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The Changing Face of Minnesota

Minnesota has always had a reputation as a liberal, lily-white, Lutheran state, but all that is changing. As author john powell puts it, 'Lake Woebegone is getting a tan." Thousands of Hmong, Somali, and Latino immigrants have moved to Minnesota in the last few years, with great implications for the state's economic and cultural life.

These demographic shifts are affecting the smaller cities and towns even more than the big cities. In Worthington, for instance, a town of 10,260 people, more than 50 languages are spoken in the schools. In Pelican Rapids, a tourist town of 1,900, 24 languages are spoken in the schools.

Nancy Kari, director of programs and faculty for the Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs, approached the League of Women Voters with the idea of doing a statewide study circle program on immigration. Kari wanted to give Minnesotans the chance to talk about what it means to live in this country, educate themselves more fully, avoid making untested assumptions and explore new ideas."It has to do with building a democracy," she said. "How do immigrants who are new to this country create a democracy? We wanted a chance to raise these issues, to lift up this framework." [Minnesota Star Tribune, February 7th, 2000]

In response, the League of Women Voters organized "Changing Faces, Changing Communities: Creating a better Minnesota with citizen involvement." The program has fostered almost 100 study circles this year, involving roughly 1,000 people in 17 communities. The sites include Austin, Detroit Lakes/Pelican Rapids, Edina, Eden Prairie, Mankato, Marshall, Minneapolis, Moorhead, Northfield, Rochester, St. Cloud, St. Paul, Willmar, Winona, and Armstrong High School in Robinsdale.

With help from Kari and from Harry Boyte, a well-known author and professor at the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota, the League adapted SCRC's Changing Faces, Changing Communities, adding information specific to their state. The guide includes a session, written by Boyte, which asks participants "what it means to be an American in the current age of immigration."

Coordinator Susan Anderson and Project Chair Janet Gendler barnstormed through the state, helping local coordinators prepare for the study circle, which began in February.

Andrea Carruthers, president of the local League in Willmar (pop. 18,500), volunteered to coordinate study circles in her community because she wanted to help her neighbors adjust to these changes."Just having people walking the streets of Willmar that are not white is a change," Carruthers said. "It's different for people who were born here and are now 75 and 80 years old. It's dramatic."

"In my ten years in this community this is the best dialogue that I have participated in. It is the first time I have felt completely comfortable expressing myself," said Jose Villareal, who took part in one of the circles in Willmar.

Jane McWilliams, local coordinator of the circles in Northfield, says, "This has been an incredible amount of work, but a very enriching experience." Local action forums were held in each site in April. The action forum for the state, which included the formation of task forces, an "action bazaar" featuring organizations working in the immigration field, and a "skills workshop" to assist task force members, took place on April 29th in Saint Paul.

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