Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Reflecting on a Faribault first on this, MLK Day January 16, 2023

I took this photo of a St. Olaf College student watching a video in an exhibit, “Selma to Montgomery: Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail,” in 2015. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr is shown in this frame. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo April 2015)

TODAY, THE DAY WE HONOR Civil Rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr with celebrations and a federal holiday, seems fitting to share my excitement over the election of Adama Youhn Doumbouya to the Faribault City Council. Elected in November and just recently taking office, the Liberian-born immigrant becomes the first person of color to serve on the Council in a city chartered on April 9, 1872.

I expect Dr. King, who advocated tirelessly for equality and human rights, would be proud. I feel not only pride, but also gratitude in knowing that Doumbouya will bring a new young voice (he was born in 1987) and perspective to my ever-changing city.

This is my all-time favorite award-winning photo showing diversity in Faribault. I shot this image at the 2012 International Festival in Central Park where kids gathered to break a piñata. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2012)

Today’s Faribault is vastly different from the Faribault of the past, even of recent decades. It is decidedly more diverse in skin tones, religion, culture, customs, dress, language and more. Admittedly, those who have moved here from places like Somalia, Sudan and Mexico have not always been welcomed. Racism exists. Sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant. I wish that wasn’t true, but it is.

Faribault is a city rich in immigrant history. This banner hangs in the downtown historic district. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2019)

In the context of this evolving, diverse Faribault, it’s important to remember that nearly all of us (with the exception of indigenous peoples) are descendants of immigrants. Too often we forget that. Our forefathers landed in America, then Minnesota, with dreams. Faribault’s newly-elected councilman, who witnessed civil war in his home country along the west coast of Africa, landed in New York City in 2013 with dreams.

Visitors could photograph themselves at the 2015 “Selma” exhibit at St. Olaf College and express their thoughts. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2015)

Although I’m not privy to Doumbouya’s personal dreams, I’ve read his backstory published in a Faribault Daily News feature. After moving to Minnesota, he worked at a meat-packing plant in Austin, south of Faribault near the Iowa border. He served on the Austin Planning Commission. Eventually, he pursued a college degree, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in urban and regional studies. He moved to Faribault in 2020, owns a home here.

That’s a nutshell summary of the background Doumbouya brings to city government. Responses to a Q & A published pre-election revealed a candidate eager to serve his community. Eager to advocate for affordable housing, transportation and inclusive workforce development. Eager, too, to improve city infrastructure and technology for residents and businesses. Eager to focus also on economic development. I’m confident he will work hard on those goals of improving life and expanding opportunities in Faribault.

This image from a 2015 Downtown Faribault Car Cruise Night shows the diversity in my city. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2015)

It took a long time—going on 151 years—for my city to get here, to the point of a person of color serving on the City Council. It took time, too, for social justice activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to make progress towards equality and human rights for all. As we approach the 55th anniversary of King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, much work remains to be done.

A promo for the MLK Breakfast in Faribault. (Credit: Faribault Diversity Coalition)

The same can be said in Faribault. But I see progress. I see progress in the election of Doumbouya to the City Council. I see progress via the efforts of the Faribault Diversity Coalition, which today hosts its ninth annual MLK Breakfast and has also started a recent Speaker Series. I see progress in personal connections and communication and caring attitudes. Faribault’s future is as limitless as our dreams.

© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Note: Adama Youhn Doumbouya’s photo is not included on the City Council website page, leaving me without an image to share here.


One word: VOTE November 3, 2020

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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My dad carried home a July 31, 1953, memorial service bulletin from Sucham-dong, Korea. In the right column is listed the name of his fallen buddy, Raymond W. Scheibe. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

MEN AND WOMEN have fought and died for our democracy.

A chair placed before a Stephen Somerstein photo offers visitors a place to sit and contemplate. This photo was taken at the “Selma to Montgomery: Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail” exhibit at St. Olaf College in 2015. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Men and women and children have marched for equality. And they still are.

A portion of a photo by Steve Somerstein, from the exhibit at St. Olaf College. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

There was a time not all that long ago when people of color and women did not have the right to vote.

A message posted on a house in Dundas. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2020.

It is our responsibility as citizens of the United States of America to vote. To let our voices be heard. To exercise our freedom. To cut through the political rhetoric and untruths to make informed choices. To recognize that in a democracy, every vote matters.

This folding polling booth, patented in March 1892, is on display at the Village of Yesteryear in Owatonna. It comes from the Meriden Town Hall, where voters used it until 2009. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2012.

If you have not yet voted, then get to your polling place today and cast your votes. I voted early, via mail-in ballot. And, yes, I hold full confidence in that system.

Randy put this sticker on his sweatshirt after voting in the 2010 election. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

And then, like the rest of you, my dear Americans, I will wait, recognizing I have done my part by voting, by exercising my democratic right.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


When a small town Minnesota newspaper implements a “pay for” letter policy August 11, 2016

SHOULD A NEWSPAPER charge for publishing a letter to the editor?

My Minnesota State University, Mankato, journalism professor Robert Shipman would likely turn over in his grave if he read that question. He impressed upon me that the editorial page is the heart of a newspaper. A staunch supporter of community journalism, he would not advocate paying for letters to the editor. Neither do I.

I have great respect for this newspaper man who nearly 40 years ago taught me the basics of journalism—instilling in me a strong sense of fairness in writing balanced news stories. Opinion, he emphasized, should be reserved for the editorial page.


Gaylord Hub election letters policy - Copy


This brings me back to charging a fee for letters to the editor. Interestingly enough, my concern is prompted by a notice published in The Gaylord Hub, a third-generation family newspaper where I accepted a reporting job right out of college.

Decades after I left my two-year stint at this small southern Minnesota weekly, I still get The Gaylord Hub. Unlike most community newspapers, The Hub does not have a strong editorial page. Rare are the editorials. However, locals often voice their opinions in letters to the editor. There’s been significant controversy in Gaylord related to school issues.

But now the publisher/editor has established a new policy for election-themed letters. Policies for letters to the editor are the norm at newspapers. Many publications restrict length; monitor for libelous and offensive content and personal attacks, etc.; and don’t publish election-related letters in the final issue before an election. But, in a quick perusal of the internet, checking out several major dailies across the country and several Minnesota daily and weeklies, I found none with a “pay for” publication fee.

The Little Falls based The Morrison County Record, for example, states that “Letter writers are encouraged to stick to the issues and the positions on issues and qualifications of the candidates.” Letters that lean toward advertising aren’t published.

In Gaylord, though, under the new policy, if you want to write a letter supporting or opposing a candidate or a political party, you’ll have to pay for it. Thirty dollars for up to 300 words for a Paid Election Letter.

I get where the newspaper is coming from with this policy. Some people will abuse the system by viewing the editorial page as a free advertising opportunity. But to blanket apply that to all election-focused letters seems a suppression of opinions. The policies established by The Morrison County Record seem more appropriate, more balanced in curbing potential abuse while maintaining freedom of expression.

That said, there was a time when newspapers printed obituaries and engagement, wedding and birth announcements at no cost to readers. No more, at least in most publications. Would my college professor opine that change. He likely would. Robert Shipman was Old School community journalism. He was all about integrity, unbiased reporting, getting facts right and, above all, always always spelling names correctly. He taught me well. He taught me that the opinion page is the heart of a newspaper.


Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The new letters to the editor policy published in the August 4 edition of The Gaylord Hub.


Driving home a political point along a Minnesota interstate November 4, 2012

IF YOU’RE LIKE ME, you are fed up with all the political literature, billboards and advertisements.

If you’re like me, you don’t even read the campaign material that arrives in your mailbox.

If you’re like me, you don’t even want to answer the phone or door any more to listen to another pollster or campaign volunteer or candidate.

But then along comes a political statement like this, posted along Interstate 94 about 15 miles east of Alexandria (between mile markers 117 and 118 near the West Union exit):

Driving east on I-94, you’ll see the car ramp first, then the limo driven into the ground and then the message.

Creative freedom of speech

I don’t care what your political persuasion or whether you vote red or blue, support Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. You just have to admire the creativity and hard work of whomever planted this limo in the ground along a busy Minnesota interstate to drive home a political point.

Spotting this political billboard of sorts this past weekend truly caused me to pause and consider how very fortunate I am to live in a free country like the United States of America.

Here we are free to express our opinions, to let our voices be heard, to speak out, to tell others what we think, to vote. And, yes, I pretty much duplicated myself with all of those phrases.

Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Finally, a woman on the Steele County Board April 4, 2012

CONGRATULATIONS, STEELE COUNTY, Minnesota. You’ve finally elected a woman to serve on the County Board of Commissioners. It’s about time.

I could hardly believe the news when I heard it this morning on an Owatonna radio station. It wasn’t the election of a female that surprised me. It was the fact that it’s taken this long.

For the first time in its history, this southeastern Minnesota county will have a woman serving on its county governing board. She is Nina Huntington, a dental hygienist from Owatonna, who beat out opponent Doug Hughes in a special election on Tuesday to represent the Fifth Commissioner District.

Huntington won with 250 votes, or 60 percent, compared to Hughes’ 164 votes, according to an article in the Owatonna People’s Press. Only 10.25 percent of the district’s registered voters cast ballots.

Interestingly enough, Steele County also made headlines on Tuesday as Minnesota’s healthiest county in ratings released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. That study considers mortality, morbidity, health behaviors, clinical care, social and economic factors, and physical environment. Click here to read those study results.

So there you have it—Minnesota’s healthiest county now has a woman helping to govern it.

Huntington’s election in Steele County leads me to wonder this:

How many other Minnesota counties have never had a female serve on the county board of commissioners? If you have the answer or can direct me to that information, I’d like to hear. I would guess that number to be quite high.

Also, what do you think a woman can bring to county government that a man may not?

CLICK HERE to read an interview with Huntington published in the Owatonna People’s Press after she filed for office.

CLICK HERE to read the election results story in the OPP.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


FOX 9 anchor Heidi Collins deserves criticism November 4, 2010

AFTER SOME THOUGHT, I feel compelled to add to my earlier post regarding FOX 9 news anchor Heidi Collins’ on-air interview with Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie last night. The more I think about the interview, the madder I get.

Typically, I stick up for journalists. I once became so upset with a circle of friends who were blasting newspaper reporters and newspapers that I stalked out of the room. I had never done that before, but I get fed up with media-bashing.

This time, though, I cannot defend journalist Collins, if you can even call her a journalist. She deserves every ounce of criticism, every degree of heat, every negative comment tossed her way.

Her condescending attitude, her insinuations, her talking over Ritchie and that “I ask, you answer” statement showed an utter lack of respect for the office of Secretary of State.

Collins seemed biased and intent on provoking Ritchie. In other words, she was anything but professional and she was downright mean.

I cannot, as a professional writer and a former newspaper reporter, stick up for anyone in the media who conducts herself/himself in such an unprofessional manner.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


After the election comments and mud-slinging in Minnesota

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 10:11 AM
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IN ALL THE POLITICAL NEWS and rhetoric that filled our Wednesday here in Minnesota, the most sensible sound-bite of the day, in my opinion, came during an on-air interview between FOX 9 television news anchor Heidi Collins and Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.

During the interview, with the two sometimes talking over each other, Collins became a bit testy and instructed Ritchie, quite curtly, that she was asking the questions and he was to answer.

So…, when Collins asked when we’ll have a new governor, Ritchie responded that Minnesota will have a new governor when the governor takes the oath of office.

All of us—my husband, 22-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son—watching the interview burst out in simultaneous laughter. Ritchie nailed that question with an answer that not even a politician can twist into a political statement.

Speaking of which, Minnesota GOP Chairman Tony Sutton has done nothing to endear himself to me with his snotty, snide, venomous comments that portray the ugly opposite of Minnesota Nice.

With words like “should be reamed” directed toward Ritchie, “something doesn’t smell right” aimed toward a Hennepin County vote reporting glitch  and promises to be “very, very aggressive” in the recount process, I already dislike the man. Honestly, I just wanted him to shut up.

For the record, I don’t specifically align myself with any particular party. I evaluate candidates based on their views, stands on issues, personalities and character. Through the years, I’ve voted Republican, Democrat and Independent.

Whatever the outcome of the expected gubernatorial recount, I hope that both political parties can maintain civility and stop the mud-slinging that has already begun, by the GOP, in this process. Enough already.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Post-election observations from Minnesota November 3, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:47 AM
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I’VE ALWAYS HELD to the idea that if you don’t vote, you can’t complain. So…, I hope you voted yesterday.

I know. I know. You can tear/rip/shred that first statement apart into a mix of fragmented phrases or individual words because, in this country, you can complain. No matter how you voted, or whether you even voted, you have the right to express your opinion. How blessed are we to live in a country like ours, with such freedom?

Given that, why would I hold that don’t vote/can’t complain opinion? I should really add these two words to that sentence to more clearly define my position: If you don’t vote, you can’t complain too loudly.

In my voting precinct, at least one election official expected 60 to 70 percent of registered voters to turn out at the polls yesterday. Based on numbers I just gleaned from Faribault, Precinct 6, unofficial voting results on the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Web site, his prediction was spot-on correct. I figure around 915 people voted in my precinct. The same official told me that polls opened with 1,357 registered voters and that about 50 more registered on Tuesday.

That’s a good percentage of voters expressing their opinions via the ballot box in a non-Presidential election year.

If you ever think your vote doesn’t count, you need only look to the 2008 Senate race between Norm Coleman and Al Franken and the resulting recount to realize the importance of every single vote.

From media reports I’ve heard this morning—including an apparent computer software problem in Hennepin County—Minnesota is likely headed for another recount, this time in the too-close-to-call governor’s race. According to information posted on the Secretary of State’s Web site at 8:30 this morning, with 96.74 percent of the precincts reporting, Mark Dayton had 43.67 percent of the votes; Tom Emmer, 43.20 percent; and Tom Horner, 11.92 percent.

In my precinct, unofficial gubernatorial race results show Dayton getting 45 percent of the vote; Emmer, 39 percent; and Horner nearly 15 percent.

Who will become our next governor? It appears we may need to wait awhile for that answer.

ALL OF THAT ASIDE, here are several other observations I made yesterday while voting around 7 p.m. The stream of voters was so steady that I had to sit at an open table to vote—no cardboard tri-fold or curtain shielding my choices, not that I cared.

I noticed that on the ballot, the word “incumbent” is no longer listed with incumbents’ names, except for judges. When did this change occur? Why? And why do judges get the advantage of “incumbent” tacked onto their names?

When I went to insert my ballot into the ballot counting machine, no one was standing there to guide me, a major change from past years. I asked the election official who was sitting in a nearby chair why she wasn’t “right there” next to the machine. Officials need to be far enough away so that they can’t see how a voter voted, she explained. That’s understandable, but I can’t imagine anyone having eyesight good enough to see which ovals I darkened with my pen. But, I suppose…, just to be sure everything is done on the up-and-up…

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling