During Cultural Transition, Youth Can Be the Drivers of Change

(c) Joe Rossi 2012
The school in Pelican Rapids is a hub of cultural transition. It has led the charge in some aspects of building a welcoming, vibrant community.

In a region that was settled almost exclusively by Norwegian immigrants, integration was not a topic of conversation in the small west central Minnesota town of Pelican Rapids. From the grocery store to the classroom, differences were scarce.  In fact, as recently as two decades ago, the people of Pelican Rapids still largely came from a singular, cherished and understood history. But gradually, the face of a community — once dominated by cultural similarities — transformed.

In the early 1990s, Mexican-Americans began moving into Pelican Rapids, attracted by jobs at the local turkey processing plant. Refugees followed them from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and more. Hundreds of immigrants arrived. Eleven different languages were soon spoken in town – a particular challenge for a school system serving a student population in which 25 percent did not speak English as their native language.

As dramatic as this transformation was, Pelican Rapids is not alone. An evolving demographic landscape is a statewide phenomenon, with minorities now comprising 17 percent of Minnesota’s population and 30 percent of its preschool-age ranks, according to recently released U.S. Census Bureau estimates. In Pelican Rapids, alone, Hispanics account for nearly one-third of the nearly 2,500 people living in the community, with African Americans and Asians also holding strong representation.

As in many rural communities, change in Pelican Rapids did not come without its challenges. Yet, it remains a remarkable success story.  Three local women, Joan Jarvis Ellison, Johanna Christianson and Dianne Kimm, were part of the spirit that drove this town’s transformation.  One of the keys, they believe, has been providing leadership opportunities to all residents – a perspective they gained while participating in the Blandin Community Leadership Program, an initiative designed to develop and sustain vibrant rural communities.

“Parts of the community were very unhappy about the changes here,” Ellison explains. Understanding this, and knowing that it was vital to change attitudes and facilitate inclusion, one of the women’s first initiatives was the development of a community multicultural committee. The burgeoning group knew that something had to be done to not only welcome new residents, but also calm unnerving perceptions and ease flaring racial tensions.

While leadership began to drive initiatives that supported change, for the community to fully adapt, it had to have hope.

“Wise leaders know that creating a shared vision for the future, a vision arising from and embraced by the community, is the engine that powers change. When people have hope, they can accomplish amazing things,” says Kathy Annette, Blandin Foundation CEO.

People who looked and sounded quite different were joining Scandinavians, who had lived there for a lifetime.  Yet, community leadership was not reflective of these emerging populations. In order to evolve and create hope for an inclusive vision for the future, a community used to uniformity needed to evolve.

According to Ellison, some of the most inspiring efforts came from the youngest members of the community. “We decided about 10 or 15 years ago that we would have better luck working with youth than we would trying to change the minds of older adults.  So we started focusing on kids in the schools,” she explains.

Through programs such as Head Start and English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, Pelican Rapids started identifying and building leaders within the community’s younger population.

“Leadership is an unlimited resource,” says Annette. “When given the opportunity to be in a role of leadership, it is an invitation for youth to see themselves in a broader context, and to claim a future for themselves.”

Language was one roadblock more easily overcome by youth. While an inability to speak English divided some elders, it provided a new opportunity for young people. Within the ethnic communities, young adults not only served as vital translators, they were able to learn a skill for success: the ability to gain trust. “The elders looked at them as leaders rather than as young kids,” Kimm explains, adding that these youth became the foundation for facilitating integration and acceptance within the community.  “Giving kids the chance to excel as well as to step outside their communities was really important,” says Kimm.

Events led by the Multicultural Committee, such as a three-day international Friendship Festival, featured food, entertainment and music from the many countries represented in Pelican Rapids. By sharing cultural experiences, the community gradually became more aware and accepting of the cultures and histories present in their community. Soon other groups and initiatives evolved, and modifications were made to area businesses as a way of welcoming and assimilating newcomers.

“Community is a system – or more accurately, a web of inter-connected systems. Community is the PTA, and the town council, the Chamber of Commerce. Parents raising their kids, business people serving their customers. Artists and religious communities. Every community is different, but it is shaped by its geography, history, resources and the cultures of its people,” Annette observes.

Despite the strides Ellison, Kimm and Christianson have made within their community, the women are quick to point out that real progress comes from a full spectrum of involvement. Inclusiveness in leadership, they point out, is the key to community cohesiveness and growth.

Valerie Shangreaux, Director of the Blandin Community Leadership Program, agrees. “There isn’t a singular characteristic that makes a good leader. Great leadership requires a combination of commitment, perseverance, patience and the drive to not only accept, but influence change.”

When asked what advice what they would give rural communities facing a changing demographic landscape, Christianson reflects, “These immigrants and refugees are the workforce and the future for the Midwest.  Work patiently and tap into the leadership of young people so that you have that energy going forward.”