The Region Nine Development Commission, which coordinates economic development activity for nine rural southern Minnesota counties (including Nicollet, Le Sueur and Blue Earth counties), is working with Extension, the Greater Mankato Diversity Council, and a host of other partners to help rural communities create a sense of belonging for both new and established residents.
Local economic development leaders challenged Region Nine to take on this work when they heard Dr. Ryan Allen describe University of Minnesota research that predicts workforce shortages across Minnesota. Allen’s 2017 report concludes that “Minnesota’s success at attracting immigrants to the state and more effectively incorporating these immigrants into its workforce will play an important role in determining the strength of its economy in the future.”
Region Nine’s partners, including Extension, organized a series of community-driven and research-informed interventions to help southern Minnesota communities consider how welcoming their systems and residents are. Facilitated discussions are allowing people of color to describe positive and negative experiences living in the area. Community assessments, led by Extension’s Scott Chazdon, are helping communities look at their town’s readiness to more actively welcome and serve people of color in schools, health care, law enforcement, nonprofits, religious organizations, businesses and local government.
Extension engaged the community in the design of the Welcoming Communities Assessment. “The input of rural Minnesotans significantly changed Extension’s original concept for this assessment,” says Chazdon. “They resisted the idea that we can give one assessment ‘grade’ to a community — because towns are made up of a number of systems and organizations – and some are better at integrating people of color than others.”
The Welcoming Communities Assessment now heightens awareness about local biases, inspiring southern Minnesota communities to make real-life changes. For instance, the St. Peter Islamic Center now marches with the community in the local Fourth of July Parade and Fairmont’s local newspaper has published its first Spanish-translated documents.