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Mission statements, public art, workshops: How rural cities in Minnesota are approaching equity work

In Monticello, a city art project called Humans of Monticello aims to draw attention to the kind of diversity that exists even in a mostly homogenous city. 

Rachel Leonard, Monticello’s city administrator, explains the genesis of a mural standing in the city’s Community Center.
Rachel Leonard, Monticello’s city administrator, explains the genesis of a mural standing in the city’s Community Center.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot

Spread across a hallway in the Monticello Community Center, a photo montage of residents tells a slice of this Wright County city’s story. There’s Kara, a schoolteacher; Harshadray, an immigrant from India; Dominic, a bartender; Stephany, a mother. 

Their photos, accompanied by brief biographies, were taken for a city art project called Humans of Monticello that aims to draw attention to the kind of diversity that exists even in a mostly homogenous city like this one.

It’s also a small example of how cities across rural Minnesota are publicly showing their commitment to equity and inclusiveness, those buzzwords that have come to define this era’s push for racial reconciliation.

Besides the art project, Monticello recently crafted both a vision statement and value statements after months of interaction with residents. One of the value statements declares that the city is “an inclusive community welcoming people of all ages, races, religions and ethnic backgrounds.”

“We found that to be very encouraging – those elements of wanting to be welcoming and inclusive that all came out in those vision statements,” said Rachel Leonard, the city administrator. “That was really exciting.”

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Public statements

In just the past year or so, several cities in rural areas have crafted statements related to diversity and inclusiveness – some more explicit than others.

Red Wing, for instance, includes a Racial Equity statement on its website that declares that the city “acknowledges that systemic racism and the bias of white privilege exists throughout society.” It continues: “We commit to identifying and eliminating that systemic racism throughout city government by working together as a community to improve policies and practices in every department over time so local government works well for everyone.”

The city has also drafted a Racial Equity Plan that will be further reviewed over the summer.

Last winter in Kandiyohi County, meanwhile, an organization called Vision 2040 Willmar Lakes Area crafted an anti-racism statement that was subsequently adopted by Willmar’s Human Rights Commission. “Our communities’ futures require that all of us commit to fighting racism in all its forms,” the statement reads. “We must ensure that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color can safely and freely live, work, and play and that everyone’s rights are respected, no exceptions.”

The organization asked area residents and businesses to “take a stand against racism” by publicly signing the statement. Artists are also working on a mural and a sculpture for display in Willmar that will reflect a welcoming resolution the City Council passed in 2018. 

In Marshall, the city created a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Commission over the winter whose vision statement reads: “The City of Marshall is dedicated to building a welcoming, inclusive and racially equitable community.”

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Broad-based’ inclusivity

The League of Minnesota Cities, the advocacy group that represents more than 800 communities, has been working with public officials who want some guidance on challenging conversations about demographic change.

I asked Rachel Walker, who serves on LMC’s race equity council, how communities can reach out to those people who might bristle at terms like “white privilege” and “systemic racism” and include their perspective in policymaking.

I think we are slowly evolving our own work to be a little more broad-based and to not focus on race only,” she said. “In many communities, that is not the only inclusivity issue they have, necessarily, that will be key to equity work.” Those other barriers, she said, can include disabilities or poverty, regardless of race.

A city art project includes photographs and biographies of several Monticello residents, including Harshadray, an immigrant from India
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
A city art project includes photographs and biographies of several Monticello residents, including Harshadray, an immigrant from India.
A few years ago, the LMC co-sponsored equity training, via Zoom and also on site in Redwoods Falls, for city officials from Willmar, Marshall, Pipestone and other cities in the southwestern part of the state. 

More recently, an organization called TRUE Tuesdays – which dubs itself “A learning community for rural Minnesota social justice champions and equity advocates” – has been holding virtual meetings with public officials and others. The title of one recent meeting: “Building our Understanding of Equity.”

‘The bigger picture’

Monticello sits along the Mississippi River on the northeastern edge of Wright County, about half-way between Minneapolis and St. Cloud. It feels partly metro, partly rural, with a population that has grown significantly in the early part of this century – from 5,000 or so in 1990 to about 14,000 today.

In putting together the art project, the city talked with residents at farmers markets, on outdoor basketball courts, in local classrooms. (A video of the project can be seen here). Some of the photographs were on display, for a time, in the city’s downtown.

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One man who was photographed, Lassana (the project’s creators withheld last names), said this in his accompanying biography: “Well, I want my kids to grow up in a society that sees the bigger picture – a society that sees that we are all humans, no matter where you are from, your geography, your location, or how much you have in your bank account.” 

Mayor Lloyd Hilgart said the messaging is needed as the city, which is about 85 percent white and awaiting 2020 Census results, looks ahead.

“We’re just quietly going about our business, trying to make changes to make the city more inviting, to make it more equitable, to make people want to be involved,” he said. “It’s common sense. I think it’s as simple as that.”