. “Their absence was noticed last time and now they are here because they want to be engaged.”

The wide range of those in attendance stretched beyond the lawmakers and the officers, including also community service leaders, educators, business professionals, and people ranging from elementary-aged children to senior citizens. As they came together at the start of the night, they sat among strangers in hopes of becoming friends over a shared meal and conversation.

“The stakeholders that are invested in the betterment of our community is growing,” Moore said to the crowd. “This year seems to be different in Owatonna. There is not just renewed energy by synergy among our groups and organizations.”

“It all starts with a courageous conversation,” she continued. “And that conversation moves into action. We are discussing real ideas and solutions on how to make our community better together.”

The Better Together series came to fruition after an incident at the Owatonna High School in February, when racist social media posts by white students ignited emotional unrest among the student body that ultimately led to a lockdown of the building and law enforcement called to the scene. The incident became national news as Moore and others in the community started organizing to find a way to move Owatonna forward.

Returning to Owatonna as the session’s facilitator was Bukata Hayes with the Greater Mankato Diversity Council. Having led similar community engagement series in other cities around the state, Hayes helped lead the group in a discussion about community, specifically how the community can learn, care for one another, and be better.

“Part of working through this process is to move away from blame and talk about solutions and us as a community,” Hayes said, noting that many people in attendance of the first session identified wanting to know who was to blame for the OHS incident as an initial response. “We’ll all get what needs to change, but the idea that if it’s all one person or one focus of someone’s fault than that’s not building community in the way we need to for it to be the most effective.”

To start the night, Hayes asked the crowd — broken up into small groups of five to eight individuals — to describe in one word their cultural experiences in Owatonna. A wide range of responses came flooding in as the groups reconvened as one. While many educators of younger students highlighted the “positive” and “exciting” experiences they have had, other individuals such as law enforcement noted they have seen them met with “judgment” or “fear.” Some of the people of color that were in attendance stated that their cultural experiences in Owatonna have been “challenging” because of being met with a lack of understand of their unique and different backgrounds.

“You can’t invalidate someone’s experience, regardless of whether you think they are right or wrong,” Hayes said in response to people needing to recognize that things such as race and gender play a large part in how they experience life. “We want to give everyone a space to speak their truth and bring their experiences.”

The remainder of the night was spent discussing the different ways the community could become invested and engaged in diversity while being the progressive leaders that Owatonnans would like to see their city be. Statements surrounding inclusivity, being equitable and being intentional left many people buzzing throughout the night.

As Hayes and the Better Together committee sent the crowd off into the night, they left them with the mission to find ways to put the thoughts and feelings identified in the first two series into action. The final session of the three-part series will take place on Nov. 21, also at the Owatonna Middle School, and will focus on “How do we move toward our ideal community?”

Reach Reporter Annie Granlund at 444-2378 or follow her on Twitter @OPPAnnie.

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