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Do we have the innovative vision to reinvent Minnesota?

REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
I believe that we have “soil” on which our shared community could begin to build a solid house.

We’ve been talking about “diversity” for a long time in Minnesota, and I’ve been tracking the conversation since I worked on international issues in the St. Paul mayor’s office early in the ’90s and began to think about who we were becoming as a Minnesota community. In April 1990, Curt Johnson, then head of the Citizens League, described Minnesota’s pervasive whiteness as “cultural deprivation,” and noted that it was becoming a disadvantage in a rapidly connecting world. “Minnesota companies have been slow to develop overseas business. Most are afraid to try,” he said. 

Mae Seely Sylvester

Fear of trying may impact us more negatively today than in 1990, not related to business outreach, but to everyday interactions among people of different cultures in Minnesota. For much of Minnesota’s history, the state was so pervasively white that little attention was paid to “gaps” growing with indigenous people and populations of color. But Minnesota has changed remarkably since 1990. Almost one in five Minnesotans is now “of color” and in Minnesota’s most diverse city, St. Paul, 40 percent are people of color.

As we inch toward awareness that our future depends on creating a community in which people of all skin colors and ethnicities can make their full contribution, disparities in educational outcomes and in employment status have become big news and the focus of much effort. Gov. Mark Dayton has led a push for early childhood education. Community organizations such as Generation Next are working to close the educational “achievement” gap; some call it an “opportunity” gap. Greater Twin Cities United Way has for the first time designated a portion of its giving to “culturally specific” groups, to “address the wide gaps in economic and other measures between Minnesota’s white residents and minority racial and ethnic groups.” And recently, Dayton created the post of chief inclusion officer and appointed James Burroughs to the position, mandating increased diversity among state employees and engagement of “traditionally underserved communities.” 

Concern that something deeper needs to be addressed

The situation has our attention. But along with the many efforts to address educational and economic outcomes, a strain of concern emerges, that something deeper needs to be addressed. Inclusion Officer Burroughs noted, for example, that “Yes, it’s important to have the strategies and policies to do business. But we also need to change the culture and the climate of our workplaces.” In a similar vein, R.T. Rybak, addressing graduates at the University of Minnesota Morris last June, used the metaphor of a house that is structurally unsound and that, after multiple failed attempts to patch it up, is finally rebuilt from the foundation up. “The only way to solve the problem is to take the much harder course of stripping all those bricks completely off the house and finally fixing the foundation,” he said.    

Our disparities have grown out of the way we have been with each other, out of the way that the “succeeding community” has interacted and not interacted with communities not experiencing similar success. How can we possibly change our outcome disparities without changing the way we operate with each other? Our first focus, if we really want to end disparities in Minnesota, must be on the adult community. Minnesotans of all cultures must be brought together with intention to reinvent the social climate of Minnesota. But a commitment and comprehensive strategy to move in that direction are missing from our disparity-reduction efforts.

Can we do this, and if so, how?  I believe that we have “soil” on which our shared community could begin to build a solid house. Minnesota’s general good will is documented through the numbers of people from other regions of the world who choose to make Minnesota their home. But we are not exempt from the subtle biases that have created the gaps we now struggle to close. Psychologists Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald provide insight as to why our “good intentions” as Minnesotans have not prevented the growth of inequity in our state. Their analysis (published as “Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People”) of millions of Implicit Association Tests shoots a big hole in the common belief that if we mean well, we do well. It makes clear the reality that we all, whatever our cultural identity, carry biases.

The situation in Minnesota confirms their work: We are “nice” people who lead the nation in educational and employment disparities. What many of us good white people do, much of the time, is avoid situations in which our unconscious biases might creep out and dismay or embarrass us, situations in which we are not comfortable, situations in which we might find our biases challenged and changed.

Fear of trying

This is where fear of trying comes in. If we are to have the future we want in Minnesota, we have to get out of our comfort zones. We have to trade shame, guilt and avoidance for openness to learning about experiences and ways of being that differ from whatis familiar. This isn’t about “tolerance” or even “inclusion” (in a system that clearly isn’t working). It is about learning together how to build a community in which fairness is truly woven in, a community that reaches toward the democracy that has for so long eluded us, in which equality of opportunity is more than a much-vaunted but unrealized dream.

How would we approach this, if we had the intention and the will? I don’t have the answer, of course. To my knowledge, no public entity has ever explicitly set “cultural reeducation” as a public health goal, so there is no model to follow. But there are processes with documented positive outcomes that Minnesotans of differing cultures might draw upon. Gathered in a circle where a level cultural playing field defines the space, diverse Minnesotans might create together a learning process that would change the people involved, could be replicated and, through a leavening effect, change Minnesota.

Community building, skills building

These processes might include the technology of community building developed in the 1980s by M. Scott Peck. It might include the well-documented techniques of Learning Circles, of storytelling, of visioning, and – critically important – skills building. The latter is almost universally overlooked in our conversations about human diversity, but I learned during 17 years of helping health care trainees overcome their fears of adolescents in order to care for them effectively, that a few basic communication skills dissolved barriers to learning and building capacity around that cultural divide. Perhaps most challenging for physicians, who are trained to know and “fix,” was the shift to a stance of “not knowing,” but instead asking respectful questions. I believe that skills that enabled many health care professionals to improve their capacities for effective adolescent care can be applied in other cross-cultural situations, as well. These communication skills are key, because they reduce fear enough to enable learning. The courageous writers who tell their stories about being Minnesotans of color in “A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota” can guide us in our learning.

Dare we take this on?  Minnesota could lead in recognizing that implicit bias is a public health issue that undermines the physical, educational and employment health of a significant portion of our population, the population that must be healthy if Minnesota is to have a vital future. Do we dare, do we have the innovative vision, to reinvent Minnesota?

Mae Seely Sylvester is a writer and consultant living in St. Paul. She was a participant in the Minnesota Campus Compact Cultural Agility Collaborative and was formerly education coordinator in the Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Health, University of Minnesota Medical School.


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