Illustration, Community for Everyone

A Region for Everyone

Working together to make Central Minnesota more inclusive helps to bolster the region’s future.

By Gene Rebeck | Illustration by Chris McAllister

There’s a lot to be said for “Minnesota Nice.”

“Minnesota Nice is rooted in what we perceive as being polite, helpful and caring,” said Alfred Walking Bull, a storyteller and communications leader for Team Dynamics, a Minneapolis-based strategy firm that helps its clients become more equitable and just workplaces.

But how nice does it look to people who weren’t raised in “Minnesota Nice”?

“In predominantly white spaces, we view conflict as something to be resolved, and resolved quickly, because it makes us uncomfortable,” said Walking Bull. But in the Lakota culture in which he was raised, “we understand that conflict comes because you care about something. It’s not something that needs to be brushed away.”

Addressing differences in conflict, communication and culture is something more and more Central Minnesotans are prioritizing. As the region’s non-white population grows, the Initiative Foundation is building its own competencies while seeking to support diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts among its friends and partners. “It’s a complex task,” said Lynn Bushinger, chief financial and operating officer at the Initiative Foundation, “but the fundamental reason for it is simple: If the region is to continue to grow and prosper, it needs everyone to work and to live together.”

Embracing Change

As the Initiative Foundation seeks to better serve an increasingly diverse region, it has been working with Team Dynamics to improve staff members’ understanding and appreciation of cultural difference. “Team Dynamics has been helping the Initiative Foundation continue to change, grow, and reflect our region, and to develop solutions that will help the region support community and economic sustainability,” said Don Hickman, vice president for community and workforce development at the Initiative Foundation.

Currently, people of color make up about 10 percent of Central Minnesota’s population, and that is projected to increase. With Minnesota facing a generation-long worker shortage, the only demographic that is growing in working-age people is people of color.

Developing programs and services that address the needs of all regional residents is not a new goal for the Initiative Foundation, though Hickman noted that “we have gotten more intentional about it in recent years.” Among the Foundation’s programs is the Initiators Fellowship, which seeks to help participants develop social enterprise ventures and help them grow as community, regional and statewide leaders. Over the years, the program has actively sought to make its pool of fellowship candidates more diverse.

The Enterprise Academy is the Foundation’s program that is most specifically focused on communities of color and diversity, according to Jeff Wig, vice president for entrepreneurship at the Initiative Foundation. To assist non-majority participants interested in starting their own businesses, the Foundation partners with organizations such as the Central Minnesota Community Empowerment Organization, which works primarily with East African communities. The Foundation also works with Higher Works Collaborative, which focuses on African Americans.

“These organizations are our cultural navigators,” Wig said. In addition to helping the program identify potential entrepreneurs, “they also help us deliver our programming in the most culturally intelligent way we can, and to avoid cultural missteps.”

As the Enterprise Academy grew, the Initiative Foundation worked to develop loan programs to support underrepresented communities, especially at the startup stage. These loans tend to be smaller, more high-touch and may have little in the way of traditional collateral. The Foundation also has developed Islamic-acceptable funding. Many Muslims follow the Islamic faith’s prohibition against charging fixed interest on a loan. Islamic finance is based on shared risk and shared profit, so the Foundation has worked with experts to design loan products that meet this need.

“We think this is a critical long-term strategy,” Wig said. “A fully inclusive business community needs to be built from the ground up, and that includes lending a helping hand to motivated entrepreneurs from all backgrounds.”

Not everyone aspires to run a business. But immigrants to the region are seeking work, and businesses have jobs to fill. Understanding cultural differences has become crucial as companies and organizations seek to hire more people of diverse backgrounds. But in Central Minnesota, many of those companies’ employees grew up in areas with little or no ethnic diversity.

“It’s really up to companies to bridge that gap,” said Hudda Ibrahim, founder of Filsan Talent Partners, a St. Cloud-based diversity and inclusion consulting firm that helps employers attract, train and retain employees of color. “What I see all the time is that people have the right intention to hire people, but then there can be culture clashes.”

Employers seeking to hire and retain Somali Americans, for instance, need to “help their employees understand a bit about Somali culture,” including religious holidays, rules for dress and prayer times. At the same time, Somali Americans also need to understand the company’s culture.

Establishing these values as company priorities is key. “When employees see that the CEO is really invested in diversifying the workplace and ensuring that everyone is on board, people will and do pay attention,” Ibrahim said. “They’re more open to having a dialogue instead of debating issues.” The objective is not to force assimilation. Instead, “you are helping people integrate into a unified workplace.”

Talk and Learn

One of the Initiative Foundation’s partners in building its diversity, equity and inclusion consciousness and capacity in Central Minnesota is the Region Five Development Commission in Staples.

“To be economically competitive, we needed a diverse workforce,” said Cheryal Hills, executive director for the Staples-based Region Five Development Commission. Until recently, the five-county region her organization serves (Crow Wing, Cass, Morrison, Todd, and Wadena counties) didn’t have a common platform they could use to help residents explore cultural differences and learn about ways to live and work together.

In 2018, Region Five established Welcoming Communities advocacy groups, which have paved the way. The eight community groups have more than 50 members. They have met quarterly for the past 18 months to engage in DEI learning, as well as to develop projects to bridge cultures and be more truly welcoming to diverse communities in the region.

Region Five also has launched a “Justice System Consortium” with the Initiative Foundation as an advisor. Membership includes LGBTQ+ residents, persons living with mental health challenges, low-income people, limited English speaking community members and BIPOC residents. The goal is to bring together the concerns of law enforcement along with those of all communities in the region to improve police-community relations and develop innovative approaches to law enforcement that are respectful of community concerns. The consortium grew out of the Advocacy Groups. “We would never want anyone to present us as experts in this field,” Hills said. “We’re learning as we go.”

People are hungry for these kinds of conversations and learning opportunities, said Dawn Espe, Region Five’s regional development planner.

“It’s a slow, thoughtful process to try to meet people where they’re at and being sure you’re not instilling fear into them,” Espe said. “It’s about recognizing that we all have different needs and come from different places.” Call it the new Minnesota Nice.