Saturday, September 22, 2007

Pelican Rapids; a vanguard in building a greater Greater Minnesota

Since its inception in 1985, the Blandin Community Leadership Program has served over 4,000 leaders from 250 rural Minnesota communities focusing on individual and community change

“BCLP is a great community program. It stands up to critical Scrutiny. I tried to find fault and couldn’t. In community after community, I saw the work of BCLP’s alums and was impressed.”

John E. Jones, PhD, University of Denver, Community Development Program Evaluator for United Nations

So, how does BCLP impact rural Minnesota? How do BCLP alumni benefit their communities? In the spring 1998, independent researcher John F. Jones, PhD, released results of an assessment he’d conducted to evaluate just that. This study was intentionally different from others in that its purpose was not an evaluation of BCLP training, but rather an assessment of its outcome. By studying community impact rather than individual development, he was able to measure BCLP’s contribution to community building in Minnesota.

Summary of Research Findings

This study demonstrated and verified the community impact of BCLP. According to Dr. Jones:

The majority of BCLP alumni are actively involved in community activities, civic affairs or volunteer work. They were always looking for ways to invest themselves in community building. The pattern of individual community involvement and group projects was ample testimony to the effectiveness of the entire training program. With skill and spirit, they engaged in citizenry. Of particular significance were the coordinated group activities of BCLP alumni. Even more than individual endeavors, these group projects were evidence of a conscious and explicit attempt to utilize what had been learned through community leadership training

In Diversity A Small Town Finds Unity

Pelican Rapids is a town in transition – moving from near total dependence on agriculture toward tourism as an economic base. Pelican Rapids is also adjusting to a new social environment, nearly 400 of its 2,000 predominantly Scandinavian population are now comprised of newcomers from Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America.

The exemplary efforts by BCLP alums to promote diversity and racial harmony in Pelican Rapids are a tribute to Blandin training. Working to integrate major changes in the fabric of community life, they remain a conspicuous group – facing a degree of social pressure not experienced by alumni in larger communities. Yet this small band of dedicated individuals is surprisingly effective. What adds to their efficacy is a focus on broader community issues that benefit the economic health of the entire area.

Multicultural Outreach. A significant amount of alumni energy has been directed toward welcoming refugees, immigrants and other newcomers. Because this is the challenge facing the community, success in this area has had the greatest impact. Through group efforts, Pelican Rapids received a $150,000 grant to pay salaries and organize activities among refugees. Alums also orchestrated the coming together of service providers to deliver programs to newcomers in a comprehensive manner.

International Coffee Break. To promote tourism and to foster inter-cultural relations, the full BCLP alumni group planned this annual event jointly with the community – a direct outcome of Blandin training. It appealed to mainstream residents while, at the same time, advanced the integration of the immigrant community. This event became the springboard for the town’s first annual International Friendship Festival in 1998.

Maplewood State Park Development. To improve tourist facilities, local funds raised were matched by a state grant to add electrical hook-ups at the nearby state park. One alum lobbied the legislature and the Department of Transportation to obtain $802,000 for construction of a 35-mile bike path in the park. He has founded a nonprofit association to promote and maintain the trails, negotiations are underway to obtain federal enhancement funds.

Other Community Improvements: The success of other community projects is largely attributable to Blandin training and the encouragement/direct assistance of alumni, including: the library expansion, Lakeland Hospice, the Pelican Valley Health Center Clinic and Nursing Home, and the formation of a Pelican Rapids Area Economic Development Corporation.

“It is easy to stagnate and fall back on the excuse, ‘this is the way we do things.’ Not here, not with Blandin alumni groups in town. They stimulate new ideas. Their collaborative spirit is contagious!”

Wayne Runningen, Mayor

Blandin's Five Tips for 56572 residents on how to flourish in our Global Village (and what we teach students in 56572 and other area schools through the Multi-District Cultural Collaborative:)

1) Learn and understand your own cultural norms as a way of better understanding others.

It’s not enough to just say, “I just respect everyone.” Be specific…what are the behaviors related to your definition of respect? Is it waiting for someone to pause for a second or two before responding or adding your own comments to something they said? Or, is it “jumping right in” mid-sentence as they’re speaking because you’re trying to show them that you’re actively engaged in the conversation (i.e., a typical Woody Allen movie!)? Both of these are examples of “respectful” communication - depending on the perspective you’re taking.

2) Be empathetic

Everyone has a different life experience and you demonstrate effective leadership when you validate others’ experiences – even though you may not fully understand.

3) Be curious

Express genuine interest in learning about others.

4) Be reciprocal

Just as you express interest in learning about others, try beginning some of that conversation with information about yourself. This helps remove the idea that the one who is different from the norm is the one who is supposed to educate everyone about their difference.

5) Be flexible and adaptable

The more you learn about others, the more you realize that everyone is different
and unique – each needing some different things from you. Be wary of “one size fits all” approaches to learning about cultural differences. You have to get to know individuals as well as within the context of the many groups to which they belong.

Sound like a town you know?

from the Blandin Foundation Community Leader - Summer 2007

When you drive into this town your first reaction is, this must be that mythical, quiet, small-town America community I read about somewhere. It looks like a Norman Rockwell painting. Within five minutes, however, you realize it can’t be that place. Everyone may be “handsome” and “good-looking” (borrowing Garrison Keillor’s description of people in the small town of Lake Wobegon, MN.). At the same time, you see faces of every hue and color. You hear children speaking in English and to their grandparents in Spanish, Cambodian or Somali. You sense a vibrancy in the community as a local radio station runs ads for the upcoming multicultural festival. The transformation of this community started 15 years ago. That’s when the labor needs of its major industries, which focus on food production, outgrew the local workforce. Soon jobs were being filled by waves of newcomers from Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa.

As this trend accelerated, the mayor convened a diverse group - people from communities of color, members of the city staff, representatives from the school, and spokespersons from the area’s major employers. She asked these people to become a task force to document the population changes that had already taken place. She also wanted them to anticipate what changes were coming next and predict their implications. The task force’s report was rich in detail. Yet, it could be summarized in two key points:

• The population trends are likely to continue, with the community becoming more diverse in the foreseeable future.

• The way that current residents, units of government, local groups, and local organizations respond to this change will significantly affect how unified or fragmented the community becomes in the future. The report was shared with and discussed by the various community groups represented on the task force. Next, the members of the task force challenged themselves with a question, What values should guide our community’s responses to newcomers? That conversation was not easy. But the group was able, with the help of the mayor, to agree that:

• Every resident is a potential asset to the community.
• No matter where they come from, new residents are more apt to see themselves as an asset - and to be seen by others as an asset - if their transition into the community is a positive one.

As the discussion drew to a close, one of the task force members captured the essence of the group’s agreement: “I was taught that community is the gift or legacy we give the next generation. Tonight we’ve decided that the legacy we want to leave is to be a welcoming community for everyone.”

The Blandin Foundation

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