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From farm country to the suburbs, Minnesota's diversity climbed the past decade

Oakdale is among a cluster of suburbs north and east of St. Paul that have seen some of the biggest jumps in diversity in the metro area, according to new census data. But racial and ethnic diversity have not climbed just around the Twin Cities over the past decade.

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Ella Vang, 8, hands Aubree Turner, 4, a cucumber at the Farmers Market in Oakdale, Minnesota. Aubree’s racially blended family recently moved from Hugo to Oakdale in search of a more diverse community in the east Twin Cities metro. Tribune News Service
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OAKDALE, Minn. — Anna Turner's family moved from Hugo to Oakdale, Minnesota, in July, hoping to find a "melting pot."

As she and her daughter perused stands selling hair bows and vegetables at the Oakdale Farmers Market last week, she said they found what they were looking for here. Turner, who is white and whose husband is African American, said they landed in a diverse neighborhood with more amenities — and one where they finally secured a home after being outbid on nine other properties.

A couple of stalls down, Oscar Hernández sold burritos and tortas from his Taqueria Los Paisanos food truck and reflected on his changing community.

"I've been living here for almost 18 years and I can see how the population has more diversity," said Hernández. "There's more Asian people around, more Hispanic people, all different cultures."

Oakdale is among a cluster of suburbs north and east of St. Paul that have seen some of the biggest jumps in diversity in the metro area, according to new census data. But racial and ethnic diversity have not climbed just around the Twin Cities over the past decade. The percentage of people who identified as a race other than white increased in every region of the state, from farm country along the Iowa border to small towns hugging the North Shore.

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Nearly a quarter of Minnesotans are Black, Indigenous or a person of color, compared with just 10% of the state's population in 2000. Minority residents accounted for all of the state's growth over the past decade, as the number of non-Hispanic white residents decreased for the first time ever — a change that may be due, in part, to more people identifying as multiracial.

Some cities and counties are diversifying much faster than others. Suburbs like Maplewood, North St. Paul, Landfall and Oakdale saw some of the biggest metro increases in their diversity index scores. That index measures the likelihood that two randomly selected people from a community would be different races and ethnicities.

Maplewood Mayor Marylee Abrams said that in her 2 ½ decades living in the city, she has seen examples of increasing diversity "everywhere. Everywhere." In the local school district, two-thirds of students identified as a race other than white, or two or more races. At the Maplewood Mall, the number of businesses owned by people of color has climbed.

City leaders and local vendors and shoppers at the Oakdale Farmers Market listed many of the same reasons that more people of color are living in the area, including good schools, proximity to family, and, as Abrams described, "very attractive affordable housing opportunities here on the East Side that they may not have been able to find in Minneapolis and St. Paul."

But even more than the northern metro, Waite Park saw the highest jump in its diversity index score. The St. Cloud suburb went from 18% nonwhite in 2010 to 42% in 2020. St. Cloud also saw a major boost in diversity, with its population of color doubling to 32%. About half of Waite Park's housing stock is multifamily units, and that housing appeals to many families of color, along with the city's retail, commercial and industrial presence and many minority-owned businesses, City Administrator Shaunna Johnson said.

An influx of Somali immigrants and Somali Americans accounts for much of the change in St. Cloud and Waite Park, said political science associate professor Pedro dos Santos, who is on the board of #UniteCloud, an organization aimed at resolving tensions around racial, religious and other differences. His family moved to St. Cloud four years ago from a small town in Iowa.

The city's increasing diversity was part of what drew him to a job there, said dos Santos, a Brazilian immigrant who said he wanted his children to see "there's different ways of being a kid and growing up."

"There are growing pains that happen when there's demographic changes," he said of his community. "I moved here knowing that there are 'problems' but excited that these are actually problems that have solutions and eventually will get better, because people will realize they just have to live with each other."

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In the southwest corner of the state, Nobles County — home to Worthington — saw the biggest percentage jump of any county in its nonwhite population. County Commissioner Gene Metz said the area started to change with an influx of Southeast Asian refugees after the Vietnam War, and now many Hispanic and Karen immigrants are moving to Nobles County.

The local meatpacking industry has expanded over the past 10 years, continuing to draw workers, along with other farm and construction work, Metz said. The number of different languages and dialects spoken at meatpacking plants and schools has created challenges, he said. "But we would not survive without it," he said. "Because the labor force we need to keep our farm economy robust depends on it."

While census data show diversity climbing, experts say communities of color have historically been undercounted, and 2020 was likely no exception. Minnesota had the country's highest census response rate at 75%, helping it narrowly hang on to its eight congressional seats.

"The highest in the nation, yeah, clap, clap, clap. But guess who are the 25% that didn't do the self-response? ... People of color, because of fear, or people in rural areas too, because of lack of connectivity to [the] internet," said Mónica Hurtado, one of many people who urged historically undercounted communities to participate.

She almost did not get involved, fearing it would lead to Homeland Security raids or deportations in the Latino community. But when she found out more about the data confidentiality and heard one key fact, she changed her mind. In 2010, she said there was a significant undercount in north Minneapolis, where she lives. As a result, she said the community lost out on millions of dollars in government funding — something she wanted to ensure did not happen again.

Hurtado, who's from Colombia, looked into her ancestry and found she was Indigenous and European. She was among a growing number of people across the nation who noted they are more than one race in their census form.

Minnesota saw the number of people who described themselves as multiracial climb from 1% of the population in 2000 to 2% a decade later. It's now at 4%.

"I see the number of multiple race people and I think, those people were there. We haven't had a huge baby boom," said Carolyn Liebler, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. But she said heightened racial awareness after George Floyd's killing may have changed things.

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"People who were identifying as white — the thing about the 2020 moment made it so they decided to report their multiple races."

Liebler said fewer people identifying solely as white likely contributed to the number of white, non-Hispanic Minnesotans declining slightly for the first time. The Census Bureau also provided people with more space to describe their race.

Minnesota remains significantly less diverse than the nation as a whole. But of the 25 most populous metro areas in the U.S., Metropolitan Council researchers said the Twin Cities was 10th highest in percentage growth of people of color.

Racial minorities made up the majority of residents in 17 cities statewide with populations of 500 or greater, including St. Paul and Pelican Rapids. And in the metro area alone, there are 24 cities where the majority of children are Black, Indigenous or people of color, said Met Council research manager Joel Huting.

"Overall, the region's youth — or people under 18 — are 46% BIPOC," Huting said. "If you want to know what the future is going to look like, look to the youth."

Data editor MaryJo Webster contributed to this report.

©2021 StarTribune. Visit startribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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