Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Council vacancy generates 17 candidates in Faribault, now time to choose one February 2, 2023

Serving on the Faribault City Council is about more than attending meetings and making decisions. It’s also about being involved in the community. Here council member Peter van Sluis, left to right, Mayor Kevin Voracek and councilman Royal Ross serve chili and engage during the Faribault Main Street Chili Cook-off in October. The WTF on Vorack’s tee stands for “Welcome To Faribault.” (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo October 2022)

JUST MONTHS OUT from the general election, 17 individuals applied for an open seat on the Faribault City Council. The current council is tasked with choosing the individual who will fill the spot vacated by Jonathon Wood with two years remaining in his term. The council invited interested individuals to apply, resulting in the unprecedented 17 applicants.

It’s interesting to note that in the November election, three candidates ran unopposed for three council seats. Two incumbents were re-elected with the third winner a newcomer and our first person of color elected to the council.

Without talking to each of the 17 applicants, I can only speculate on their reasons for wanting to join the council. Some come with a history of government and community involvement, whether locally or elsewhere. Some are life-long Faribault residents, others newcomers. Some are young, others more advanced in age. Whatever their reasons for wanting to serve, I hope they approached this with open minds (and not with personal agendas), with a strong desire to do what’s right and best for Faribault, all of Faribault.

I know some of the people on this candidate list personally. I can easily envision them sitting on the council, doing their homework, carefully researching and considering issues, listening, voicing their thoughts. I can see them investing the time, energy and effort needed to make informed decisions that affect not only how this city operates, but also Faribault residents and businesses.

From my perspective, the ability to listen, really listen, is vital. That means listening to all voices—heard and unheard, loud and quiet.

I don’t envy the current council’s task of filling this council vacancy. They met, narrowed the choices down, and are sending follow-up questions to the five remaining contenders. Those individuals will be asked to give short presentations at a council workshop session next week.

I’m grateful that so many individuals applied to serve on the Faribault City Council. Seventeen. That’s an incredibly high number of people willing to devote their time and energy to issues that affect my community. Whomever the council ultimately appoints, that individual will help shape the future of this city, shaped, too, by its rich history.

© Copyright 2023 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.

 

Faribault renames its airport in honor of WASP, Elizabeth Wall Strohfus March 4, 2017

Elizabeth Wall Strohfus, circa 1943, at Avenger Field. (Photo from family archives.)

Elizabeth Wall Strohfus, circa 1943, at Avenger Field. (Photo from family archives.)

ELIZABETH WALL STROHFUS traveled the country for nearly 30 years sharing her story of flying fighters and bombers for the U.S. military during World War II.

She served as a parade grand marshal, participated in panel discussions, talked at schools, visited museums, gave countless interviews. But not until now has she been permanently honored and recognized in her hometown of Faribault. This week the City Council approved a resolution renaming the municipal airport as The Faribault Municipal Airport—Liz Wall Strohfus Field. That resolution will be forwarded to the Federal Aviation Administration for final approval.

What an honor for a woman who faced many challenges (simply for being a woman) before and after becoming a Women’s Airforce Service Pilot. She will be the first WASP to have an airport named after her.

That’s quite an accomplishment for Strohfus, who convinced a local banker to lend her $100 to join The Sky Club at the Faribault airport. The then 22-year-old used her bike as collateral and subsequently proved to the “women don’t fly” banker that he was wrong. She could fly. And fly she did, training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, with the first class of WASPs to earn their wings. Strohfus went on to train infantry gunners for battle, teach instrument flying to male cadets and ferry B-17 and AT-6 warbirds around the country.

But when the war ended, the WASPS received no recognition for their service to country. Eventually Strohfus, after retiring as an air traffic controller in the late 1980s, began efforts to correct that. She traveled the country sharing WASP stories in her signature down-to-earth storytelling style. She successfully lobbied for the WASPs to be recognized as active military duty and for burial honors at Arlington National Cemetery. This strong and determined pilot also received the Congressional Medal of Honor.

A book about Elizabeth Strohfus written by her son Patrick Roberts. He accompanied her on speaking engagements around the country.

A book about Elizabeth Strohfus written by her son Patrick Roberts. He accompanied her on speaking engagements around the country.

Yet, despite all the accolades, all the efforts, Liz Stohfus valued one thing above all. “Her favorite thing to do was to encourage kids,” son Art Roberts revealed at the City Council meeting. His mother repeated that in the many interviews she gave, telling youth that, “The sky is not the limit.” They could, like her, do anything.

Elizabeth “Betty” Strohfus Wall died on March 6, 2016, at the age of 96. Although she did not live long enough to see her hometown airport named after her, her legacy will live on in Faribault. In addition to new signage naming Liz Wall Strohfus Field, renowned local woodcarver Ivan Whillock is creating a woodcarving to be placed inside the airport. And Roberts will be donating items belonging to his mother.

It’s a wonderful thing my community, led by the American Association of University Women—Faribault Branch, is doing in honor of Strohfus. She embodies a strong American woman who always believed she could fly.

FYI: To view an interview with Liz Strohfus, check out Faribault Community Television and its 1855—Faribault History documentary series produced by local high school students Logan Ledman and Samuel Temple. This is top-quality professional. Click here.

Of additional interest is this story from the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Click here.

Click here to read a story about how Strohfus and other WASPs were honored at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, via a theatrical production.

Learn more about that play, “Censored on Final Approach” by Phylis Ravel, by clicking here. Perhaps a Faribault-based theatre company or the History Theatre in St. Paul could consider performing that play.

Finally, click here to learn more about the National WASP WWII Museum in Sweetwater, Texas. What an honor this would be to Strohfus’ memory to bring the museum’s traveling exhibit, “The WASP: Untold Story, a Photographic Exhibit,” to Faribault.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

This is what it means to be free July 5, 2011

FOR THE PAST SEVERAL days, I’ve kept my eyes peeled for the perfect July Fourth image.

I thought that photo might come from my extended family’s annual July 4th weekend gathering or from the Roberds Lake Independence Day boat parade. Or perhaps I’d just see a patriotic display worthy of showcasing. Maybe a field of flags.

However, the photo I selected to best portray our nation’s birthday falls into none of these categories.

I chose this image, taken along Seventh Street in Faribault late Monday afternoon.

Let me explain.

This homeowner disagrees with a recent decision by the Faribault City Council to forgive a $72,000 water bill assessed to FWF Fund One, current owners of the Faribault Woolen Mills property. The woolen mill closed some time ago, leaving an original $120,000 unpaid water bill, which has since been paid down $48,000. Now new investors are working on purchasing the property and restarting the mill, thus prompting the request to forgive the remaining portion of the unpaid water bill. Read more about the issue by clicking onto this recent Faribault Daily News article.

Even though I happen to agree with the homeowner, I didn’t choose this as my favorite Independence Day photo for that reason.

This grassroots expression of an opinion represents to me the cornerstone of our nation: freedom.

As citizens of the United States, we are free to speak—to voice our ideas and opinions and concerns.

We needn’t be eloquent speakers or writers or members of city councils to express ourselves.

A simple handwritten sign posted on a tree along a busy street epitomizes freedom at its most basic, individual, level.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling