Vital step in community organizing easy to overlook

St. Cloud, Minnesota, is a small city located on the banks of the Mississippi River, 60 miles northwest of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. As the center of Minnesota's fastest growing metropolitan area, St. Cloud serves as a commercial hub for over 250,000 people. Notably, the city ranked among the state's five worst cities for hate crimes in 1998, 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2005.

Not long ago, the leadership and residents of St. Cloud began to take action. The Create CommUNITY Initiative is a collaborative of many community organizations and local government officials drawing together to reduce racism in the St. Cloud region. Its mission is "to provide a welcoming, nondiscriminatory environment with respect and opportunity for all." Last year, recognizing that new Americans are a key voice, Create CommUNITY created a task force on "Integrating New Immigrants." The task force is comprised of St. Cloud area residents from a variety of different ethnic groups, countries of origin, and length of time in the region.

In early February, the group met for a values and stakeholder mapping workshop. The Center for Democracy and Citizenship was invited to help guide the participants through a series of exercises. We talked about community values, the group's values, and public spaces where groups come together.

At one point, a leader of the Somali Elders Council said, "You know, I appreciate being invited to visit the various churches, but none of you has ever been to our mosque."

For a moment, the group fell silent. It seemed so obvious that a key component of their work had been missing. How do you effectively reach out to people outside your team if you don't really know the people on your team?

We all suffer from this problem. Our knowledge of our neighbors, our colleagues, our classmates is all too often peripheral, limited to bits and pieces we pick up from chats at the water cooler, greetings in passing, or telephone conversations overheard. But how often do we take the time to sit down and really get to know them?

Over the next few months, the Integrating New Immigrants task force has committed to setting up one-on-one lunches to begin the process of getting to know one another, determining shared values, and finding common ground. The members of the task force are beginning at the beginning - truly the best way to begin.

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs