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.

 

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.

 

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© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling