Growing Community

Khou Lor (Photo by Maik Vue)

Minnesotans find themselves living in this state for a variety of reasons. For example, Khou Lor moved in 2012 from Wisconsin to Tracy — a town of 2,000 in the southwestern corner of Minnesota — because of love. She is passionate about making connections with people. That’s why Lor is part of an effort to create a Hmong Community Center in Tracy.

Hmong in Southwest

Laos and the Vietnamese city formerly called Saigon fell to Communist government in 1975. Hmong immigrants to the U.S. began to arrive in large numbers. Because many Hmong people had aided the U.S. during the Vietnam War, they sought to escape violence and retaliation by moving to refugee camps in Thailand or immigrating to U.S. cities. In the 1990s, many Hmong families moved into the Midwest and South, with Minneapolis and St. Paul becoming the primary destination. Many have since settled in Greater Minnesota towns, as entrepreneurs and farmers. There are about 220 Hmong families in southwest Minnesota, near Tracy.

Says Lor, who leads the Project United Southwest Hmong (PUSH): “My partner and I enjoy creating spaces for people to gather. We enjoy the social aspect of it.”

Eventually their efforts led them to a partnership with others around the state, including University of Minnesota designers, to work toward creating a regional space for education, entertainment, after-school activities, and Hmong farming. The center also is intended to be a space for all community members to learn about each other.

Lor enjoys the networking that has happened around building a community center. She notes, however, that the connections can feel one-way.

“It’s awesome to have curious individuals come out to learn about my culture, but it doesn’t always make the impact I hope for. You can only teach and learn so much. I’m at a point where I crave deeper, meaningful conversations and relationships. What can be done to create a lasting impact?”

She adds that many who attend cultural conferences already enjoy learning about other cultures and are used to being around people of color.

“How do we get those in roles of impact, those who make decisions, to attend and care about all the people who make up their community? Not just in words, but in real action? Perhaps that starts off by showing up to ask questions, to challenge, and to grow together.”

Lor adds, “How [can we] be more intentional with the work that we do? People don’t all feel the same way we do. Instead of saying ‘this is going to be awesome,’ the idea is to maneuver space to allow for conversations to happen, to share ideas, to allow people to disagree or question.”

Welcoming Tables in Southeast

Fatima Said (Courtesy Photo)

Fatima Said, a non-profit leader in the southeastern border town of Winona, found her way to Rochester after being forced from her home in Bosnia more than 25 years ago. She is executive director of Project FINE, which is focused on integrating newcomers — offering educational programs, language and advocacy services, and building connections across cultures. As a refugee to this state, Said understands the three stages many immigrants make when acclimating to a new home. First it is about survival, she says — having fled war, poverty, and unsafe environments, the priority is to find security, access to food, and a roof over the heads of friends and family.

Second is building capacity learning the systems for education, finding work, seeking service providers for health and finance, and bridging cultures.

The third stage is being able to create stability — by buying a vehicle and a home, finding ways to access lifelong learning, and becoming engaged citizens. “This is my favorite stage,” says Said. “It’s about being contributing members of society, supporting and starting a business, becoming cultural consultants, giving back to the community.”

In 2017, Project FINE held listening sessions as part of a project funded by the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. They talked to 93 local people from 23 countries and a range of backgrounds. Some had lived in the area three months, others had been there 40 years. Some had no formal education, others had doctorates. Many reported feeling unsure of how to connect in community, being isolated, and not knowing who to trust, or how to extend beyond cultural boundaries. “It is hard to get to know people,” says Said.

Without exception, each focus group included a discussion of how people had experienced racism since moving to the U.S. Many also reported being unsure about how to get legal status to make voting and driving accessible.

In response, Project FINE and a group of community members rolled up their sleeves to find solutions. They created the Welcoming Table, a monthly gathering for people of all cultures to mix and share stories with a meal. Community partners and residents help newcomers navigate pathways to business ownership, and work collectively to promote inclusion and equity in policies and practices. “It has been powerful for me to see all these leaders willing to make change,” says Said. “I see this as my way to serve my country and community.”

Said sees her work as paying it forward to honor those who helped her when she came as a refugee in 1993. She has immense gratitude for all those who sponsored and mentored her after she arrived at the Rochester airport with two children, two bags, and hope for a better life. “I am so grateful to those who helped me, and I am glad I now get to help others and make our community a better place,” Said says.