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Voices From Greater Minnesota

Everyday women respond: “How Do You Engage In Our State?”


Mary Ellen Ashcroft (photo by Linda Newman Points Unknown)

Mary Ellen Ashcroft, Boundary Waters Canoe Area
We are so fortunate to have a wilderness area like the Boundary Waters on our doorstep. Its scale and beauty and wildness are known all over the country and even the world. Yet it can be hard for people to go into the Boundary Waters.

Some people feel they are too old, or they don’t have the equipment, or they are not fit enough, or their knee bothers them. Those of us who live in Cook County do see many young men coming out of the area. We overhear of some their tales: “That portage with the knee deep mud for quarter of a mile…” “When that wind came up and we were in the middle of that lake…” “That pack must have weighed 60 pounds.” It is understandable that people might think the Boundary Waters is only for the young, fit, and macho.

By definition, wilderness is wild. In some ways it is the opposite of so much in our society that is about control and acquisition.
I know the Boundary Waters as a transformative place — a place of peace, beauty, and life-changing experience. I understand why The Wilderness Act set aside the area as wilderness. It speaks to the importance of a place where people are visitors, not permanent inhabitants.

That’s why I’ve taken groups, mainly of women and youth, into the Boundary Waters for almost 25 years. Points Unknown helps all kinds of people feel safe enough to realize they are strong enough to be here.

I recently joined forces with Linda Newman to take people into the wilderness for shorter trips, of four or six hours. We call this “Mindful Paddles.” It is about being present where you are, when you are, to what is there. Looking at a sphagnum bog with its pitcher plants, sundews, tamaracks and mosses; listening to a breeze in the trees, a winter wren, and toads; swimming or dipping in a pristine lake.

My hope is that those who experience this taste of wilderness for a few hours on its own terms will want to come back. The best thing is, this is our wilderness. We have this glimpse of heaven right here.


Ayan Omar (photo by Muna Omar)

Ayan Omar, St. Peter
I moved to St. Peter with my family in 2012, looking to establish our lives as new immigrants. (My parents are from Somalia; I was born in Saudi Arabia.) I graduated from high school, attended Mankato State University, got a job, made friends, and have participated in meaningful volunteer experiences. Thanks to all of that, St. Peter has become my home. I am happy to have found a small, tight-knit community, where everyone is welcome. St. Peter is a beautiful, diverse, accepting community, where everyone knows everyone and cares about the well-being of neighbors.

My passion is to help others succeed. I have been fortunate to put my skills and connections to use on the successful campaign of our city’s representative in the Minnesota House. I serve on a development commission as the Minority Population Commissioner. I am the treasurer at St. Peter Community Child Care Center.

In short, I am simply a 24-year-old Muslim, immigrant, woman of color, who stays connected to what is going on in my local community because I truly enjoy seeing the effects of volunteering first hand.


Hudda Ibrahim (courtesy photo)

Hudda Ibrahim, St. Cloud
After graduating from the University of Notre Dame in 2015, I chose to come back to Minnesota to give back to my community. Having seen how Minnesota is facing a worker shortage — as many employees retire and employers falter in hiring and retaining their replacements — I founded Filsan Talent Partners. We connect potential employees and employers, taking the concept of diversity and moving it to action.

Filsan’s mission is to build leadership ability in management in order to create a diverse and inclusive workplace. I train employers, human resources staff, and supervisors to better understand the immigrant workforce, the Somali culture, issues of diversity and inclusion, and how to manage conflicts. We also help translate company policies, handbooks, and other printed materials into Somali. We train immigrant and refugee employees to understand American work ethics, punctuality, and how to follow company policies and procedures.

My passion has always been to bridge cultural gaps and integrate minority populations into businesses and organizations in the greater central Minnesota area. I am driven to see local companies find a pool of diverse employees and enjoy economic growth, driven by the benefits of an inclusive workplace.


Andrea Duarte (courtesy photo)

Andrea Duarte, Worthington
In May, I graduated from St. Catherine University with a degree in political science, women’s studies, and English. Immediately after graduation, I went to Washington, D.C. to intern at the Obama Foundation. As a college senior, I spent months figuring out what I wanted to do post-graduation. All my plans changed after Benya Kraus, a co-founder of Lead for America, contacted me. She had learned about my storytelling and organizing work in Southwest Minnesota, and believed I could be a Lead for America fellow. The new organization offers two-year local government fellowships for recent graduates to serve in communities that are struggling to attract and retain talent.

I was accepted as a Hometown Fellow. After months of searching for a placement, I found a non-profit organization, the Southwest Initiative Foundation, that would support my work not only in Worthington, but around the region. For the next two years, I’ll be working closely with people whose identities have been marginalized. I look forward to supporting these communities by helping them further engage with opportunities their homes have to offer.


Ann Rozzell Hartmann, Gibbon
I moved to Gibbon two years ago from Texas. Always a big city girl, this small town life was unfamiliar to me. Gibbon, once considered the capital of polka music, had its days of glory more than 40 years ago. News articles spoke of the thousands of people who traveled to Gibbon for the polka festival every year.

Fast forward four decades. Gibbon is still filled with wonderful, family-oriented, hardworking people, but the town is now quiet. The music is gone, along with the grandeur and, frankly, the majority of businesses. For many years, the majority of storefronts on Main Street have been used for storage.

I’m writing, however, to share a story of often unnoticed resilience, led by women entrepreneurs. In Gibbon, women are running banks, selling antiques, offering hair styles, taking photographs, selling local arts and crafts, providing watering holes and Bingo nights, and leading our family care facility. Five women serve on the volunteer fire department. The City Administrator is a woman who addresses the big issues and even larger opinions.

Sit down with a coffee and you will hear stories from women of all ages; about their eight kids, their acres of land, their trials and tribulations, their stories of love and survival. After living in the big city my entire life, and believing that it was the only life a person could choose to find success, I can tell you what I have learned. The women of Gibbon are leaders.


Arlene Roth, Red Wing
I was staffing a fruit and vegetable stand when I was five years old. Customers would challenge my math and change-making skills, but I was always accurate.

I tried to do my first button hole after watching a TV program that same summer. It took my mother’s skill to repair the hole I made in my overalls. But it wasn’t long after that I began sewing lessons with her on the old treadle sewing machine that I still own.

By the time I reached the age of eight, I was developing my culinary skills. I loved to bake. My biggest thrill in baking came when I was in my teens and began making bread. I loved the smell of the yeast as it was proofing. I watched the bubbles form as the yeast and a tiny bit of sugar interacted. After forming the dough into loaves, letting it rise, and placing it in the oven to bake, I thrilled to the aroma that filled our small house.

I take advantage of our organic garden to prepare and freeze foods that are healthier for us than most store-bought canned items. Our freezers are full of tomato sauce, salsa, corn, peas, beets, peppers, carrots and butternut squash soup.

When we purchased and developed our 29-acre farm, we planted a variety of apple trees in the first several years. The house holds the smell of apples for days after they are pureed and put in freezer containers.

After years of making clothes for myself and my children, I’m concentrating on creating quilts. I love to balance colors and patterns to the recipient’s personality and style.

I am a multitasker!


Tara Brandl (photo by Per Peterson / Above The Fold Publishing)

Tara Brandl, Tracy
“You don’t know me, but I know you.” This phrase was the introduction spoken by many of our area residents when we took over the newspaper in Tracy. It embodies small-town Minnesota at its finest — everyone knows everyone.

Tracy is not a huge city (population 2,056). We don’t have the daily crime logs you might find other newspapers covering in the metro area. The community residents include the many farmers that expand our horizon and the smaller communities that dot the landscape around us. For the local paper, every one of them is important.

The sense of community is strong in rural Minnesota. Each town is proud of their community and their history. The residents want you to know their stories. And everyone has one. Residents are not afraid to approach and tell me what they think we should be covering, what we should be doing, or what they think we didn’t do right. The best part of that is they feel the local newspaper is their newspaper.

A church dinner that has happened annually for years might not have the same attendance as it did in 1970, but for the residents who have grown up with it, the dinner carries the same value. Many of our story ideas come from covering events like pie and ice cream socials and local concerts. Our area is proud of its history, of its events, and of its future opportunities. It is our job to make sure we continue to use that pride to cover all aspects of small-town Minnesota.