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From ethnic turmoil to vibrant diversity, trio helped Pelican Rapids transform its culture

Call it presumptuous or call it courageous.

From l to r: Dianne Kimm, Johanna Christianson and Joan Jarvis Ellison
MinnPost photos by Sharon Schmickle
From l to r: Dianne Kimm, Johanna Christianson and Joan Jarvis Ellison.

While covering important events in our civic and cultural life, journalists typically focus on facts, controversies, issues and their impact. They rarely look through the lens of understanding leaders and leadership: who is leading the causes and creating change, how those leaders were motivated to tackle tough problems and create opportunities for their communities, and how they worked through the challenges that arose.

In a yearlong series, MinnPost is profiling such leaders in order to provide new insights — and, we hope in some cases, inspiration — for our readers. Each profile will be followed by comments from members of a panel of experienced leaders and scholars of leadership. The project is made possible by a grant from the Bush Foundation.

‘Driving Change’ panel: Making transition from an act of charity to a community issue is a mark of leadership

PELICAN RAPIDS, Minn. — Longtime residents remember an era in this Northwestern Minnesota town when the guy who helped you carry out groceries spoke Norwegian as well as English. Bring a few of the local Germans and Swedes into the store, and you had what passed for diversity across much of Minnesota.

Those days are long gone for Pelican Rapids. Hispanics account for nearly one-third of the 2,464 people living here, according to the 2010 Census. Blacks and Asians make up another 9 percent.

Sure there has been tension. By several accounts, though, Pelican Rapids has achieved this ethnic blend with remarkable levels of peace and civic grace.

No single leader could take credit for inspiring Pelican Rapids to accept diversity rather than fight it as so many communities had done, often to the despair of newcomers and old timers alike.

I had to profile at least three to capture the spirit of this town’s transformation: Joan Jarvis Ellison, Johanna Christianson and Dianne Kimm.

It turned out that interviewing them was much like talking to one leader. They spoke with single-minded purpose and sharp clarity of vision for their town. At one point in our meeting at the Riverside Bistro, I asked them to respond separately to one question.

“I don’t know if we can,” Ellison quipped.

No wonder these three think in unison. They have worked as a team through two decades of demographic turmoil in Pelican Rapids.

One town, 11 languages
Their team came together in the early 1990s, when someone got the idea that Pelican Rapids should have a multicultural committee.

Mexican-Americans had started moving into town, attracted by jobs at the local turkey processing plant. Then refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia trickled in.

This halal grocery is one of many new ethnic amenities in town.
MinnPost photo by Sharon Schmickle
This halal grocery is one of many new ethnic amenities in town.

The Multicultural Committee took on some concerns about housing for newcomers, but it didn’t have a clear purpose at first, Christianson said.

“We were just there,” she said.

Then, almost overnight, hundreds of immigrants arrived.

In the mid-1990s, the population surged by 35 percent, Ellison wrote in her 2007 book, “The Faces of Change.”

“Suddenly, eleven languages were spoken in town: English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Serbo-Croatian, Somali, Laotian, Ukrainian, Russian, Sudanese, Arabic, and Kurdish,” she wrote. “The public school system had to adapt to a student population of which 25 percent did not speak English as their first language. The number of English as a Second Language (ESL) classes doubled and then doubled again.”

And the Multicultural Committee found its purpose.

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The choice
“When you have a situation like that escalating in town, you have a choice to make,” Christianson said. “You could say, ‘This is just awful for us.’ Or you could say, ‘This is a difficult situation, but we choose to do something about it.’ “

“Difficult” may be too mild a word.

Racial tension flared at the time, said Police Chief Jeff Stadum. But now, “everybody has melted together pretty much,” he said.

When I told him which three leaders I was profiling to tell the story of that transition, he knew whom I meant before I finished listing their names.

Their efforts, combined with strong steps taken at the school, “made a big difference,” in securing peace and safety for Pelican Rapids, Stadum said.

Call it presumptuous or call it courageous. These three women — young mothers at the time — adopted a cause with the backing of little more than a moral mandate.

‘An individual … not a symbol’
Theirs was a homemade strategy, stitched together with the conviction that it is easier to freeze out people as a group than it is to reject an individual.

“Put a face on it,” Kimm declared.

This pelican welcomes visitors in multiple languages.
MinnPost/Sharon Schmickle
This pelican welcomes visitors in multiple languages.

So they organized getting-to-know-you dinners. Invitees were encouraged to bring a friend “who is different from you.” And newcomers were urged to share foods that reflected the flavor of their cultures.

“Over and over again we tried to say this is an individual, this is a real person,” Ellison said. “This is not a symbol for a Mexican. This is not a symbol for a Vietnamese. This is a real person. This is fun. This is food. Meet your neighbor.”

Working with the library, they also staged a series of talks on the theme, “Journeys to Pelican Rapids,” inviting residents to tell their individual stories. Initially, the school taped the talks and aired them on local public access TV. And the newspaper published profiles of the speakers.

“So when you saw that person on the street, you would say, ‘I remember that person. That person was a nurse in Bosnia and she has four kids,’ ” Christianson said.

Airing differences
Another point in their strategy was to respect differences in opinion. They organized community meetings where feelings could be aired.

“There is nothing worse than leaving people upset and feeling like they weren’t heard,” Christianson said. “We also gave them information at the meetings, saying this is what’s happening and this is what we can do about it.”

An early lesson was that newcomers rarely would attend such meetings. So the leaders reached out to meet them at the kitchen tables, the laundromats, the grocery stores.

“We learned we had to go to where the people are,” Christianson said. “You don’t just sit around your meeting table and say, ‘Where are they?'”

They set up focus groups representative of Bosnians, Vietnamese, Africans and Mexicans. “What do you see as problems in the community, and how can we help solve those problems?” they asked each group.

Meanwhile, townspeople packed the library for one widely advertised meeting.

“There was no room for any more chairs,” Ellison recalled. “One man stood up and said, ‘Can’t we just put barricades on Highway 59 north and south of town?’ He was serious. He really didn’t want these immigrants here. Nobody made fun of him. Nobody shamed him. We talked about the problems of having newcomers in town. We talked about the positive. … It always was respectful.”

Asked for small steps
Instead of demanding wholesale change overnight, they asked people to make small steps. Could you donate an old bed for people who are sleeping on their floors? Could you haul a bed in your pickup?

“A farmer would pick up the bed and take it to the trailer where these people lived and say, ‘Oh my gosh! These people don’t have anything. And look at these cute little kids playing in the yard,’ Kimm said. “So, step by step people were introduced to each other.”

Still, there was resentment.

“Sometimes we would go to a church and say, ‘This family has seven kids, and they don’t have a washing machine. Who would put money out for that?’ ” Ellison said. “The churches were really good about doing it. Then they started getting feedback. Some members would say, ‘Why are you doing it for refugee families and not for us?’ “

Help for everyone
That was another tactical lesson learned.

“From then on, when we applied for grants, we would say this is for everybody in our community who needs it,” Ellison said. “It’s not just for immigrants or refugees. Sometimes we lost grants because of that.”

But they turned down requests to narrow their targets and seek grants for refugees alone.

“We had to do that for the dynamic of the community,” Christianson said.

Some personal background may help explain how these leaders grew almost spontaneously from community need. 

Joan Jarvis Ellison
MinnPost/Sharon Schmickle
Joan Jarvis Ellison

Joan Jarvis Ellison
Ellison grew up in the Twin Cities, worked as a biochemist and moved to Fargo when her husband landed a job there.

“We just decided we wanted to get out in the country, so we drove east until we got to Pelican Rapids, went to a realtor and bought a farm,” she said.

That was in 1980. Soon, Ellison decided it was time to stay home with their two small children.

“I didn’t want to drive back and forth to Fargo-Moorhead for a job,” she said. “I just didn’t want to be away from home that long.”

So they turned to sheep farming.

“My husband used to spend his summers on his grandparents dairy farm, and the idea of farming was in his heart,” she said.

It’s a bit of a leap, she agreed, to go from spending a few months of your childhood on a farm to actually farming yourself.

 “I don’t think he realized how big the leap was going to be,” she said. “We were very naïve.”

Naïve? Perhaps, but innovative too. Ellison has mined the farming experience over the years for rich material in writing and fiber arts. Her book, “Shepherdess: Notes from the Field” won a Minnesota Book Award in 1996.

You can read her blog, Sheep Notes, here. Meanwhile, the family continues to tend sheep, preparing wool for hand spinners and selling lambs too.

Dianne Kimm
MinnPost/Sharon Schmickle
Dianne Kimm

Dianne Kimm
It is not unusual for immigrants to arrive in Minnesota with hopes of meeting Dianne Kimm. They hear her name in Nairobi and other departure points for refugees around the world.

Before the reputation of her helping hand went global, she was milking cows on a farm near town, rearing three children, working as a legal secretary and serving on the local school board.

That already busy life was to expand dramatically in 1990, when her church called for help with a family of Vietnamese refugees. Soon, there were more refugee families needing more help.

And Kimm was hooked — fascinated by newcomers who had survived unimaginable danger and also deeply fulfilled by the experience of helping people whose needs are very great.

Through Kimm, dozens of Vietnamese families learned to navigate Pelican Rapids. She drove them to medical appointments, helped them read their mail and guided them through confusing jumbles of packages at the grocery stores. She even hauled black dirt to help one family create a garden.

After 10 years of such volunteer work, Kimm took a job as refugee program manager for Lutheran Social Services.

Her work didn’t stop with office duties.

When Kimm learned recently that Somalis were living in such crowded quarters that some had to sleep in chairs, she opened her basement to a few of them.  

“I have heard so many refugees say ‘you were the first face I saw when I got off the plane,’ ” she said. “That first connection is so important to them, and so is the first town they live in.”

Johanna Christianson
MinnPost/Sharon Schmickle
Johanna Christianson

Johanna Christianson
Christianson offers a straightforward explanation for helping immigrants: She’s an immigrant, too, from the Netherlands. In Europe, she met and married her husband, Jim Christianson, who was from Moorhead. They moved to Pelican Rapids in 1976.
“I came here as a foreigner, and people welcomed me,” she said.

“That experience really affected my life,” she said. “After I had been here for a number of years and other people came to town, I felt like now it was my turn to welcome the next group.”

Christianson worked in a nursing home for a few years until it was time to have children and stay home with them.

“When you are a full-time mother in Pelican Rapids, you get involved in a lot of activities,” she said. “And so pretty soon, I found myself being a full-time volunteer in the school and in the church. Because of that, I got to know a lot of people.”

She reached beyond organized volunteer work.

“I have a love of older people, and when the kids were younger I would adopt grandparents,” Christianson said. “We would have them over for dinner or take them out for coffee or lunch. … We would drive them to go shopping or to the dentist — or just take them for a ride to look at the leaves.”

It wasn’t long before she expanded the focus of that attention to poor families — and, eventually, to immigrants.

“She always has people she is just friends with,” Kimm said. “They are the people who need friends … the last and the least and the lost.”

Ole meets Mohammed
Yet another point in their strategy was to embrace everyone in the same big community hug. This was not simply about Bosnians or Mexicans or Somalis. It was about Pelican Rapids, what the town had been and what it was becoming.

And so, the talks about journeys to Pelican Rapids might include a story about Swedish immigrants who arrived three generations ago as well as a story about the Somali family that came last year.

Kimm created a Power Point presentation she calls “Ole Meets Mohammed.”

“Ole is my grandfather,” she explained. “He came as a new person from Norway in that first rush of immigrants. And then I had two Somali boys who lived in my basement while they were going to high school. … What I did was compare their experience as immigrants.”

Some things were the same. Take the need to worship in a setting that fits your customs. The early Norwegians held church services in their homes until they could build churches. Now the Somalis have created a mosque in an old storefront.

Of course, there are key differences, beginning with skin color.

“The refugees arriving now don’t blend in as easily,” Kimm said. “They always remain visible, but my grandparents looked like everybody else.”

And some recent refugees harbored hurt that was too severe to be healed by community efforts alone.

“Some of the Bosnians had come through really, really hard times,” Ellison said. “The school was struggling to know how to handle these people. They didn’t know any English. They didn’t know about going to school.”

Ministers from the churches got involved and helped bring in experts from the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis.

By 1998, the town was ready to celebrate diversity. With the support of dozens of volunteers and community organizations, the Multicultural Committee organized the first International Friendship Festival. Now in its 14th year, the festival is co-sponsored by the Pelican Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. It features a naturalization ceremony plus flags, foods and music from around the world.

And several groups in the community have collaborated on a book of recipes, each accompanied by a story about the contributor.

“We talked to hunters and fishermen and farmers and students, to old immigrants and new immigrants, to little old ladies,” Ellison said. “We talked to everybody we could think of to make it as complete a collection of stories as possible.”

Courage, guilt
If you’ve lived for any time in rural America, you don’t need to read Sinclair Lewis’ “Main Street” to know that a crusade like this can call for large measures of courage.

Christianson squirmed under the stares of townspeople when she befriended the first blacks to move into town, Sudanese families.

“I basically was known as this nice little Dutch girl who does all of these wonderful volunteer things,” she said. “All of a sudden, I was hanging out with these people who were very different.”

She drove the Sudanese around town for shopping trips and medical appointments.

Dianne Kimm, Johanna Christianson and Joan Jarvis Ellison (l to r) meet for coffee.
MinnPost photo by Sharon Schmickle
Dianne Kimm, Johanna Christianson and Joan Jarvis Ellison (l to r) meet for coffee.

“I was way outside of my comfort zone,” she said. “I knew people were looking at me and talking behind my back. … I basically held onto what I believed deep in my heart was the right thing to do. … As scary as it was, I kept thinking this is what you have to do.”

All three women felt overwhelmed and guilty at times.

“It was really hard on my family,” Christianson said. “The children were resentful of all the attention I was giving to the newcomers.”

Older now, the kids befriend immigrants, too. But it wasn’t always easy to understand.

“All of our kids have said at one time or another, ‘There goes mom, saving the world one refugee at a time,’ ” Kimm said.

They struggled with their own limitations.

“The refugees would come to town with all of their belongings in a paper bag, and that would be it,” Ellison said. “They had no money, they had nothing. … We felt guilty because we didn’t help more, although during that period we helped as much as we humanly could. But we all had to learn to draw lines and say, ‘I can only go this far.’ “

From tapestries to tacos
Last summer, Ellison represented Pelican Rapids at the Minnesota State Fair, accepting an award in the annual Minnesota Community Pride competition sponsored by the State Fair, Minnesota Rural Partners and MinnPost.

Abdirashid Nuur
MinnPost/Sharon Schmickle
Abdirashid Nuur

In particular, the judges noted the community’s International Friendship Festival.

But you don’t need to wait for next year’s festival to see Pelican Rapids celebrate diversity. Walk around town and you see many signs that the community as a whole pitched in to carry this effort further than three women could have done on their own.

Abdirashid Nuur, a recent immigrant from Somalia, was eager to show me exhibits in the library. One features a “Tapestry of Friendship” representing the various immigrant cultures. Another is a student-made sculpture showing hands cradling a globe.

I asked Nuur whether he’d suffered any discrimination either as an African or as a Muslim.

“I felt welcome when I came here,” Nuur said. “I didn’t feel any discrimination.”  

Indeed, stroll the streets and you find an iconic pelican statue welcoming you with inscriptions in multiple languages.

You can find a busy halal grocery store and a Mexican restaurant where the waiter flips smoothly between Spanish and English depending on which customer he is serving.

Racial tension has not been erased entirely, said Tessa Martinson, the school Culture Collaborative coordinator.

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Tessa Martinson
MinnPost/Sharon Schmickle
Tessa Martinson

“They are filtering everything through their own sets of traditions and values,” she said. “And kids are quick to point out any differences. … Understanding one another is always a challenge. And when you have language barriers and cultural barriers, it makes it that much harder.”

There’s been movement though, even among students. Martinson takes encouragement from a student who said recently, “I think it’s time we stopped talking about the countries we came from … and started talking about how we treat each other.”

That was insightful in the Pelican Rapids of today, Martinson said.

‘Driving Change’ panel: Making transition from an act of charity to a community issue is a mark of leadership