Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Seraphia Gravelle (Aguallo) is one of two executive directors of a rural Minnesota-based social justice organization called Voices for Ethnic and Multicultural Awareness (VEMA). The organization was founded in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis in 2020 and it advocates for and uplifts voices of color in Minnesota’s predominantly white Iron Range region.
This year, they hosted the third annual Iron Range Juneteenth Celebration in Chisholm, Minnesota (population 4,723), complete with bounce houses, chess tournaments, musical chairs, Black-owned business vendors, live performances, and more.
I spoke with Gravelle about the challenges and successes of racial justice organizing in a rural area and some of the lessons learned in the three years since VEMA’s founding. Enjoy our conversation about all this and more, below.
Claire Carlson, The Daily Yonder: I feel like there’s been a lot of organizing in cities especially after the murder of George Floyd and in the years since. But it seems like you’re filling a space that hasn’t often been filled in a rural area. Can you talk about some of the challenges that organizing in a rural area posed that were maybe different than what organizing around racial justice would look like in a city?
Seraphia Gravelle (Aguallo): I think one of the things that’s really different is that the Iron Range is a predominantly white area. I believe 5% is what makes up the people of color on the Iron Range, and it’s a very large area. That was one of the obstacles: people legitimately felt that there just wasn’t racism on the Iron Range because they don’t see it. And a lot of that is because there’s not a lot of diversity here. It’s growing, but it’s still very small. And so, while some people probably don’t see diversity regularly throughout their days, that will never discount the experiences that people of color are having here. One of VEMA’s main objectives is to get those stories out and make sure those voices are being heard in the spaces that they’re not traditionally heard.
We had to really be equipped to face opposition in the form of ignorance, you know, trying to convince people that this is an issue here because like I said, they don’t see it in their daily lives or even within themselves. So that was something that’s really different here in comparison to other places. We’re three and a half hours north of Minneapolis. The way things look here is a stark difference from the way things look there. We were at a different starting place than other places that are more diverse, because we had to let people know, we’re here and we’re not going anywhere.
DY: How have you gone about having those conversations with folks and what does that look like? Is it organizing events or is it having round table conversations, or is it protesting?
SGA: We’ve really done all of it and it just depends on that moment and what is necessary in order to be heard. We have been really intentional about being on committees and boards and things like that so that there’s representation and our voices are being heard. You know, we’ve protested throughout the Iron Range on more than one occasion. We’ve hosted public conversations ourselves and in partnership with other organizations. We’ve kind of dipped into all of that because depending on what the conversation needs to be about, that would determine what route we take. And sometimes it’s not a conversation. Sometimes it’s just our voices being heard because that’s what needs to happen at that time.
DY: We’ve talked about some of the challenges of rural organizing, but it sounds like there’s been success, too. What have those successes looked like and have you seen any change in the community?
SGA: Most of our community events have been very successful. What we’re offering is the opportunity for exposure. Folks who have lived here their entire lives have not necessarily been exposed to different cultural norms. And so what we’re offering is a taste of all of the different cultures that are here on the Iron Range. And I think that that’s part of what makes it such a success, because even if it’s just curiosity, folks show up for it and that gives us the opportunity for conversations. I think that surrounding those with something that’s fun makes it easier for people to mingle with each other and have conversations with each other. It always feels safer and opens up conversation to be sitting around a table and eating with someone. That’s something that we try to offer at all of our events is some way to just break bread with each other and get to know each other.
DY: Do you have recommendations for people who are wanting to create something like VEMA in a rural area where there aren’t any organizations that are led by people of color? What have you learned from the past three years that could be a useful tool for other folks?
SGA: I think one of the main things is when you start to build an organization, you have this core group of people that you kind of work with. And I think that’s where you start, is building that core group of people and then just being really intentional about getting input from the community that you’re trying to serve. One of our primary things is being a voice for people of color, and we can’t do that without the input of people of color that are here on the Iron Range. And so that’s really important.
And also one of the things for us, being in a rural area, is that people are doing this all over the place. And you can probably take what an organization is doing in one metro area and mimic that in another metro area, but it doesn’t really work that way for rural communities. And so you have to just kind of take bits and pieces from all of the different ways that people are doing things and stitch together something that works for your community.
DY: Is there anything else you feel like is really important to highlight in this conversation?
SGA: The one thing I would say is, it’s not an easy road, right? But those of us who start this work in these communities, we’re path-makers. And so, you know, as an ode to Northern Minnesota, I just like to compare it to walking through fresh snow. You could be waist-deep in fresh snow and whoever’s in the front of the line has the hardest job. But the idea is that you’re making a way for those who are coming behind you. Holding onto that in the times that it gets really difficult and remembering that we’re doing this for a reason is really important.
Learn about VEMA’s upcoming events here.