Foster peace: A small town in northwestern Minnesota celebrates its diversity

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“The road toward peace starts in our own neighborhoods and communities,” said Johanna Christianson, a Dutch immigrant who has made Pelican Rapids, Minn., her community for 35 years. As a young mother, she found lots of volunteer opportunities through her church, the Food Shelf and other service organizations. But it was her work with the refugees and other new immigrants that most changed Christianson-and most changed Pelican Rapids.

Dianne Kimm moved to the community as a young farm wife, raised a family, became a school board member and worked as a legal secretary. At a school board convention, Kimm picked up a button that read “I can make a difference.” She wanted to make a difference, but wasn’t sure how. When her church sponsored a family of Vietnamese refugees, Kimm donated a bed and met the family. “These were a very patient people,” she remembered, “and yet there was such an immediate need.” She helped her new neighbors understand their mail, helped their children with homework, gave advice and most important, became a friend. Over the years, Kimm befriended over 40 Vietnamese families and finally accepted the job of refugee program manager for Lutheran Social Service. “When I began on the school board, first it was for my own children and making a better school for them,” Kimm said. “Then my grandchildren came along. And now someone needs to make a difference for the refugees.”

When Joan Ellison moved to Pelican Rapids in 1980, the town was small (population 1800) and beautiful, with rolling hills, small farms, lakes and trees. It felt like home, full of the offspring of Scandinavians and Germans. The only flaw was a 40-minute drive to the nearest library. Ellison joined a group of women planning and raising funds for a local one. Meanwhile, the town was undergoing an influx of refugees and other new immigrants from all over the world. The population surged by over 35 percent in 10 years. Eleven different languages were spoken in town. The community struggled to meet changing needs. Ellison worked through the library to help with the needs.

Befrienders’ model

During those years of great change, Christianson, Kimm and Ellison focused on the Pelican Rapids Multicultural Committee, which formed to help the community respond to its new residents and to help the immigrants adjust to life in Minnesota. This small committee with a membership of about a dozen people, has a mission dedicated to “the creation of a safe, positive environment within the community. It seeks to promote cultural awareness and to foster respect, appreciation and understanding that crosses cultural barriers.” Using a befrienders’ model, the Committee provided opportunities for longtime residents and new immigrants to interact through common goals involving dialog, learning, sharing and socializing. Every event was promoted with an article in the local newspaper introducing the event and a new person to the community. “Over and over we tried to say ‘This is an individual, this is a real person,'” Ellison said.

Through collaborations with Friends of the Library, the schools, area churches and other service organizations, the Multicultural Committee presents an ongoing series of “Journeys” talks where new immigrants speak about their life experiences and long-term residents speak about venturing to new places. The Committee collaborated on “Many Cultures, One Community: a book of stories and recipes,” and “The Faces of Change,” a photo-documentary traveling exhibit and book about the new immigrants in Pelican Rapids and the local residents who worked with them.

The Committee has facilitated workshops on racism, worked with victims of torture and held multicultural focus groups on medical, educational and legal problems facing the community. They’ve written grants and lobbied for support of a Pelican Rapids Community Resource Center to help with housing needs, filling out government forms, tax information and translation.

The Committee has sponsored international dinners, many of them potlucks, with foods from all over the world. Out of these potlucks grew the International Friendship Festival, a weekend of ethnic music, dance, arts and crafts and food, which gave everyone a chance to appreciate the diversity in town, and also a chance to get to know each other. The theme of the festival has always been Many Cultures, One Community, and for 14 years, the Festival involved hundreds of volunteers from all walks of life, and all the cultures of the area, as well as thousands of visitors. The friendships formed by volunteers from all the cultures working together were as important as the event itself.

Reasons for peace

Change is hard. Peaceful change is even harder. It requires courage, patience and perseverance. Perhaps the changes in Pelican Rapids have been peaceful because in a small town, people in need are obvious. You don’t let a homeless family live in their car in the park in October. You help them find a job and apartment, no matter what their race or religion.

Perhaps the changes have been peaceful because no one separated out the new immigrants for special treatment. All grants and programs were designed to benefit anyone in need, not just the new immigrants. Perhaps the change was peaceful because through the local newspaper and the school’s public access television channel, the Pelican Rapids Multicultural Committee introduced the town to its new immigrants as real people, not just stereotypes.

Perhaps the changes have been peaceful because in a small town, when a small group of respected people stands up and say “we must welcome these people, we must help these people,” they set the standards of behavior for the rest of the community.

Perhaps the changes were peaceful because as the new immigrants began to feel safe and at home in Pelican Rapids, they cooked or danced or made music for the Friendship Festival, spoke to students in the school and met with the police department, the schools and the medical clinic to help solve problems.

Perhaps the change was peaceful because the new immigrants were welcomed into the community.

“I believe how a person feels received into a new community has a lot to do with their response to that community later on,” Christianson said. “People who have felt welcomed are far more willing to get involved and give back to the community creating a chain of peaceful relationships that strengthen the community.” In Pelican Rapids, the Multicultural Committee, in action with other individuals and organizations, fostered those welcomes.