ST. CLOUD - Harsh words and heartfelt sentiment were exchanged by community members and local officials on racial issues in Central Minnesota at the St. Cloud NAACP Community Conversation with Gov. Mark Dayton.
Hosted Tuesday at St. Cloud Public Library, about 100 people from diverse backgrounds gathered to ask questions of St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis, St. Cloud Police Chief Blair Anderson, State Rep. Jim Knoblach, Minnesota Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey, Council on Black Minnesotans Community Program Specialist Kolloh Nimley and St. Cloud AFYA Pharmacy co-owner Dr. Edris Kosar.
From the start of the event, Dayton bluntly stated his opinions on the racial tension in St. Cloud and across the state in regards to immigration.
“Look around you. This is Minnesota,” Dayton said. “Minnesota is not like it was 30, 50 years ago. ... This is Minnesota and you have every right to be here. And anybody who cannot accept your right to be here, and this is Minnesota, should find another state.”
Dayton said he was aware of some of the racial issues happening in the St. Cloud area and urged participants to take a stand against what he described as “unacceptable, un-Minnesotan, illegal and immoral” behavior.
“If you are that intolerant, if you are that much of a racist or a bigot, then find another state. Find a state where the minority population is 1 percent or whatever. It’s not that in Minnesota. It’s not going to be again. It’s not going to be that in St. Cloud, or Rochester or Worthington,” Dayton said.
Anderson suspects many of the issues of racial intolerance in St. Cloud have stemmed from those outside the community.
“A lot of the tensions that we have in the community are stirred up by people who aren’t stakeholders. They’re not from here. They don’t care what happens here. And they are usually incorrect,” Anderson said.
But those comments did not stop several in the audience from questioning how the governor, Knoblach and Kleis are spending tax dollars on new immigrants, particularly those of East African descent.
Dayton said many organizations are providing assistance to those who are arriving in Minnesota. But he said the key reason many immigrants choose to come to Minnesota is because of the jobs Minnesota provides.
“Our economy cannot expand based on white, B+, Minnesota-born citizens. We don’t have enough,” Dayton said.
Knoblach vowed to repeat last year’s efforts in the Legislature to increase funding for the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, including money for the department’s office in St. Cloud.
Talks turned confrontational when members of the audience began directing questions and comments to others in the room - questions such as what effort have members in the Somali community made to assimilate to Central Minnesota.
But Nimley chose to answer that question with a question she posed to all in the room.
“It takes both sides to make it work,” Nimley said. “We need to take ownership of those concerns that we are raising. My question for you is, ‘What are you doing in St. Cloud, Central Minnesota to become a more inclusive society?’ “
Another audience member took issue with the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, accusing the organization of being supported by terrorists.
CAIR Minnesota Executive Director Jaylani Hussein, who had previously addressed the crowd on his concerns on racial tension said his organization is not affiliated with terrorist groups.
“As far as being called terrorists, the reality is that we are not a terrorist organization,” Hussein said. “We are a civil rights organization and we are proud to be called bad names when we are challenging people to do the right thing. CAIR does great work on building relationships between the American Muslim population and the general public.”
Along with hearing concerns about the East African population, one Latina audience member highlighted the issues the Latino community faces, particularly with securing driver’s licenses. She requested the governor issue an executive order to provide licenses for those who are undocumented immigrants.
Dayton said he cannot issue an executive order even though he supports it. Knoblach stated he was on the fence about the issue.
“It depends on the way the license is written,” he said. “At the same time I understand the concerns in terms of the safety issues.”
But, among the tensions, the dialogue did produce some ideas for change.
One audience member brought up the need to create cultural education centers. That idea was warmly received by the governor.
Others demanded more attention on the rising academic achievement gap between African-American students and their white counterparts.
However, one common resonating theme was that Central Minnesota residents needs to take a stand against racial intolerance. An idea was presented by Nimley to incorporate a program based off of Rochester’s “Not in My City” program. This program is designed to encourage others to quit spreading hate and learn to cooperate and learn about each other.
Members of the audience shouted that racial tensions do not have a place in their town, and several said they want to eliminate St. Cloud’s reputation for racial intolerance.
“Are there problems?” Anderson said. “Yes. But find me a place in this great country of ours where there are people that there aren’t problems. This has to start here. And it has to be consistent. We have to continue to cultivate our relationships and continue to work on them and continue to address the needs of our community.”