In the Spotlight

News & Features
Small Towns Confront Local Racism
By Kathryn Herzog
September 24, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

During the Farm Crisis of the 1980s, many people moved away from rural Minnesota to find work in the city. Many rural companies were left struggling with a small labor pool. As long-time residents moved out, a few people of color moved in, looking for the rural lifestyle. The transition to a more diverse rural population has gone well in some places. For other towns, it's been a wake-up call to the racist attitudes in their communities.

IN A CHURCH MEETING ROOM more accustomed to coffee gatherings than hard-hitting social debate, 35 people from the town of Benson are talking about institutional racism. It's part of a diversity training workshop, designed to identify how banks, libraries, schools, and government can perpetuate discrimination in the community.

Benson is a small farming town of about 3,000 people in west-central Minnesota. A quaint city park sits in the town's center. Small businesses, many still healthy, line the main street, and a Burlington Northern rail line cuts through town.

Last fall, when a local manufacturing company was searching for workers, city leaders invited some Hmong families from the Twin Cities to visit Benson. A number of the Hmong families wanted to leave the Cities in search of a country life. Some church members suggested sponsoring Hmong families to help them move to the area. It seemed like the perfect match - until a few angry letters were sent to the local newspaper.

Dorothy Rosemeir lives in Benson.

Rosemeir: There's a real fear of change in a lot our rural communities and it's ... I mean, I think it's sad that there's such a fear of another culture that you don't even want to experience or get to know somebody, and you have a judgment on them, and labeled, and everything else.
Rosemeir and others at the workshop say they've received angry letters and phone calls from people in the town. Some people gave their names. Others remained anonymous. Eventually, the Hmong families decided NOT to move to Benson. William Yang of the Hmong American Partnership visited the town on behalf of the Hmong families. He says people were generally friendly in Benson, but he knew the Hmong families would be considered outsiders.
Yang: I think some negative may have been on the news, in the media ... of violence and gangs and other problems that may happen in the city make people feel uncertain as too if we welcome this Hmong community into our community will we have that problem in Benson ... I mean these are some of the problems that I could read, I could tell just meeting in the town meeting I was in. I think many questions came up and people were not prepared and were not ready.
Yang says diversity training can be helpful. But whether towns are prepared or not, Yang says eventually people of color WILL move in and people need to learn to live together.
(Singing) Wade in the water, wade in the water children.
Sister Clara Stain helped organize the diversity workshop. She says despite the struggle the town has experienced in dealing with its racism, people who've never worked together before are now engaged in plans to better their community.
Stain: My sense is that the request that the Hmong family come here just brought into consciousness the fact that there is a lot of fear and a lot of ignorance. In our faith, in our church, we say that we are all one, that we are equal, if that's not implemented, something gets watered down, so what we say and what we do ... the struggle is to have those things match."
Religious leaders took the first steps and began organizing talks about racism in Benson and throughout Swift County. And once people began talking, they decided to find some outside help. Jim and Nadine Addington have lead anti-racism workshops for the past three years, traveling to towns like Benson, Little Falls, and Crookston. The Addingtons work with the Minnesota Council of Churches. Five years ago the Council created an anti-racism initiative to help white communities respond as their towns became more diverse. Jim Addington says churches can have a big impact on how a community deals with racism.
Addington: Our experience is that Minnesotans, whether in small towns or in larger cities, by and large don't want to be racist and don't think of themselves as racist, and yet, at the same time, when their communities change and questions about the school system come up, people just really are grasping for ways to respond to the challenge of new people moving in, new communities...
Addington says it's important for churches to step in and take some leadership in dismantling racism in small towns. He says one goal of the diversity workshop is to have people think of ways institutions can become more accountable to the community they serve. Pat Sinna works at the Benson library. She says the diversity workshop has made her realize how easy it is to stereotype people.
Sinna: When books are overdue, oh it's those people in that spot, they always have overdue books or, I mean, it's those kind of things that I guess have always been there with me, but I guess I've become so much more aware of them and trying to change my perspective on all of that and help my staff to do it too.
The diversity workshop may be the beginning of a new effort in Benson. A few of the people from the workshop plan to organize more racism workshops for the local business community - and they'll encourage more people in the church to get involved.