Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Embracing diversity in small-town Minnesota June 7, 2010

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THREE DECADES AGO, maybe even two decades ago, you never would have seen this in rural southwestern Minnesota.

But of the 54 seniors graduating from Westbrook Walnut Grove High School on Sunday afternoon, 15 students were Asian. That’s remarkable in an area originally settled by primarily Scandinavians and Germans.

Seeing those dark-haired, dark-eyed graduates with olive-toned skin among students with fairer complexions struck me more than any single aspect of the WWG high school graduation ceremony.

Hearing surnames like Yang and Vang among Jensen, Erickson and Schweim, simply put, pleased my ears.

Demographics on the Minnesota prairie certainly have changed in the 36 years since I graduated from nearby Wabasso High School. In my class of 89, all of us were Caucasian. Our only cultural exposure came through the foreign exchange students who attended our school.

Thankfully, that has changed, at least in some rural Minnesota communities like Walnut Grove and Westbrook. Walnut Grove, childhood home of author Laura Ingalls Wilder, is home to many Hmong families and boasts a Hmong grocery store. Jobs, primarily in nearby Marshall, and affordable housing apparently drew these immigrants to this rural area.

For young people like my blonde German-Norwegian niece, who graduated with the WWG class of 2010, cultural diversity has always been a natural part of life.

As I sat in the WWG gymnasium Sunday afternoon contemplating this, I watched a Hmong man across the aisle from me videotaping the ceremony. I wondered about his background. Had he fled a war-torn country? What had he endured? Did he feel accepted here? Was this the first generation of his family to graduate from high school? Did he miss his homeland?

A Hmong man videotapes the Westbrook Walnut Grove High School graduation ceremony Sunday afternoo.

Later, when slides of the graduates flashed upon a big screen at the front of the auditorium, I noticed several photos of students in traditional Hmong attire. They are a people proud of their heritage.

When I listened to the WWG High School Choir sing “We Are the World,” I appreciated the appropriateness of the song and pondered how this mixed ethnic group really is the future of our world.

I don’t know how the folks of Westbrook and Walnut Grove welcomed the Hmong. I expect initial adjustments were not always easy for long-time residents or for the newcomers. I expect there are still occasional clashes.

In Faribault, where I live, we still have much to learn as Somali, Sudanese and Hispanic people integrate into the community. Certainly, strides have been taken to bridge differences through efforts like those of the Faribault Diversity Coalition.

But I’ve heard all too many derogatory remarks about minority populations—about the Somali men who hang out on downtown sidewalks, about the Hispanics involved in drug crimes, about the gangs, even about the bright green color painted on a Mexican bakery (which, at the urging of some local businessmen, has since been repainted a subtler green to better fit the historic downtown).

Perhaps if we had, like the WWG class of 2010, grown up together, we would be more accepting of each other.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling