“If we are not actively including, we are probably accidentally excluding.” Toby Spanier, U of M Extension Educator

Last summer, Region Nine Development Commission announced the receipt of a $200,000 grant from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation, as part of the foundation’s Healthy Connections Program. Region Nine said the grant would be used over the next two years to “help create and nurture more connected, resilient, and inclusive communities where all people have the support and resources to reach their full health potential.”

According to a press release announcing the grant, Region Nine planned to use the funds to expand the Rural Equity Learning Community (RELC) — a learning cohort to share, examine, and explore inclusive best practices to create welcoming communities and strengthen local economies. Sleepy Eye was chosen as the first location of this year’s cohort, in partnership with Sleepy Eye Public Schools and Sleepy Eye Economic Development Authority.

Last Tuesday evening, Nov. 5, the first meeting about the program was held at the Sleepy Eye Event Center. Community members from a wide variety of businesses and organizations — from New Ulm and Springfield, in addition to Sleepy Eye — had been invited to attend and help begin the process of examining what makes a welcoming community.

The program is co-facilitated by the University of MN Extension Center for Community Vitality and the Greater Mankato Diversity Council. Representatives from both organizations were at the Sleepy Eye meeting to facilitate the first step in the program, an assessment process.

In the opening remarks, Julie Hawker, a Region Nine consultant, shared information from the 2019 cohort — the communities of St. James, St. Peter, Fairmont, Waseca, and Montgomery/LeCenter/Lonsdale. Each community developed their own response to the ideas covered by the RELC program. One example is the work done in St. James. The group established a support group for Spanish-speaking senior citizens, held two events — “Culture through Cuisine” and the “Multicultural Fiesta,” and also published a book of immigration stories of local community members who came to the country years ago, as well as new immigrants.

Before breaking into discussion groups at the Sleepy Eye meeting, the facilitators shared guidelines for discussion. Extension Educator, Neil Linscheid, shared a good thought to begin the discussion, when he said, “Keep in mind we are not here to judge the past but to design the future.”

The focus of the project is inclusion, defined as: Creating spaces to grow as individuals, sectors, and community through sharing, learning, collaboration and action to unite people and remove barriers to equal opportunity and responsibility in community and life.

On the topic of inclusion, Toby Spanier, another Extension Educator at the meeting, provided food for thought, when he said, “If we are not actively including, we are probably accidentally excluding.”

Attendees at the meeting split into seven conversation groups, to discuss inclusion in one sector of community: school system, health care system, law enforcement, local government, non-profit organizations, religious institutions, and the business community. People from all three towns mingled within the groups to discuss and answer survey questions related to inclusion in their field.

In closing, Bukata Hayes, Executive Director of the Greater Mankato Diversity Council, told the group that the surveys would be compiled and another meeting would be organized in January to work forward and learn more about inclusion in communities.

Over the next year, each community will be invited to form a core group to identify needs and actions for their own town.