The Center for Small Towns was created at the University of Minnesota – Morris in 1995 to create, connect and identify needed resources in communities of 10,000 or fewer people. In 2012, recognizing the rapid growth of immigrant families in the region, the Center launched a years-long study — with everyone from teachers and elected officials to new Latinx family members — to generate a report of community needs. The Center has been helping to fulfill those needs since.
The key thing, says Center director Argie Manolis, is to work in partnership as allies to “help everyone build their own capacity. It is not about telling people what to do, or doing research ‘about’ them, or trying to ‘fix’ them. It is about enhancing the assets they already have. It is about being supportive, not intrusive, to build vibrant and just communities.”
A strength in small towns, Manolis says, is the ability to engage in conversations with everyone around you — learning who is interested in developing solar panels, for example, or in creating a more welcoming school environment. Sometimes the work is as fundamental as helping to create a social media presence or update the languages in brochures. Other times it is about supporting projects on environmental justice, water quality, energy, and developing sustainability curricula.
Currently the Center is seeking grant money to travel around the state with its model — “what we have learned, how to develop a process of building trust and talking to each other over the long term, offering what we learned about how to do it better,” says Manolis. Some small towns have already figured out how to work with the widely changing demographics of their communities at the personal level. Others could benefit from doing work beyond a city survey level.
Communities will continue to have people who resist change. The work of the Center is about how to build trust for those who want to connect. That is not about “knocking on doors with a survey or sending something in the mail simply translated into Spanish,” Manolis says. “It is about meeting people where they are at, being present in different community settings, not trying to have things happen quickly.”
In the process of getting to know community through conversational surveys, Manolis learned that newcomers chose the area more intentionally than she expected. “Men came for employment and had families they had not yet brought here from other countries. This dramatically shifted understanding of needs. Major employers have been working on housing plans to accommodate families sooner. It is a good business model.”
She also learned how grateful and pleased newcomers are about the quality of education in schools. “We expected to see only the challenges of our small, rural communities. We expected to hear more about racism. There are issues, certainly, but there is more positivity around experiences than we expected,” Manolis says. “They might tell us there were two or three experiences that were not so great, ‘then this family invited us over for dinner.’”
St. Paul-based Growth & Justice and the Center for Small Towns at University of Minnesota – Morris are building a Minnesota Equity Map, which highlights the often under-recognized work done by community organizations around the state on behalf of regional, racial, and environmental equity. The partnership started when Growth & Justice requested interns for a mapping project.
“It has been a phenomenal project,” says Center director Argie Manolis. “We have a high percentage of students of color on our campus, including free tuition for Native students. It is a unique job experience for these students to learn about equity work happening in Greater Minnesota — transformational. Many of them grew up adopting the negative narrative that there are no opportunities or equity in small towns. That is not true. This work is flipping that narrative. People in small towns have a lot of ability to make change that might be harder in bigger communities.”
Students involved in the equity mapping project are building skills that enable them to become active members of community policy, such as becoming board members. They are developing mapping and technical skills, conducting conversations with people about their lives despite a fear of cold calls, and learning “about all the cool things going on in our towns,” Manolis says. “It is fun to watch those light bulbs go off.”
One program on the Minnesota Equity Map is Lazos (Spanish for “ties”), which formed in the early 2000s to develop welcoming events and support resources for Latinx people who were moving to Morris for work, especially at the large Riverview Dairy. English as Second Languages classes were enhanced in a partnership between Venezuela immigrant and Spanish professor Windy Roberts and Argie Manolis, then of the University’s Office of Community Engagement. Soccer games were added to evening events. Latinx women were noticeably absent, so a weekly women’s social group was created.