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At rural-urban convening, a first step toward a new ‘One Minnesota Equity Blueprint’

Photo by Dane Smith
Delegates to the “Thriving by Design: Rural & Urban Together’’ conference discussed policy proposals for a “One Minnesota Equity Blueprint.” The event was held at the Upper Sioux Community’s Prairie’s Edge Conference Center, near Granite Falls.

The front page of the West Central Tribune on June 29 featured photos of joyful kids escaping the heat and frolicking in the water at the recently renovated Robbins Island Park in Willmar.  

smith photo
Dane Smith

All three of the children pictured were of color, and two had Latino surnames, reflecting one of western Minnesota’s most racially diverse, and thriving, regional centers. About 30 percent of Willmar’s population is now of color, and the percentage is higher in the city’s schools.

Right next to those happy images at the top of the page was an article headlined “Workforce Shortage Ahead: Groups Seek Policy Agenda to Bridge Urban-Rural Economic Divide.’’ Veteran Tribune reporter Tom Cherveny captured the spirit of a nearby conference sponsored by these groups with this paragraph:

The numbers suggest that communities most welcoming of immigrants and people of color will be best able to meet labor needs in the future. Yet research by American Public Media in its Ground Level Survey project found that attitudes in rural areas were less welcoming than those in urban areas, even though the growing labor shortage is likely to impact rural areas with declining populations the hardest.

True that. All these imperatives emerged during the unique three-day conference: inclusiveness and embracing our diversity, welcoming newcomers and investing more in ALL our people and places,  reducing regional and racial and economic disparities, redoubling efforts on climate action and environmental protection, and upgrading our physical infrastructure statewide. The official theme of the gathering was “Thriving by Design: Rural & Urban Together’’ and it was convened at the Upper Sioux Community’s Prairie’s Edge Conference Center near Granite Falls, about 30 miles southwest of Willmar.

The event’s co-sponsors were OneMn.org, and Growth & Justice (the author is a senior fellow for the latter), each of which advocate for a more equitable economic growth model and a more just society for Minnesota. The conference is a first step toward creating a “One Minnesota Equity Blueprint,’’ a comprehensive guide to policymaking and a framework for action for all Minnesotans who seek a more prosperous and inclusive state. Our groups and allied organizations will present it to Minnesota’s new governor and new Legislature in early 2019, and we hope that it can serve as a template for constructive, non-partisan cooperation over the next decade. 

The conference attracted a racially and regionally diverse crowd of leaders and activists of all ages, and some the most knowledgeable experts on Minnesota demographics and economics. Among the takeaways from this initial convening phase of the project:

Sound ideas abound for innovative and equitable growth. Accelerating Minnesota’s conversion to renewable energy and restoration of water quality emerged as one of the most promising prospects for long-term overall growth, in both urban areas and Greater Minnesota. More equitable investment in education, from before birth through early childhood care and all the way through post-secondary “Career Pathway” development, came through as a top priority for inclusive growth. Aggressive efforts to rebuild decaying public infrastructure statewide — from roads and bridges to sewer and water systems — was recommended by several presenters. And a convincing case for big leaps forward in expanding broadband and affordable high-speed internet access was a key theme, especially for rural areas. Other spheres for improvement and investment included: improving health-care affordability and access, building or restoring more affordable housing, enacting criminal justice reforms that rehabilitate rather than disable our workforce, encouraging sustainable agriculture initiatives, upgrading arts and culture as a primary economic development strategy, and fostering more and better civic engagement.

Metro and Greater Minnesota are deeply interdependent and symbiotic. The West Central Tribune article featured a photo of Kate Searls, research director at Growth & Justice, delivering a presentation that emphasized the inseparability of Greater Minnesota and metro Minnesota. Dispelling the myth of metro and rural as separate and rival economies, with metro growing in dominance, Searls reviewed research showing how manufacturing remains strong in rural Minnesota and how that growth produces ripple effects and supply-chain relationships that greatly benefit the Twin Cities. And vice-versa.   

Signs of growth and progress toward equity abound in Greater Minnesota. The convening included an evening tour and entertainment along Granite Falls main street (actually Prentice Street). A new arts gallery and cultural center and a local beer pub are both in the early stages of construction. Evening festivities included a dinner outside in Rice Park below the falls for which the town is named, and a lighthearted comedic review of the realities and absurdities of the urban-rural divide, by a visiting troupe from The Theater of Public Policy, based in the Twin Cities. A particularly encouraging welcoming address was delivered Diana Anderson, president/CEO of the Southwest Initiative Foundation, which fosters community development in the 18 counties in our southwestern corner. Anderson described growth and progress in the region and “hidden gems’’ in every community, including “gift shops, restaurants, museums, wineries and breweries, parks and world-class companies.’’ Anderson was emphatic about an equity imperative as well. “Immigrants are already making a significant contribution to our region,’’ she said. “Without these new families, many communities would be feeling the impact of outmigration. Instead, Main Streets are being revitalized, jobs are being filled, and new businesses are sprouting up. Our rural communities benefit from the entrepreneurial spirit, rich cultural traditions and strong work ethic of our newest residents.”

Few of us are as welcoming and adaptive to diversity as we think we are. Some evidence suggests that some improvement is under way across Minnesota on some of those unacceptable racial disparities, from education attainment to wealth and income. But we know that progress will be extremely difficult unless attitudes change. Most of the first afternoon and evening of the conference delved deeply into the Intercultural Development Inventory, a premier assessment tool for building cultural competence in schools and other organizations. Many attendees took the assessment beforehand and were shown a composite result that indicated many of us were not as far along toward adaptation and acceptance, and were closer to denial and defensiveness than we thought when it comes to people of different cultures and races.

In too many communities across the nation and Minnesota over the last half-century, the response to growing racial and cultural diversity has been disinvestment and neglect of public goods and services, from schools and colleges to parks and recreation to economic security safety nets. And while much has been written about this reluctance to embrace, the story of a new playground at Robbins Island Park, where those kids on the front page were cooling off, provides an inspiring counternarrative.

The good people of Willmar, in an extraordinary public-private partnership that included mostly private fundraising, have invested nearly $1 million in nothing less than “Willmar’s Destination Playground’’ with state-of-the-art accessibility for kids with disabilities and handicaps. This kind of imagination, big thinking and first-class “placemaking’’ can benefit every Minnesota community, from north Minneapolis to the North Shore. 

In describing a similarly ambitious, youth-centered, 10-year “Grow Our Own’’ initiative in southwestern Minnesota, Anderson put it this way:

The vitality of our region and the strength of our rural economy depends on everyone being able to contribute, and it starts before birth. We need to ensure ALL our kids – our indigenous children, our seventh-generation immigrant children, and our first-generation immigrant children – get the best possible start to life. … But, importantly, we’re supporting all our southwest Minnesota kids because it’s simply the right thing to do.’

Dane Smith is a senior fellow and president emeritus for Growth & Justice, a research and advocacy organization that seeks a more equitable economy and society for Minnesota.

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