Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

My thoughts on the prejudice that threads through my Minnesota community April 19, 2018

A photo and comment by a visitor posted at the “Selma to Montgomery: Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail” exhibit at St. Olaf College in 2015, used here for illustration only. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

TWELVE YEARS AFTER my then 12-year-old son was struck by a car while crossing the street to his school bus stop, my husband and I are still occasionally asked whether the driver in the hit-and-run has ever been found. The answer: No.

I’m OK with that. Caleb was not seriously injured and enough time has passed since the May 12, 2006, incident that my anger has subsided.

But now my anger has risen anew—not at the driver but rather at a recent comment made by an acquaintance. “Was it a Mexican?” the man asked of the unknown driver.

 

A chair placed before a Stephen Somerstein photo offers visitors a place to sit and contemplate in the “Selma” exhibit. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

How do you respond to something like that—something so totally ignorant and racist and uncalled for that it makes my blood boil to think that someone in this day—2018—would even think that, let alone speak it. Why that assumption? What led him to believe the driver was a “Mexican” versus a Caucasian or even a green alien from Mars?

I can’t tolerate this type of blatant racism. About Hispanics. About Somalians. About anyone. Just days ago I heard negative comments about Somalians as it relates to parking issues in Faribault’s downtown business district.

 

A St. Olaf College student/staffer studies an image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the “Selma” exhibit in April 2015. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

I didn’t grow up here. Once I was an outsider trying to fit into Faribault, where generations of families live, where many people are inter-related, where young people stay upon graduating from high school or return to after college. I’m not saying those are bad things. Faribault’s a wonderful place to live. But I suspect the hometown factor, the deep roots, may have something to do with the “was it a Mexican” type attitude some locals hold toward newcomers, especially those of color. There’s fear in the unknown, fear in change, fear in the prospect of a community becoming something different than it has always been.

 

Kids used markers to create flags from their native countries during the International Festival Faribault in August 2015. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo used for illustration only.

 

Change oftentimes does not come easily. Yet, that’s no excuse for sweeping negative assumptions and racism. I am thankful for the efforts of many within Faribault who welcome newcomers. Like the Faribault Diversity Coalition and individuals who tutor, assist, teach, embrace immigrants and, yes, even welcome outsiders like me from Redwood County, Minnesota. I arrived here 36 years ago knowing only my new husband (also a non-native). It took awhile for me to fit in, to find my place here.

Today I consider Faribault home. I love this community and the many dear friends I’ve made here. But I don’t appreciate the underlying and sometimes overt prejudice I occasionally see and hear.

“Was it a Mexican?”

No, my son was struck by a blue 4-door Chevrolet Cavalier or Corsica. Driver unknown. Race unimportant.

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ON THE SAME TOPIC:

I find especially notable a comment made by Faribault Public School Superintendent Todd Sesker during an “AM Minnesota” interview with Gordy Kosfeld on KDHL radio. During that Monday morning interview, Sesker discussed the issue of 400-plus students open-enrolling outside of the Faribault School District. The district plans to survey families and learn why these students are choosing to attend schools elsewhere.

 

The ever-changing/growing diversity of Faribault High School shows in this post commencement photo taken in May 2012. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

 

Sesker says, in part, “We know some of the rumors that are out there and some of the people that are complaining about our schools. We know about the cultural differences…”

“…the cultural differences…”

That tells me a lot.

According to 2018 enrollment by race/ethnicity data published on the Minnesota Department of Education website, more than half of the students in Faribault Public Schools are of a race/ethnicity other than White. Here’s the break-down on the three largest ethnic groups among the district’s 3,777 students, according to the MDE: 24.2 percent are Hispanic/Latino, 23.8 percent are Black/African American, and 47.4 percent are White.

I suggest you listen to the radio interview with Sesker by clicking here. Discussion on the open enrollment issue begins at about minute 13.

 

NOTE: All comments are moderated. Please be respectful in your comments and discussion. I reserve the right as author of this personal blog to decide whether or not to publish a comment.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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“Peoples of Faribault,” an enlightening must-see video August 4, 2017

High school students Logan Ledman, left, and Samuel Temple produce “1855: A Faribault History Series on FCTV” in Faribault. Photo courtesy of Samuel Temple.

 

THEIR APPRECIATION FOR LOCAL HISTORY shines in the videos they produce. But it’s more than a passion for Faribault history that drives Samuel Temple of Faribault and Logan Ledman of Northfield. The 16-year-olds strive to make viewers think via the videos they create for Faribault Community Television.

 

Photo courtesy of Samuel Temple.

 

Nearly two years after their first of 11 history episodes aired, the teens tackled their most extensive project yet—a 40-some minute video titled “Peoples of Faribault.” I watched the show this week and am impressed by the research, the content and the clincher ending that challenges viewers to consider how their choices affect Faribault’s identity as a community.

Negative local perceptions of his hometown prompted Samuel to co-produce a video that counters that negativity. He and Logan do that through the art of entertaining, informative and thought-provoking storytelling. Their work is top-notch professional as they address issues of ethnicity in their latest and most lengthy film.

 

This prize-winning photo which I shot at the International Festival Faribault in 2012 reflects the cultural diversity of our community.

 

It’s no secret that Faribault has struggled with accepting newcomers. And newcomers have struggled to adapt. But Samuel and Logan put it all in perspective by tracing back to the town’s 1850s beginning and progressing from there. They cover the ethnic groups of the Dakota, French-Canadians, Swedes, Norwegians, Czech, Germans, Irish, Latinos, Cambodians, Chinese and Faribault’s newest immigrants, Somalis. Each group faced issues of assimilation and rejection, the two discovered through extensive research and interviews.

 

This sculptor of Alexander Faribault trading with a Dakota trading partner stands in Faribault’s Heritage Park near the Straight River and site of Faribault’s trading post. Faribault artist Ivan Whillock created this sculpture which sits atop the Bea Duncan Memorial Fountain. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Samuel summarizes the reason each group came to Faribault in one simple statement: “Everyone was looking for a home, for a wide array of reasons, and each found it in Faribault.”

Looking for a home. It doesn’t get more basic than that. But behind those four words are specifics such as war, famine, pursuing the American dream and more. It’s all covered in the film, for each of the featured ethnic groups.

 

Many Somalis now call Faribault home. I took this photo at a 2015 car show in historic downtown Faribault.

 

While researching for the video, the producers began to see a pattern. Says Logan in an email response to my questions:

“Issues of racism, cultural conflict, and discrimination came up in our work for this video. It ended up being a consistent pattern; the town’s response to newcomers was, initially, consistently negative. Over time, though, as new Faribault townsfolk left a multi-generational mark on the community, there was a parallel, consistently positive final acceptance of those newcomers by the town. This was a pattern that repeated itself across every group we looked at, and it’s a pattern we see repeating itself today.”

 

Bashir Omar. Photo courtesy of Samuel Temple.

 

Bashir Omar, a 10-year Faribault resident who serves on the Faribault Diversity Coalition and who works as a cultural liaison in the public school system, offers primarily praise for Faribault in comments aired in the “Peoples of Faribault” video. Although he says people fear the Somali culture, he’s always felt welcomed here and has not been targeted because of his Muslim faith. “Faribault has been a great town,” Bashir says.

 

Samuel and Logan narrate from the front porch of the Alexander Faribault house, home to town founder Alexander Faribault. Photo courtesy of Samuel Temple.

 

Not all newcomers have received the same warm welcome, an issue Samuel and Logan sensitively address through narrative and interviews. They also spoke with a local historian/author, city official and author/English as a second language educator and collaborated with sixth graders from the Cannon River STEM School to create family trees. Town founder Alexander Faribault, son of a part Dakota woman and a French trader, for example, faced discrimination when he befriended the Dakota, according to historian Larry Richie. He reveals in the video that Alexander died a despised and broken man. “We gotta learn to accept others,” Larry says.

 

A flag ceremony during a past International Festival featured national anthems and information about the countries from which Faribault residents have originated. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

In their research, the filmmakers learned a few things about Faribault that surprised and unsettled them. I asked. For Samuel, the strong presence of the Ku Klux Klan in Faribault, including a mass gathering at the Rice County Fairgrounds for a state convention in 1924, left him feeling queasy. He noted, too, the Klan’s strong anti-Catholic (in addition to anti-black and anti-Jew) sentiment. For Logan, discrimination against Germans especially during the world wars came as a surprise. In the video, the term “enemy aliens” is linked to Germans.

 

I photographed this sign on the front desk of Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2017.

 

“Faribault is not immune to hate,” Samuel says in the film and then adds this in an email to me:

“Gathering information about the adversity that quite literally every group has faced put in perspective a single truth: accusing any one nationality or ethnicity or religion or group of people of having evil values, or being the root cause of problems in a community is wrong across the board; if we want history to look back on us favorably, we must live by that without exception.”

 

We learn from our past, looking back. This photo shows the back of the Alexander Faribault-Dakota sculpture at Faribault’s Heritage Park.

 

To read those words written by a 16-year-old inspires me and gives me hope. He and Logan are right. We can preserve our heritage while moving forward. We can learn from history. We can choose to focus on the positive, knowing that our choices affect our identity as a community. The choice is ours.

 

FYI: Joining Samuel and Logan in creating “Peoples of Faribault” are friends/musicians Sam Dwyer and Chase Ingraham of Northfield. Sam has also created original music for past episodes of “1855: A Faribault History Series.”

To view the “Peoples of Faribault” video, click here.

You can also see past episodes of “1855” that cover everything from the Fleckenstein Brewery to the Tilt-A-Whirl to local WASP Elizabeth Wall Strohfus at this same link.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
“Peoples of Faribault” images are courtesy of Samuel Temple