by Dennis Dalman
Gov. Mark Dayton didn’t mince words at a meeting in St. Cloud on the afternoon of Oct. 13. He said, “Immigrants have every right to be in Minnesota, and those who cannot accept them should find another state.”
Most in the large audience at the St. Cloud Public Library burst into applause for Dayton’s comments.
Violence against immigrants is “unacceptable, illegal and immoral,” the governor said in response to a question about systemic prejudice and actions against immigrants in St. Cloud.
Dayton was one of many speakers who accepted an invitation to the “St. Cloud NAACP Community Conversation with Gov. Mark Dayton.” More than 300 people attended the meeting, a varied mix of all ages – people of color and Caucasians.
The 90-minute meeting was comprised of a series of questions from the audience and answers or comments from the panel members, which included guest speakers Dayton; Minnesota Department of Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey; St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis; St. Cloud School Superintendent Willie Jett; St. Cloud Police Chief William Blair; State Rep. Jim Knoblach (R-St. Cloud) and several members of the NAACP, which hosted the event, including Mable Fale; Dr. Edris Kosar, owner of AFYA Pharmacy in St. Cloud; and Kolloh W. Nimley, community program specialist for the Council on Black Minnesotans at Rochester Community and Technical College.
Most of the questions at the event revolved around several concerns in central Minnesota, including prejudice, outright racism, lack of good-paying jobs and challenges for newcomers in the education system.
The following are brief summaries of many of the questions and answers:
How can the Northstar Commuter Rail be extended from Big Lake to St. Cloud as was originally intended? That could help people in the St. Cloud area get to better-paying jobs near or in the Metro area.
Dayton: He said he has always been in favor of the plan, but it got put on hold years ago. To extend the line, the federal government would have to fund about 80 percent of it, and that is unlikely to happen anytime soon, because – as Dayton said – once a federally funded project is interrupted, as the Northstar Rail one was, it’s hard to convince the feds to continue funding to finish such a project.
Some people, including many immigrants in the St. Cloud area, are employed in retail jobs and some are working 50 to 60 hours a week to try to make ends meet. How can the area get more manufacturing jobs, which pay better?
Dayton: He agreed more work must be done to get manufacturing jobs to the greater St. Cloud area. Raising the minimum wage, he added, should help people in the lower-paying jobs.
How can a multi-cultural center be established to help immigrants adjust to central Minnesota, a place to share values and positive relationships among established residents and newcomers?
Dayton: He said that is an excellent idea, and he will gladly help promote such a center.
Who is financing refugees and how much is it costing taxpayers?
Dayton: Social Services departments help immigrants, as they do all people in need. Yes, the needs cost money, but getting jobs is the answer to lower costs of social service. There are 97,000 job vacancies in Minnesota right now that cannot be filled. As the population ages, there are not enough young people to fill many of the needed jobs, and an economy cannot grow in a healthy way if those job vacancies remain unfilled. Dayton, in answering another question, emphasized this: “Everybody wins together or everybody loses together.”
How can we make schools and universities safer from the possibility of mass shootings?
Police Chief Blair: Thanks to a federal program, St. Cloud has just received funding for three extra full-time officers to work on and around the campus of St. Cloud State University. The police department is constantly working on ways to make the college area safer.
Dayton: He promised to ask the Minnesota Schools, Colleges and Universities Board for safety assessments and a resources list.
How can the achievement gap in schools be narrowed or eradicated?
Dayton: The achievement gap in Minnesota is indeed a disgrace. It exists partly because people come here from other states or from other countries, and those people don’t have the educational background to keep up in schools and, thus, achieve. Dayton agreed recruitment policies must be developed so more people of other cultures can be teachers or work in schools, fluent in two or more languages so students can be helped to overcome challenges.
One man said he dreamed of coming to America when he was younger, but now that he’s here, he wonders what has become of the American spirit to help others.
Superintendent Jett: He said he doesn’t agree with the premise of that comment. Yes, there are problems that should be solved, but people still want to come here, and there are many programs and efforts underway to help newcomers become acculturated and welcomed into Minnesota, including a $1.4 billion foundation grant recently announced to help immigrants make a cultural transition.
Knoblach: The income of Afro-Americans in Minnesota fell dramatically in just the past couple years. Many factors may have caused that, but poor education outcomes may be a major cause. That points to a need for more minority teachers, and more options for parents in the schools. It won’t be easy, he said, but everyone must work toward that goal. Dayton’s Diversity Inclusion Council is a good step to helping that happen, with 20 percent of the governor’s administration now people of color.
One woman said change can be confusing and scary and that racial tensions definitely exist in the St. Cloud area, tensions that some people experience, tensions that others create, including those who come from out of the area to stir up racial trouble.
Panel: There seemed to be a panel consensus that outside troublemakers can cause problems, those who come to give speaking presentations and are “usually incorrect” in their assumptions and assertions, said Police Chief Blair.
Do authorities do enough to address complaints about prejudice or illegal acts against immigrants?
Police Chief Blair: There are dozens of initiatives at the police department that led to agreements with advocacy groups. There have been many outreach efforts to the Afro-American community, and those continue unabated. There are also a variety of help programs in the schools and other efforts to reduce prejudices. Some of those programs get no attention, but they are very much in place and working.
How can we reduce racial tensions in St. Cloud and elsewhere?
Kleis: The best way is to localize the concern by reaching out to people on a neighborhood level. There have been examples of get-togethers with immigrants, such as a recent Lake George Neighborhood picnic. Another is the upcoming Create CommUNITY set for Oct. 20 at the River’s Edge Convention Center. Anybody anywhere can and should invite neighbors, such as immigrants, to have dinner or to get together for another social event.
There have been reports of racist harassment at St. Cloud State University. What can be done about it?
Police Chief Blair: Every complaint of harassment from anywhere in the city is investigated. The police take such complaints “very, very seriously.” They should always be reported to the police or to the St. Cloud Human Rights Office. The toll-free number for the human-rights office is 1-800-657-3704. Dayton, Kleis and Knoblach gave their personal phone numbers and told anybody with a complaint of racial harassment to call them.
St. Cloud School Board Member Bruce Mohs: A member of the audience, he spoke up to say the school district is, in fact, working very hard to deal with any racial tensions that should arise. When Somali students held a protest at Tech High School last year, their complaints about harassment were taken very seriously, and programs have since been introduced to open lines of communication and to listen to the concerns of all students and then do something about those concerns.
An Hispanic woman who works at Catholic Charities said Hispanics might seem to be invisible in St. Cloud, but there are many, and they face the same kinds of fears and tensions that members of other races do. She asked the governor to issue an executive order making drivers’ licenses available for all Hispanics and others who need them so adults could drive to work and back.
Dayton: He said he has no executive powers to do such a thing, that the legislature would have to pass a law to that effect.
Other people told the panel that extension of the Northstar Commuter Rail to St. Cloud would benefit immigrants and others in many ways.
They noted there will be a Northstar Extension Rally Nov. 12 at the St. Cloud Convention Center. Rep. Knoblach said he will attend it.