2022 Changemaker Kimberly Pilgrim: Champion for Resilience

Kimberly Pilgrim at her office in Brainerd. Photo Sarah Whiting

Her mother’s courage to make a swift exit from a neighbor’s home after he made a racist comment was a defining moment in Kimberly Pilgrim’s childhood. She witnessed the power of standing up, facing fear, and finding one’s agency — a power she has guided other women to unearth within themselves over the past 25 years.

Pilgrim is the program director of the Meta 5 Minnesota Family Resiliency Program, which assists those facing sudden loss of income due to disability, separation, divorce, or death of a spouse. Based out of the Central Lakes College campus in Brainerd, the free pre-employment office is one of six locations in the state intended to ease the burden of a life-changing transition and help people on the path to self-sufficiency.

Pilgrim says this path looks different for each client. For some, it might mean learning how to pump gas or gaining the confidence to drive, while for others it could be finding stable housing in lieu of living in a tent, or acquiring the skills to prepare a resume.

“It is not providing services to someone. It is ‘We are all in this together, and we are all part of this wonderful opportunity for change,’” Pilgrim say

Through personalized and culturally relevant programming — including support groups, intensive workshops, and peer counseling — 97 percent of clients complete the state-funded program.

Based on the most recent data of those served, one in five were unhoused at the start, 60 percent experienced domestic violence, and three-quarters were single parents who received no child support. In an overwhelmingly white area of Minnesota, Pilgrim says 33 to 35 percent of clients are Indigenous or people of color.

These tend to be the people who are not included in the story of rural America, Pilgrim says, which is why it is important for other community members and policy makers to connect with them as something other than statistics. Program clients share their experiences with civic groups and take trips to the state capitol to talk with legislators.

“There is a richness in rural life. I think for many years there has been more of a singular story [of white, rural Minnesota], but that is changing. Sometimes that is met with resistance.

“Resistance basically comes from fear,” Pilgrim says. “What I have noticed is that there are a lot of white people that are afraid of being erased. I believe wholeheartedly what Paul Wellstone says: ‘We all do better when we all do better.’”

Pilgrim’s commitment to social justice goes beyond her Meta 5 work. She received a grant to support relationship- building work between rural communities of color and law enforcement, bringing people together to share a meal.

“There is something about breaking bread that is nurturing. We can tear down walls when we are having a meal with someone,” Pilgrim says. “It is nothing forced, nothing planned. We just let it organically happen.”

She helped start the Staples Motley Beyond Poverty coalition, which seeks to eliminate rural poverty.

Pilgrim seeks to create a loving and comfortable environment for anyone who enters her community spaces. at the college and at off-site retreats and workshops. She also visits the sites of social services agencies or employment programs before recommending them to clients, and offers cultural competency training to many organizations.

“It is important that [program clients] have the safety of inclusive community and services for those that come here. The intentions are good, but [agencies] have maybe not had the training to provide culturally specific services or even understand those that they are serving,” Pilgrim says. “It is about knowing your community.”

Pilgrim believes the world can be stripped of poverty and racism, set free of patriarchal systems serving the few, and transformed into a kinder, gentler place for everyone.

“This is an exciting time, because we are standing at a pivotal time in history where we can shape and mold our futures,” Pilgrim says. “That human connection and the change of the heart — changing one person also changes that whole sphere of influence. That is where real change happens. It is in the ordinary where extraordinary things happen.”

Action = Change

I would like for people to listen with their heart’s ear first, and then to be fearless in learning what they don’t know.