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Welcoming Communities Project

This is the first in a series of articles we will be publishing to let New Ulm residents know about an exciting ongoing project. The stories are written by Cecilia Tojo Soler and Susan Jensen Kimmel.

Cecilia lives in New Ulm, MN. She grew up on a farm in Uruguay, South America, and became an American citizen a few years ago. She is a Senior Scientist at one of the most renowned Precision Agriculture companies in the world. She also is a dedicated advocate of social causes related to equality and inclusion. She is a participant in Welcoming Communities Project as well as a member of the League of Women Voters of New Ulm.  

Susan Kimmel lives in New Ulm, MN. She grew up in Springfield, MN and is the fifth-generation family member to live in Brown County. Susan is a retired teacher and exercise instructor for Community ad Seniors Together. For the past two years Susan has been engaged in rural equity learning through New Ulm Forward, “Write on Race to be Right on Race”, and the Welcoming Communities Project.

The Welcoming Communities Project is a diversity and inclusion initiative led by the Region Nine Development Commission, the Greater Mankato Diversity Council, and the University of Minnesota Extension -Center for Community Vitality. Community members in Sleepy Eye, Springfield, New Ulm and the surrounding area are participating in the project. The main purpose of the project is to create a more welcoming community for all by sharing, examining, and exploring community identities. In addition, this project aims to have a long-term impact on our communities, on a practical level, by increasing and improving interactions between persons of different backgrounds. This will result in individual members embracing the positive aspects of other members’ cultures and perspectives, thereby enriching our communities, and helping to maintain Southwest Minnesota as a thriving region for years to come.

A Welcoming Communities Assessment was completed in New Ulm, Springfield, and Sleepy Eye to document community strengths and weaknesses related to diversity and inclusion efforts. Inclusion is defined as a community’s effort to unite people and remove barriers to equal opportunity and responsibility in community and life. The assessment examined six aspects of inclusion in several sectors of community life. Community teams have been gathering either in person or through virtual meetings to examine assessment results and to begin the process of learning best practices for community change.

Our first meeting was held at the Sleepy Eye Community Center in late February. As we gathered in small groups, participants introduced themselves through a personal artifact/physical object that described their values, history, culture and personal goals. Through this process, participants were able to share stories of culture and personal goals. We also had the opportunity to discuss difficult topics with Spanish-speaking members, such as the barrier language can pose to intercultural understanding. Some Spanish speakers mentioned their continuous efforts to learn and improve their English skills, acknowledging that sometimes other communities do not see their hard work in that area. From our discussions it became apparent that our communities have work to do to make sure that all people are treated fairly and equitably. We know that cultural barriers exist, and as a result, we all do not start from the same place. Our task is to acknowledge that an unequal starting place exists and to continue to address and correct the imbalance through group discussions, effective communication and group action.

Communicating effectively, especially through active and compassionate listening, is a critical first step to understanding others and correcting cultural imbalances. Active listening teaches us to suppress the urge to think about what we are going to say next and to focus our thoughts on others for the purpose of greater understanding and empathy. Active listening requires an openness to other ideas, the setting aside of our opinions and biases, and making a conscious effort to understand someone fully. In short, we show respect for others by listening to their point of view. It can be difficult to listen actively because we tend to want to multi-task as we listen.  We look forward to a future where persons can communicate effectively with people of different backgrounds, having no fear to talk to people they do not know, allowing friendly conversations to flourish, and discovering the amazing beauty inherent in each human life.

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