Like many young people from Greater Minnesota, Andrea Duarte never planned on going back to her hometown after finishing college.
“To be honest,” she said, “I never really thought about going back to Worthington. In my mind my plans were always something like, ‘Stay in St. Paul, the state capital — or go off to Washington, D.C.’ That’s where you go if you want to do important things.”
But then Duarte had a revelation. As the daughter of Mexican immigrants in Worthington, a southern Minnesota agricultural hub of some 13,000, she knew all too well that even though the majority of her town’s residents now look just like her and her family, power still rests in the hands of the white minority. In Worthington, Duarte said, people of color (or POCs, a term she prefers) are workers, not leaders.
For most of her childhood and early young adulthood, Duarte just accepted that that was the way things worked in Worthington. Then, while completing her degree in political science at St. Catherine University, Duarte slowly began to see things in a different light: There is plenty of important work that could be done in her hometown.
“Growing up, I knew I was Latina, I knew my parents were Mexican immigrants, but I never really settled in my own head what that meant to us living in a place like Worthington,” Duarte said. Thanks to her supportive parents, she’d had time to be a leader in her school, taking advanced classes, participating in clubs and activities and even holding the title of class president, but Duarte always felt like she was just a little different.
“I was always one of few Latinos or students of color in most of my advanced classes or extra-curricular activities,” she said. “I knew that only a few students of color usually make it out of Worthington to go on to college. I was one of them, but I didn’t really start thinking about why that was until I left.”
A storyteller is born
Duarte started St. Kate’s planning to major in social work. It seemed like a practical degree for a young woman interested in helping others. Her parents, who hadn’t gone to college themselves, supported this decision. Then, during an introductory social work class, Duarte learned about public policy and its impact on the lives of everyday people.
“For some reason, that discussion got me really excited,” she said with a laugh. She remembers her reaction, her voice rising in mock excitement: “I was like, ‘What are policies? How can they help or hurt immigrants? How do we make or change them?’ How can I get involved?”
This excitement led Duarte to shift her major to political science — and to see the world in a new light.
During her summer before her sophomore year, Duarte went on a trip to Washington, D.C., led by Network, a social justice lobbying organization run by Sister Simone Campbell of the Catholic activist group Nuns on the Bus. The group, run by Catholic sisters emphasizing the church’s commitment to social justice, was lobbying U.S. senators in support of an immigration bill. Duarte and other students from across the nation went along.
On the Network trip, Duarte said, “I learned how to lobby, learned how to network, I learned the importance of storytelling.” She and her fellow students accompanied Campbell while she made the rounds in Washington. On those lobbying visits, the students learned how the simple act of telling the story of individuals negatively impacted by a law or policy could have the power to change the minds of lawmakers at the highest levels of government.
Duarte thought about her family and friends back in Worthington and how they struggled to get ahead. Anti-immigration laws or policies like the ones proposed by President Donald Trump directly impacted them, and because many feared that they could lose their jobs or be deported if they spoke up, they generally kept their heads down. Duarte wanted to come up with a way to tell her neighbors’ stories so that decision-makers would see that they are hard-working people who are key contributors to the livelihood of the state.
She came up with the idea to create “Stories From Unheard Voices,” a collection of immigration stories from Worthington residents. With the help of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Worthington and the Nobles County Integration Collaborative, Duarte identified 15 Latinos, all immigrants to the community, and set out to record their stories.
Seeking financial support for her project, Duarte applied for and was awarded a $16,500 Jay and Rose Phillips scholarship, targeted for private college students who intend to devote a portion of their lives to community service.
“The beginning of the idea [for Stories From Unheard Voices] was to elevate these voices from southwest Minnesota that are barely heard at the Capitol,” Duarte explained. “I wanted to bring their stories to our representatives and say, ‘This is what’s happening in Worthington and this is what you need to know. There are real people, families who are suffering from decisions that happen at different levels.’”
Since then, the project has morphed. Duarte has expanded “Stories From Unheard Voices” into an oral history of immigrants in her region. She’s created a website featuring the immigrant stories and photos, and she hoping to eventually turn the finished project into a book.
“I want community members to know that Latinx immigrants in Minnesota give a lot to the community in terms of economic growth,” Duarte said, “but I also wanted to ask, ‘What is the community doing for these immigrants that will help them prosper, will help their children continue on to better their lives?’”
Five of the stories are complete and up on the site, with more to come in the next weeks. In the future, Duarte plans to interview recent immigrants from other parts of the world like Africa and Asia, and to expand her project, recruiting other young people to collect immigrant stories to add to the project, showing how immigration is a central experience of American life.
“When I started this project, my main goal was to say to the people I interviewed, ‘You’re important and here’s a picture of you. Here’s your story,’” Duarte said. “Now, my ultimate goal would be for the City of Worthington to keep up this website and encourage people from all over the region to read these stories. It is an important part of our history.”
Aida Simon, bilingual program aide for the Nobles County Integration Collaborative, a Worthington School District program focused on supporting students from diverse backgrounds, has known Duarte since she was a young student involved in after-school programs. Simon is proud of her for coming up with this project, because, she said, Duarte could just as easily forgotten Worthington and its residents the minute she left town for the city.
“Andrea didn’t forget where she came from, her roots,” Simon said. That connection, that remembrance of story, is important, especially for recent immigrants.
“Each immigrant has their own story about why they left their home to make a new home here,” she said. “Most of the narratives we hear are still about the dominant culture,” so the fact that Duarte is gathering stories from unheard voices, from people who live on the margins of civic life in her hometown, is significant: “I have no words to describe how her project touched me and a lot of other people in the community so deeply.”
Mark Blegen, dean of health sciences at the University of St. Catherine, grew up in Worthington, and graduated high school there in 1990. The “white, Scandinavian, small town” Worthington that he knew as a kid bears little resemblance to the Worthington of today.
“My graduating class was about 160-170 kids,” Blegen said. “There was one African-American student and a handful of students that had come over from Laos with their parents. Otherwise, everyone else was white.”
Today, of Worthington High School’s 823 students, 64 percent are from minority groups. This change in the makeup of the school is also reflected in the makeup of the town, where over half of citizens are non-white.
The demographic change can be credited in large part to an influx of workers at Worthington’s major employer, the pork processing plant JBS, which offers some 2,400 jobs. Duarte’s parents were drawn to Worthington for work at JBS, though they’ve also moved around the region for jobs at other processing facilities.
While white residents used to make up the majority of employees at plants like JBS when Blegen was growing up, many have moved away from processing jobs. The workers who took their place come from all over the world.
“Worthington is such a different place from what it was when I grew up there,” Blegen said. When he learned that Duarte, a promising new student at St. Kate’s, grew up in his hometown, Blegen sent her an email. “Not many students from Worthington come to St. Kate’s,” Blegen said. “I reached out to her as a fellow Worthington Trojan.”
Blegen loved meeting Duarte and hearing her stories about growing up in a Worthington that looked vastly different from the town he knew. But he soon learned that some things about the town hadn’t changed.
“On the surface Worthington is no longer this white, Scandinavian town,” Blegen said, but when Duarte told him about the struggles that many immigrant families face, he wasn’t surprised: “I’m sure that under the surface there is still this established, hierarchy, this patriarchy.”
Simon said Blegen is right: “In Worthington, diversity is huge, but all of the big decisions are still made by white people. I’m hoping that young people like Andrea can change that.”
Duarte is scheduled to graduate this spring, and she’s planning her return to Worthington not long after. She won’t stay in southern Minnesota forever — earlier this year she was awarded a prestigious Harry S. Truman scholarship that will help pay for her eventual graduate studies, likely a JD in immigration law with a dual degree in public policy — but for the next few years at least, she wants to turn her focus to supporting the people of Worthington.
She has applied for a Lead for America fellowship, a new program that supports young leaders interested in public service through two-year paid fellowships in local government. If the Lead for America scholarship goes through, Duarte will turn her energy toward helping to diversify decision-making in her town through local government.
She’s even considering her own political future.
“I’m thinking about running for office myself,” she said. “I’ll probably start off local but I’ve always thought about a bigger position.”
Wilhelmina M. Wright, former Minnesota Supreme Court justice and current U.S. district judge, met Duarte when the Supreme Court heard a case at Worthington High School. She’s been a key mentor for Duarte ever since, encouraging her to consider specific colleges, supporting major life decisions, and even hosting her for Thanksgiving dinner.
“I’m not surprised that politics would be something that Andrea is interested in,” Wright said. “It is so clear that she wanted to give voice to the concerns of others and make sure they are heard. She is someone who really believes in the law and believes in government. I’m delighted that she has those ambitions.”
Duarte’s dreams for a new Worthington have met some roadblocks. Earlier this year, she supported Worthington High School classmate Cheniqua Johnson in her unsuccessful run for state representative against Republican Rod Hamilton.
“Cheniqua’s loss really hit me hard,” Duarte said. “I don’t understand why rural America is so conservative, especially where we live.” Though Johnson campaign volunteers signed up many first-time voters, it wasn’t enough to get their candidate into office. “I’m that we can’t get more POCs, more legal citizens, to show up and vote,” Duarte said. “We’ve still got work to do there.”
Instead of feeling discouraged by Johnson’s loss, Duarte felt inspired: “I realized that if we want things to get better, we need to have people that look like me in decision-making positions in Worthington. I’m heading home to work on that.”
Until then, Duarte has other work to do, including finishing up her college coursework, earning her degree (she’ll be the first in her family to do so) and snagging the latest scholarship. She’s busy, but not frantic, and she’s ready to start the next chapter in her life in a place she thought she’d left behind.
“My parents asked me, ‘Why don’t you do something bigger?’” Duarte said, shaking her head and smiling. “But I’m just a dedicated public servant now. It is big job: I’m coming home to help make things better for everyone.”