Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Mankato’s emerging massive mural represents diversity & more November 18, 2019

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THE ARTWORK CAUGHT ME by surprise as I looked across the Minnesota River toward the grain towers dominating the riverside skyline in Old Town Mankato.

 

One of many sculptures in Mankato and North Mankato that change yearly as part of the city’s sculpture walk.

 

Yet, the presence of an evolving mural in this arts-centric southern Minnesota city didn’t surprise me. Mankato is a community rich in public art from poetry to sculptures. It is one of the qualities which draws me back to this place where I graduated from college in 1978 with a degree in mass communications and a minor in English.

 

My poem, River Stories, attached to a railing along the Minnesota River Trail. In the background are the Ardent Mills silos and the bridge from which I photographed the in-progress mural.

 

This time I arrived in town to view my latest poem selected as part of The Mankato Poetry Walk & Ride. Spotting the in-progress mural on the 135-foot high Ardent Mills grain silos was a bonus find. I snapped a few quick frames while crossing the Minnesota River bridge and then while heading onto U.S. Highway 169. Only too late did I notice public viewing areas along the roadway.

 

 

Upon my arrival home, I researched the $250,000 project by Australian artist Guido van Helten. Although specifics of the mural design are elusive, the art will represent diversity and more. I saw that in the image of a young Dakota boy already painted onto the towering canvas. This region holds a rich Native Peoples heritage, making the art particularly powerful.

 

“Forgive Everyone Everything” themes this art in Reconciliation Park. Names of the 38 Dakota who were hung at this site in 1862 are inscribed thereon along with a prayer and a poem.

 

Having grown up some 80 miles to the west, in a region between the Upper and Lower Sioux Indian Communities, I’m aware of the strong Dakota history and also of The U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862. Within blocks of the Ardent Mills silos, Reconciliation Park honors 38 Dakota tried and hung by the U.S. government following that war. The healing continues.

 

 

This latest public art represents so much—history, culture, diversity and a coming together of peoples. And today, more than ever, we need that sense of community, of understanding that no matter our backgrounds or the color of our skin or our history, we are simply people who need one another.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The positive steps toward embracing diversity in Faribault January 18, 2019

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I took this photo, reflecting Faribault’s diversity, during a downtown event several years ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

FARIBAULT IS A COMMUNITY EVOLVING. Changing as our population diversifies and we are no longer a place of mostly European and Scandinavian peoples. Rather, my southeastern Minnesota city is now home to people of many colors. We are increasingly diverse.

 

1960s vintage art that represents, to me, the colorful and beautiful diversity of my community. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

An article published last week in the Faribault Daily News stated that from 2010 to 2018, the population of students of color in the Faribault School District increased from 25 percent to 55 percent. That’s a remarkable change in just eight years.

 

Faribault Community School is hosting two more Harboring Voices Choir evenings on January 22 and 29. Led by St. Olaf College students, the gathering gives adults and kids an opportunity to sing together in a community setting.

 

Equally as remarkable is the shift I’ve noticed in attitudes, in efforts to welcome our newest families. I’m hearing fewer negative comments about Somalis, Hispanics and other immigrants. I’m not saying those attitudes don’t still exist. It’s just that I don’t hear that animosity as much or sense such strong resentment toward these newcomers.

Why the change?

 

One of the virtues highlighted as part of The Virtues Trail Project. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2018.

 

After time, people become more accepting as they adjust and as newcomers assimilate into the fabric of Faribault. I think much of that can be attributed to the kids, who see their classmates as classmates and friends, not defined by their skin color.

 

This notice is posted, among the one above and the one below, on a community bulletin board at Buckham Memorial Library, Faribault.

 

But adults have also made concerted efforts to help locals and newcomers accept one another. The Virtues Project Faribault, the Faribault Diversity CoalitionFaribault Community School and the creators of 1855, a local history series on Faribault Community Television, are all making a difference. I am grateful for their efforts.

 

Faribault celebrates MLK Day on Monday as noted in this notice posted at the library.

 

My great grandparents emigrated from Germany to America. They faced challenges in language, culture and more. It’s important to remember our immigrant roots. But no matter our ethnicity, our language, our culture, our skin color, we are all just people…with hopes and dreams. And voices.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

International Festival showcases, celebrates the many cultures of Faribault September 28, 2018

The diversity of Faribault as photographed at a downtown car show several years ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

DIVERSE. MY COMMUNITY OF FARIBAULT fits that label with a multi-cultural population. We are a place of European descendants, of Hispanics, of Somalis, of African Americans, of Asians and more. A place of peoples descended from immigrants and a place of peoples who are new immigrants.

The Faribault Diversity Coalition celebrates the cultures of our southeastern Minnesota city at the free 2018 International Festival from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. this Saturday at the Washington Recreation Center, 117 Shumway Avenue.

 

Attendees mark a world map with their countries of origin at a past International Festival.

 

Through food, dance, music, art, games and more, our cultural differences will be highlighted, celebrated, embraced.

 

At a past International Festival, I sampled this spicy Somali food and loved it. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

While I can’t attend this year’s fest, I have in the past. It’s a great opportunity to meet others, to engage in conversation, to learn about other cultures. And to sample food. Vendors will serve ethnic foods like Somali sambusas, Cambodian egg rolls and culturally-themed cupcakes. Food lends itself to kickstarting conversations and connecting cultures.

 

A flag ceremony featured national anthems and information about the countries from which Faribault residents have originated at a previous fest. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The Diversity Coalition’s Passport Project, funded with an Artists on Main Street grant, debuts at the fest. FDC Director Gordon Liu terms it a mini cultural museum—with quick facts, basic phrases and a brief history of selected countries—to be displayed in the FDC storefront window.

 

Photo courtesy of Samuel Temple.

 

High School students Samuel Temple and Logan Ledman, who produce the 1855 history series for local public cable TV, will show their documentary “Peoples of Faribault” and then stick around for a Q & A. I’ve watched that show and recommend it to anyone who truly cares about understanding the cultures of my community.

There’s much to be gained from attending an event like the International Festival. It is an opportunity to learn, to break down walls built over differences in language, dress, culture, faith and more. When those barriers are broken, then we begin to see each other as simply people. People who happen to live in this place we call Faribault. Our home.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Faribault: Closing cultural gaps through public art August 29, 2018

 

One of 10 mirrored virtues signs along a trail that runs next to train tracks and the Straight River in Faribault’s Heritage Bluff Park. The trail is east of Heritage Bluff Apartments and south of The Depot Bar & Grill.

 

FINALLY, I’M SENSING A SHIFT in attitudes toward immigrants in Faribault. It’s been a long time coming, but certainly not for a lack of trying. There are good people in this community who have been, for years, working to welcome Somalians, Hispanics and others into this once mostly all-white southern Minnesota city. People like Dee and her sister Ann. And Lisa, Peter, Virginia, Suzanne, Carolyn, Cindy, Delane and many more. They’ve been there, reaching out, educating, welcoming, connecting, making a difference.

 

 

There are tangible, visible signs of those efforts, the latest in the installation of the Virtues Trail Project at Heritage Bluff Park near our historic downtown and along the banks of the Straight River.

 

 

 

 

 

As a creative, I appreciate this public art project featuring 10 mirrored signs highlighting 20 virtues like honesty, patience, kindness and, yes, tolerance. The signs edge a recreational trail, an unassuming natural setting where people can pause, view their reflections and consider words of positivity written in three languages—English, Spanish and Somali.

 

 

Here’s how it works…

 

 

Two simple words—I am—jumpstart the thought process.

 

 

An Artists on Main Street grant from the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota in partnership with Springboard for the Arts and with support from the Bush Foundation funded the project developed by Wanda Holmgren, a Faribault elementary school teacher. Faribault is among three Minnesota cities receiving grant monies to address community challenges. Twelve more arts-based endeavors are planned, or are already in place, in my city.

 

Colorful posts support, and reflect in, the signs. Even the chosen art reflects the virtues.

 

Across the tracks is a foot bridge over the Straight River, a peaceful setting unless a train is roaring through.

 

You’ve heard the phrase “other side of the tracks.” While tracks run parallel to the Virtues Trail, they (to me) symbolize connection, not division.

 

The Virtues Trail is a simple concept really, one that makes sense. Language often serves as the first hurdle in connecting cultures. If we can’t communicate, an instant divide exists. Yet a smile is universal. As are virtues.

 

 

As I walked from sign to sign with camera in hand, I intentionally avoided photographing my reflection. That wasn’t particularly easy. In a way, my evasiveness mirrors the challenges Faribault has faced in a failure to accept differences in skin color, religion, language and culture. Now I see that we are beginning to look at each other in a new way—with understanding, kindness and, yes, perhaps, finally, acceptance.

 

BONUS PHOTOS:

 

As I photographed the Virtues Trail, a bridal couple and their photographers walked the trail. I thought they were going to stop at the sign that reads “I am loved.” But they kept right on going, never pausing.

 

They were headed to the Straight River foot bridge, which offers a scenic view of the river and Faribault’s historic viaduct.

 

What an opportunity they missed to use this sign as a wedding portrait backdrop.

 

FYI: Please check back as I show you more ways in which my community is striving to be more welcoming of many cultures.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Back in Vesta for the annual Kletscher Family Reunion July 31, 2018

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This sign once marked my hometown. It’s gone now, replaced by a different sign. I prefer this vintage familiar one. It has character. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

AS WE SWEPT THE PARK SHELTER and washed picnic tables in preparation for the annual Kletscher Family Reunion in my hometown of Vesta on Sunday, a woman passed by with a cluster of children. A petite woman in an Asian rice hat and authentic attire from her Vietnamese homeland.

I never saw her face, only heard that she is married to a college professor and lives in a house a ball field away. And sometimes sells egg rolls downtown.

 

The prayer I wrote and read before our noon potluck.

 

The moment imprinted upon me. When I grew up in this rural Minnesota small town in the late 50s, 60s and early 70s, we were all the same race. White. Only our religions separated us—lots of Lutherans and Catholics with some Brethren and Presbyterians thrown in the mix.

 

A snippet of the Kletscher family lineage, my grandfather being Henry.

 

To see diversity all these years later in this prairie town pleases me. Change doesn’t always come easily in a place where generations of families are rooted.

Family brought me back to Vesta, to reconnect with aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings and their families. And a few significant others. I appreciate that we still value each other enough to gather every year in the city park located along gravel roads and across from cornfields. This year my siblings and I hosted.

 

Food for the potluck meal spreads across several picnic tables in the Vesta City Park shelter during a previous reunion. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Good food and conversation mark the reunion. I always make a point of moving from lawn chair circle to lawn chair circle so I can talk with nearly everyone. Conversations this year ranged from babies to flooding to a cousin getting out of an emotionally abusive marriage. He’s happy now, happier than he’s been in a long time. “Love is blind,” he noted. I encouraged him, told him how glad I am that he is now free.

 

Cards full of information used in the family jeopardy competition.

 

While that conversation ran deep, there were many light-hearted moments. Like those that came during the first-ever Kletscher Family Jeopardy Game which I planned and hosted. Team Sauerkraut (or Sour Kraut) easily defeated Team Hot Dish in a competition that sometimes seemed more like Family Feud than Jeopardy. All in good fun.

In the shade of towering trees on a July afternoon of perfect Minnesota weather, we laughed. We remembered. And we, the descendants of German immigrants, built new memories in a town where diversity once applied only to differences in religion.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

“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

 

At the library: Making Faribault a better place June 14, 2017

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This poster at Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault promotes the theme of the summer reading program.

 

BUILD A BETTER WORLD.

 

This sign rests on the check-out desk at the library for all to read.

 

Hate has no business in our community.

 

I picked up this bookmark at the library several days ago.

 

One world, many stories.

I appreciate these three messages, shared on a poster, on a sign and on a bookmark at my local library.

 

Buckham Memorial Library, Faribault, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

In this public place along Division Street in Faribault, local residents of all ages, all colors, all backgrounds, gather. While there are certainly divisions and differences, there is also a coming together here facilitated by library staff.

 

These signs were previously (and may still be) posted in the library restrooms. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Words matter. When I read words that encourage building up rather than tearing down, choosing love over hatred and fostering of unity instead of division, I am hopeful. I am hopeful that we can learn to get along, to appreciate the individual stories we each bring to our community. Once we begin to see each other as individuals, the building begins, the love flows, our world widens.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling