“How can we make our communities more welcoming?”
By Kathleen McQuillan
This article was published in the Timberjay on May 24, 2023: View Story
What do you think of when you hear the words, “Welcoming Community”? Maybe you recall the time you were new to town and a stranger knocked on your door with an unexpected invitation to attend a meeting with her at the local library. Or is it a holiday parade where smiling people of varied colors and interests were represented, walking side by side at an even pace. Or maybe it brings up an image of a well-equipped playground with a passel of youngsters mixing freely, sharing laughter, taking turns. Or was there a bustling downtown with colorful storefronts, music pouring into the street with flowers and benches, doors propped open, inviting you to come in, browse and get acquainted?
Have you ever moved into a new community? How long did it take before you felt like you “belonged”? Have you witnessed a newcomer in your town? What were you thinking and feeling in their presence? What do you think they might they have been feeling?
I moved many times in my young adult life before settling here in northern Minnesota. Over those first ten years, I had a lot of experiences trying to adapt. Sometimes, I thought I had succeeded but other times, not so much. Now, 40 years later, there are recollections still so vivid that it seems like only yesterday that I was trying, with every new move, to adapt to a new climate, different faces, dialects and customs, and many new feelings that were hard for me to name. Now I realize that a big one was just learning to trust — strangers and myself — as we worked hard to learn about each other and appreciate our differences.
Living through those early days of trying so hard to find my way to “fit in” was at times really hard. But many people, especially members of the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) community, have told me that my challenges seemed pretty easy compared to theirs! After listening to their stories, I couldn’t disagree.
Recently, a small group of folks from around the area met at the Cook Community Center to listen to a presentation from Amber Lewis, a Lead for Minnesota Fellow working with the nonprofit consulting firm, Northspan. She was there to share her research on the changing demographics of northeast Minnesota and the growing importance of our being a “welcoming community”. Her talk went beyond “just being nice” to new people moving into our communities but actively reaching out to help create a sense of safety and acceptance and embracing the unique insights, knowledge, and skills that new people bring with them that ultimately enrich our communities, enhance the local work force and strengthen our regional economy.
Lewis serves as the Program Coordinator of the “Welcoming Community” Initiative, one of several Northspan projects designed to bring people of different racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds together to get to know one other, increase mutual understanding, and participate in activities that can build greater individual and community commitment to diversity, inclusion and equity.
She does this by offering a variety of approaches that can increase participants’ understanding and appreciation of different cultures and backgrounds. This fall, Northspan will host its third annual Equity Summit on Oct. 4 at the Iron Trail Motors Event Center. Last year’s event, titled “Belonging in Northeast Minnesota”, drew over 100 in-person attendees. Organizers will be announcing this year’s theme soon and encouraging registrations to continue the process of making the Iron Range and surrounding communities more open and inviting to people of diverse backgrounds.
In addition to this conference-modeled activity, there is a no-cost offering for qualifying individuals and organizations called the Intercultural Development Inventory, a tool to assess one’s current level of cultural awareness. It also offers practical strategies to increase mutual understanding, inclusion, and cooperation among diverse members in our communities with the common goal of a brighter future. So far, sixty of these inventories have been completed and an additional 16 are in progress across northeast Minnesota.
Lewis also talked about an “inclusion readiness program” that targets school districts. Currently, Cloquet and Cook County Districts are taking part in this year-long facilitated program to enhance awareness and inclusion. She emphasized that the program is open to receive new applications from other school districts and encouraged us to consider participating.
Following the presentation, attendees lingered over refreshments to share their reactions to the information. People relayed their personal stories of their own experiences with feeling like an “outsider”. Many nodded when the term “pack sacker” was mentioned, describing how “un-welcomed” we felt when labeled this way by folks born and raised in the area.
It wasn’t long before the conversation shifted from these personal struggles to a spirit of inquiry, and an acknowledgment that “we can, and want to, do better”! With our desire for greater understanding and to take action, we also shared our concerns for the well-being of newly-arrived children, and those whose identities, needs and interests are too often ignored or rejected. It didn’t take long for us to move from our informal debriefing session to some serious talk about what we could do about it.
The general consensus was that Amber Lewis’s presentation had, indeed, hit its mark — by stimulating our commitment to continue making our corner of the world more welcoming. We learned about some new tools and resources available that will help us in this endeavor. And that we are not alone in our desire to foster diversity, equity and a more inviting and prosperous community.
Now, we just need to decide on what should be our next step forward!
More information is available on the Northspan website: Welcoming Community Program