I grew up surrounded by the bluffs of southeast Minnesota, a flock of sheep, a close-knit family, and lots of storytelling. My mother collected family histories passed through generations. My dad told ghost stories around campfires. At family gatherings, my uncles would trade stories back and forth, until they (and everyone else) were wheezing with laughter.
Now, as founder of MinneStory — a podcast about Minnesota’s rural and urban communities — I am honored to gather personal narratives from around the state. Stories are both universal and specific, and thus hold the power to connect us.
Terry Lauden, a woman I interviewed for season one of MinneStory, reiterated this desire for connection when she told me, “This is what people need, to feel a part of something.”
I created MinneStory after the 2016 election and the intensifying national dialogue about the rural-urban divide. This dialogue often lacked the nuance of my personal experience living in both rural and urban communities.
I was in a creative entrepreneurship class in the University of Minnesota’sArts and Cultural Leadership graduate program at the time. This class was the push I needed to create MinneStory.
The first season featured my hometown of Houston County, thanks to the Crystal Creek Citizen Artist Residency.
Season two will feature Fergus Falls, thanks to the Hinge Arts Residency.
Powderhorn Neighborhood in Minneapolis will be season three, thanks to the help of Powderhorn Park Neighborhood Association.
Through these interviews, my biases have been both challenged and reiterated. People often react strongly to stereotypes: defensively or with pride. I’m most interested in breaking stereotypes down to examine where the tendencies to see people in generic ways come from, how they may be true or not, and how they play out in positive or negative ways.
For example, the stereotypical tendency in small towns is to shut out new people or perspectives. Yet that same mentality can foster shared cultural identity that binds a community together. If we harness that tendency for good, we can rely on that bond to hold us together while talking honestly about our community’s shortcomings or challenges.
As another MinneStory interviewee, Dayna Burtness, said: “Of course [differences are] going to come up eventually, but in a smaller community like this, maybe you’ve had a couple months, or a couple years, or a couple decades of friendship first, so your humanity is known to the other person.”
Of course, being open and vulnerable as individuals in a community can be much harder work in practice than in theory.
In my graduate program, we talked about the importance of acknowledging who we are in relation to communities we work with. I am aware that as a white, cisgender woman who grew up in a small town culture, I can more safely enter rural spaces in a way that many others can’t. Where I belong is where I can best contribute to growth. More than ever, I feel that place for me is in rural Minnesota.
This realization fueled my decision to move “home” to Caledonia. I’m in the process of securing two buildings: a long-vacant church on Main Street and the accompanying old manse. Along with some talented collaborators, we hope to convert the church building into a community space that celebrates and explores local culture through classes, events, and other services.
I’m most interested in breaking stereotypes down to examine where the tendencies to see people in generic ways comes from.
The manse — which I’ve lovingly renamed the Womanse — will be my home. This move of course, symbolizes many things to me, but mostly, it symbolizes hope.
I’m not moving home solely for comfort, although I can’t wait to live in bluff country again! I’m moving home because I have finally realized how I can best give back to the community that raised me: by working collectively towards a future with complex conversations, community celebration, and storytelling.
Melissa Wray is starting a cultural community center in Caledonia. She is founder of the podcast MinneStory, Outreach & Partnerships Manager at the Loft Literary Center, and is on the board of directors of Coffee House Press. She has a graduate degree in Cultural Leadership from the University of Minnesota.