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Nurturing Connection through Community Listening in Southwest Minnesota

As a Wenda Weekes Moore Intern at the Women’s Foundation, I participated in a recent project to learn more about our community partners in southwest Minnesota. This year, the Women’s Foundation organized several trips to listen to communities in rural Minnesota and better understand their crucial role as part of an ecosystem for gender and racial justice throughout the state. The Women’s Foundation planned the Right Relationships Tour to grow closer partnerships with community members as we listen and learn more about issues and solutions in greater Minnesota. Earlier, staff members traveled to northwest Minnesota to connect with partners working with women and girls. In August, I joined our President & CEO, Gloria Perez; Cynthia Bauerly, vice president of strategic initiatives; and program officer Erika Idrovo-Cuesta on a three-day trip to Mankato, Morton, and Worthington.

On this trip I was able to become aware of many disparities that are experienced among rural communities. Having lived my whole life in the Twin Cities, I was limited to knowing what life looked like outside of my own surrounding community. Listening to the voices of people who call these places home allowed me to better understand the needs of these communities and understand the foundation’s goals of impacting the lives of women in the state. I would like to share some of these captivating stories I was able to hear through my experience on this trip.

Visiting with Safety Advocates in Mankato

In Mankato, we met with and listened to Safety grantee-partners at YWCA-Mankato and the Committee Against Domestic Abuse (CADA). CADA is a grantee-partner providing domestic and sexual violence services across a nine-county region, through shelter and community advocacy. Staff noted that Mankato is home to the second largest Somali community in Minnesota. It is also the site of the 1862 Dakota massacre, and they see this history intersecting with their work to address gender-based violence. For the people they work with, they see people needing more support in multiple ways. The number of people they see is the same, but their needs for service have increased and often involve intersecting issues with mental health, economic constraints, and substance abuse.

Although Black, Indigenous, and people of color make up 10 percent of the local population, CADA sees systemic oppression impacting those who need services, and their client base is comprised primarily of people from marginalized groups. They continue to advocate for increased funding for victim services but didn’t receive the funding they were seeking in the last legislative session. Like many nonprofits, rural and Greater MN community-based organizations are consistently asked to do more with less. The service areas they cover are great, while the complex services needed by clients increase.

Preserving Dakota Language

Next, we met with Vanessa Goodthunder, a former Young Women’s Cabinet member, Innovator, and member of the Women’s Foundation board, in her Morton Lower Sioux Community. She gave us a warm welcome and a tour of C̣aƞṡayapi Waḳaƞyeża Owayawa Oṭi or Lower Sioux Early Head Start and Head Start center. Here, we learned that the center aims to prepare children for school while providing them with good health habits. One of the main goals of this center is to preserve Dakota language and raise the next generation of Dakota language speakers. Coming from an Indigenous family who also speaks a native dialect, I can see how language preservation is very important. The center says that “Dakota Iapi kiƞhaƞ sdodkiyapi kte,” when they speak the Dakota language, then they will know who they are. I have learned to value this commitment to preserving and growing Indigenous language among all generations. Vanessa is doing a fantastic job as a leader in her community, and I am so glad I could meet her in person.

The Lower Sioux community is also working on multigenerational incubator solution to improve a housing shortage and the unaffordable housing issues individuals are experiencing. Some families are growing hemp and using it as an eco-friendly way to insulate houses. This means that more homes will be built at an affordable price for people in the community. Not only will this benefit the community economically, but they will also be able to provide housing for many individuals who need a home. While tackling housing issues, they are also contributing to bettering the environment by establishing a safe and eco-friendly way of building homes for families.

Community Conversation in Worthington

On our tour, the last stop we made was in Worthington, Minnesota. We had the opportunity to meet with incredible community leaders, such as Andrea Duarte-Alonso, another former Young Women’s Cabinet member and Innovator alumna. As a teacher, Andrea sees that that there is a strong need for mental health help in her community. There is minimal support locally, and a significant need. Due to a large number of immigrants coming to Worthington, there is also an overpopulation of kids in schools and a need for more staff. Incoming immigrants do not speak English or Spanish, making it challenging to communicate with them and offer support. To better address these needs, the community could use more support on resources that can be directed to the immigrant community to help them navigate their new environment. There is a need to offer more mental health support in hospitals and in schools.

In Worthington, we had a community conversation with influential leaders Sureeporn Sompamitwong, founder of the nonprofit Creative Healing Space, Erin Schutte Wadzinski, founder and attorney at Kivu Immigration Law, and the Southwest Crisis Center to better understand what women, girls and gender-expansive folks need to thrive in the Worthington community. Through listening, we heard a need for more opportunities for women in the workforce. They have seen a lack of flexibility in job roles when it comes to childcare. Additionally, there has been a pattern of childcare facilities closing in the area, which hurts mothers who are looking to work. These local leaders know the issues their communities are facing, but there is only so much they can do with limited resources.

Listening Brings Us Closer to Solutions

Overall, our time in southwest Minnesota showed us that there are no one-size solutions to the specific challenges communities face. Thank you to the partners we met from YWCA-Mankato and CADA (Committee Against Domestic Abuse) in Mankato; C̣aƞṡayapi Waḳaƞyeża Owayawa Oṭi in the Lower Sioux Indian Community; Creative Healing Space, Kivu Immigration Law, Southwest Crisis Center in Worthington, and the Young Women’s Initiative. We saw the need for more attention in the areas of housing, child care, education, and mental health care in these communities, where resources and financial help are limited. Increased funding could be used to increase resources to address mental health, improve the safety of women, girls, and gender-expansive people. The leaders we spoke with have solutions to some of the challenges their communities are facing.

This is why we meet directly with communities, wherever they are. We heard more of their story by seeing their vision, challenges, and aspirations up close. We get closer to solutions when we meet directly with communities, and then we work to resource their solutions – through grantmaking, future research, narrative change, and policy change.

Stay tuned to more of our listening to communities in greater Minnesota. In addition to visiting partners, we have also completed a field scan to listen to partners working with communities to increase health care access and well-being in greater Minnesota. Stay tuned for that report, and how what we’ve heard informs future investments and our next policy agenda!

By Janett Jimenez | Wenda Weekes Moore Intern

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