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.



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


In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I have a dream for my Minnesota community January 21, 2013

I HAVE A DREAM for my community of Faribault, Minnesota.

A little girl stands on the opposite side of the group of children waiting to swing at the pinata.

Skin color matters not during this pinata breaking at the International Festival Faribault held in August 2012.

And that dream is for those who live here to see beyond differences in skin color, language, culture and religion.

That same little boy who was so intently focused on the musician.

One of my favorite portraits from the 2012 International Festival Faribault.

I dream that someday my neighbors, and I use that term in the general sense of the word, will recognize that we are, no matter our differences, each human beings who deserve respect.

The scramble for candy once one of three pinatas is broken.

No barriers here as Faribault kids scramble for candy at the 2012 International Festival Faribault,

I dream that someday prejudice will vanish.

The ever-changing/growing diversity of Faribault High School as seen in this post commencement gathering outside the school.

The ever-growing diversity of Faribault High School as seen in this post 2012 commencement gathering outside the school.

I dream that long-time residents will begin to understand the difficulties local minorities—Somalis, Sudanese, Latinos and others—face in assimilating into a new culture, a new community, a new way of life.

International flag ribbons were tied to trees in Central Park during the 2011 International Festival..

International flag ribbons were tied to trees in Central Park during the 2011 International Festival..

I dream the descendants of immigrants will remember that their forefathers were once newcomers to this land.

Friends, Nimo Abdi, a sophomore at Faribault High School, left, and Nasteho Farah, a senior.

Friends and Faribault residents, Nimo Abdi and Nasteho Farah, photographed at the International Festival Faribault 2012.

I dream that someday I will speak with a young Somali high school student and the words she shares will not be words of heartbreaking prejudice.

In this file photo, a Somali family waits to cross a downtown Faribault street.

In this file photo, a Somali family waits to cross a downtown Faribault street.

I dream that locals will stop fearing the Somali men who gather on downtown street corners, the street-level front porches of their Central Avenue apartments.

A group of young Somali dancers perform on the band shell stage during the festival.

A group of young Somali dancers perform on the band shell stage during the 2012 International Festival Faribault.

I dream that the minority population will no longer be lumped together into the category of those who commit the most crimes within my community.

Conversation and connecting..., no other words necessary.

Conversation and connecting…, no other words necessary.

I dream that all of us, no matter our color, can begin to connect on a personal level. For when that happens, the barriers begin to fall, the differences slip away, and the prejudices vanish.


I DON’T WANT TO LEAVE you with the impression that Faribault residents are a bunch of racists. We are not. But to claim that we are all accepting of one another, to deny that bigotry exists, would be inaccurate. I’ve heard all too many negative stories and comments, even from friends and acquaintances, about our minority population.

Faribault is an ever-changing community of diversity. One need only drive or walk about town to see that.  While 75 percent of our population is white, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, Hispanics or Latinos comprise 13 percent and black or African Americans seven percent of our residents.

We can form all sorts of committees, outreach and other groups to ease newcomers into Faribault, to advocate understanding and acceptance. These are necessary and commendable efforts. Yet, if we as individuals do not open our hearts, and that applies both to long-time residents and immigrants, nothing truly changes. We need to connect on a personal basis. For in shaking a hand, greeting one another by name, engaging in conversation, we begin to view each other as individuals, then as friends.

I am not so naive as to believe any of this will come easily or quickly. Change begins with something as simple as a smile, holding a door open, a kind word, an unwillingness to hear a prejudicial comment and then let it slide…

Downtown Faribault businesses include Banadir Restaurant, a Somali restaurant.

Downtown Faribault businesses include Banadir Restaurant, a Somali restaurant.

We can choose to support the ethnic businesses which are making our community a more diverse and interesting place to shop and dine. I’d like to see minorities actively and visibly involved/represented in the Chamber of Commerce and Faribault Main Street program. How about a campaign to showcase ethnic businesses to locals and visitors?

Lul Abdi shows off beautiful wood crafts from Kenya and Somalia.

Lul Abdi shows off beautiful art from Kenya and Somalia at the 2012 International Festival Faribault.

Perhaps our local arts center could connect with minority groups, integrating them into the arts scene via gallery showings, classes, diverse cultural events and the sale of their art in the arts center gift shop.

Ethnic musicians could be featured during the weekly Faribault Parks and Recreation Department summer band concerts in Central Park.

The Faribault Farmers’ Market could invite minorities to vend their ethnic art, crafts and food. The relaxed atmosphere of the Farmers’ Market offers an especially neighborly environment in which to connect people and cultures on a personal level.

My ideas are nothing novel. Perhaps some have already been tried, are in the works or are on the table…


CERTAINLY EFFORTS ARE being made to reach out to our newest residents, although one of the most valuable assets, The Welcome Center, closed several years ago due to lack of funding. Somali Community Services reaches the Somali population, at least.

A newly-formed group, Faribault’s Task Force on Cultural Diversity, has brought community leaders (including clergy, business representatives, healthcare and law enforcement professionals and others) together to address diversity-related concerns. I contacted Mayor John Jasinski, who is spearheading this committee, for an update, but have not yet received a response.

A woman, without my prompting, took this mask from the table manned by Bashir Omar and Asher Ali and asked me to photograph her.

Without prompting, this woman took this mask from a table manned by Bashir Omar and Asher Ali and asked me to photograph her during the 2012 International Festival Faribault.

The nonprofit International Festival Faribault organizes an annual outdoor fest aiming “to promote understanding between diverse cultures within Faribault, uniting the community with music, dance, ethnic foods and merchandise.”

HealthFinders Collaborative, which began with a healthcare clinic for the underinsured and uninsured in rural Dundas, recently opened an additional center in downtown Faribault.

St. Vincent de Paul Center offers financial assistance, food, clothing and other basic necessities to those in need.

Ten Faribault churches have joined to create the Community Cathedral Cafe, serving a free meal from 5 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. each Tuesday at the Cathedral of Our Merciful Saviour.

Divine Mercy Catholic Church has a Hispanic Ministry Program that includes, among many other aspects, annual summer masses at two Faribault trailer parks.

Within Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, Nile Our Savior’s, a Sudanese congregation, holds Sunday afternoon worship services at 1 p.m in the Nuer language.

Buckham Memorial Library offers a free online language program (Mango Languages) with 40 foreign languages and 12 English as a Second Language courses.

This list certainly is not all-encompassing. Our schools are reaching out, too, through nonprofits like Children’s Dental Services. I expect many individuals, whether via one-on-one tutoring, donations or other gifts are also assisting Faribault’s minority population.

Yet, more can be done. And it starts with each of us, in our hearts, on a personal level.

*NOTE: Some of the organizations listed above are not geared specifically toward assisting local minorities, but rather toward anyone in need, no matter their ethnicity.


Historic buildings along Central Avenue.

Historic buildings along Central Avenue in downtown Faribault, Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

IN CELEBRATION of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and his “I have a dream” speech, I’d like to hear:  What is your dream for your community?

And what are your thoughts on anything I’ve presented in this post.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Faribault Festival offers opportunity to bridge differences & connect August 23, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:15 AM
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TODAY I’D LIKE TO EXTEND an invitation to you. Pull out your calendars right now and add this event to your schedule: International Festival Faribault, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. on Saturday, August 25, Central Park.

Several Latinos lead in singing of Mexico’s national anthem last September during the International Festival Faribault at Faribault’s Central Park. The flags strung across the band shell represent the countries featured at the fest. This weekend’s celebration marks the seventh such international fest in Faribault.

There. Done. Right?

The scramble for candy after the pinata is broken at last year’s festival. Kids of all races participated with no concern for skin color or cultural differences. So refreshing to see.

Served at the 2011 fest: Guatemalan chuchitos– chicken, corn and salsa wrapped in a corn husk. You’ll find vendors offering a variety of authentic international foods.

OK, why do I think it’s important for you to attend this festival which features multicultural entertainment, arts and crafts vendors, authentic international cuisine, kids’ activities, a silent auction and more?

Simple. We as a community need to meet each other, to connect on a personal level, to understand each other if we are ever to overcome the very obvious cultural differences which divide us.

I met then 16-year-old Riyaam, an Owatonna High School student, at last year’s festival. She spoke openly about the prejudice at OHS and a white student’s single comment, “Somalis don’t belong here,” which led to racial clashes and tension. OHS has since instituted a policy of “you fight, you’re out.” It broke my heart to listen to Riyaam.

You know what I’m talking about, the differences in skin color and language, in culture and in dress.

There’s way too much suspicion and mistrust, cautiousness and prejudice toward the minorities living and working in Faribault. I’ve heard the derogatory comments about the Somali men who hang out on downtown street corners, the Hispanics who commit all the crimes, the immigrants who take away our jobs, the people who don’t speak English.

Seriously, these Somali men live downtown and the sidewalk is their yard.

“Mexicans,” and I’ve heard that word spit out of too many mean mouths, do not commit all the crimes in our community. Do you know any Hispanics personally? I do. They are probably the most family-oriented individuals I’ve ever met and we could learn a lot from them about the importance they place on loving and caring for one another.

And about those Somalis and/or Sudanese who supposedly steal our jobs—I expect most of us would not want to work the factory jobs they work. I mean no offense to the places which employ them, like the local turkey plant. But if we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that we likely never would work at these physically-demanding and not always pleasant jobs.

As for speaking English, have you, as an adult, tried learning a new language? Now attempt learning a new language in a foreign country. Not so easy. Think back to a few generations before you. I bet your great grandparents didn’t speak English. Even my own mother’s first language was German, not English.

The other evening while shopping at a local Big Box retailer, I witnessed how difficult it was for a Hispanic woman to communicate due to her limited English. I almost got on my cell phone to call my second daughter who works as a Spanish medical interpreter in eastern Wisconsin to ask her to interpret.

Did you know that, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, 17.4 percent of Faribault’s 23,352 residents have a language other than English spoken at home? Stats show 9.4 percent of our city’s residents are foreign-born.

Vendors, like Riyaam, peddled their wares at the 2011 festival.

Instead of criticizing those who speak and dress and live differently than the majority of us, let’s begin to understand them. Mostly, I think, our misconceptions, our prejudices, are based on fear. We fear what we don’t understand.

A young girl’s henna stained foot, photographed at the 2011 fest.

International Festival Faribault offers a common, public ground—a city park—on which to meet the minority individuals who call our community home. They are here to stay. Let’s get to know them. Engage in conversation. Show them you care, that you’re genuinely interested in learning more about them and their cultures. Once you’ve connected on a personal level, you will begin to view them as individuals and not by the color of their skin, the clothing they wear, the language they speak…

Xafsa, age 5, photographed at the 2011 festival.

FYI: Click here to link to the International Festival Faribault website.

While this post is directed specifically at the residents of my community, its content can apply to many communities. You’re all invited to Faribault for International Festival Faribault, no matter your community or country of origin. And just to be clear, many Faribault residents and organizations embrace the minorities who call our southeastern Minnesota city home. I in no way intend to mislead you into thinking we are all a bunch of bigots living here. However, neither am I going to hide the fact that obvious prejudices exist and are very much a concern in Faribault.

Click here to link to the post I wrote about last year’s International Festival Faribault.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


The not-so-surprising results to a diversity question March 23, 2011


An immigrant family in downtown Faribault represents the changing face of our community. I took this photograph in October 2010.

I DON’T KNOW WHY I was surprised. I should have expected the results given the many racist comments I’ve heard through the years.

Yet, when results of an online poll conducted by The Faribault Daily News were published in Tuesday’s edition, I was still shocked or, more honestly, embarrassed by the numbers.

The newspaper, after publishing stories on changing demographics in Faribault,  polled readers on this question: “Do you enjoy the increased diversity in Faribault?”

An overwhelming majority, 70.2 percent, responded with a “No.”

Only 20.8 percent voted “Yes.”

The other nine percent checked the “What increased diversity?” option.

Granted, polls like this, printed in each issue of the paper and then open for online voting, are not scientifically controlled and therefore could be substantially flawed. We have only the number of respondents, 312 for this question, and the tallied results, from which to draw conclusions.

However, when you live in a community long enough—I’ve been in Faribault for 29 years—you know how people feel. And, I think it would be fair to say that many residents in my community are not all that welcoming of minorities.

I hear it in the off-the-cuff negative comments about Somali men hanging around downtown or about the Hispanic family that moved in down the street. I hear it in the warning to avoid certain retail destinations at night. I hear it in the spewed words, “I don’t want any Somalians moving in next door.”

I read it in the comments submitted to the local newspaper whenever race or diversity is the subject of an article.

The words are mean, cutting, derogatory, and, most definitely, prejudiced.


Downtown Faribault businesses include Banadir Restaurant, a Somali restaurant.

Many times I find myself defending the Hispanic, Somali and Sudanese people who comprise most of the nearly 17 percent of minorities living in my community of 23,352.

My standard answer is something like this, “There are good white people and there are bad white people, just like there are good Hispanics (or fill in the blank with another race) and bad Hispanics. The only bad experiences I’ve had are with white people.”

That is almost true. Several years ago my husband and I, unbeknown to us, sold a car to a Minneapolis-based Latino gang member who then used our vehicle in a gang-related shooting.

I really struggle with individuals who negatively label an entire ethnic group. It is unfair and unjustified.

That said, many individuals, churches, schools and organizations in Faribault are working hard to welcome and assist our minority population. Such examples are the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Center for Charitable Services and The Faribault Diversity Coalition. Unfortunately, The Welcome Center closed late last year.


Different cultures, all the faces of today's Faribault, mingled during the Fall Festival in October 2010. Our town's current Black or African/American population is 7.5 percent.

But, really, efforts to embrace the newcomers in our community begin with each of us, on a personal level, in our hearts.

On my personal level, I’ve come to better understand other cultures because my second daughter is a Spanish language major who has lived and studied and done mission work abroad. She is currently a Spanish medical interpreter.

I try to attend ethnic events in Faribault like the annual summertime International Market Day celebration.


A member of Ollin Ayacaxtli dances at Faribault's International Market Day celebration. Faribault's Hispanic or Latino population numbers 3,026, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

I’d like to see The Paradise Center for the Arts, reach out to minority artists, and that is a project I hope to help the local art center pursue.

I’ve wondered, too, and this might seem odd to mention, but why do I seldom, if ever, see obituaries published in the local newspaper for minority members of our community? We need to recognize these seemingly small things that set us apart.

If we take small steps, first as individuals, in educating ourselves, then our attitudes toward each other can change. We will have a stronger, better community that is built on understanding and acceptance rather than on differences.


A family matriarch oversees the making of pupusas from her chair at the International Market Day in Faribault in 2009. This is one of my all-time favorite portraits that I've ever taken.

CLICK HERE for 2010 U.S. Census results from Minnesota. Scroll down to Rice County, which includes Faribault, and shows a county minority population of 9,576 or 14.9 percent. Statewide, our minority population is 16.9 percent.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Embracing diversity in small-town Minnesota June 7, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 3:21 PM
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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