Amplifying the stories of newest Minnesotans

  • Updated: July 11, 2011 - 9:51 AM

One woman's quest to amplify the stories of the newest, and often the most challenged, Minnesotans.

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Julia Nekessa Opoti launched a new radio show earlier this year, amplifying the stories of the newest Minnesotans and the issues immigrants face.

Photo: Curt Brown, Star Tribune

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Julia Nekessa Opoti likes to grab strange-looking vegetables at the farmers market near University Avenue and Dale Street in St. Paul. The more exotic, the better.

"Then I go to the Hmong women and ask them: 'How can I make this?'"

After that conversation, the produce doesn't look quite as foreign. Opoti takes it home to her Minneapolis apartment in Uptown and "I figure it out."

Her fledgling career as a radio show host isn't much different. Earlier this year, Opoti was hired to produce "Reflections of New Minnesotans," a weekly hourlong show that airs 2 p.m. Saturdays on AM-950.

Her guests range from Liberians in Brooklyn Park to filmmakers discussing the raid and deportation of Guatemalans at a kosher meat-packing plant in Postville, Iowa.

She bristles at criticism that she needs to talk more and rein in her guests.

"No, no, no," she said. "They are telling their story in their own voice, and I like that."

The oldest of five kids from Kisumu, a port city on Kenya's Lake Victoria, Opoti became the first member of her family to emigrate. At age 19, she came to Minnesota and attended Metropolitan State University. She dived into student government and "started seeing myself less as a foreigner and more as a Minnesotan."

She became increasingly interested in social justice issues affecting immigrants and covered those stories for Mshale, an African issues newspaper, and TC Daily Planet, an online journalism site. She also publishes Kenya Imagine (www.kenyaimagine.com), a citizen journalism site focusing on her home country, and works as an outreach coordinator for the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood forum on e-democracy. As if that weren't enough, she blogs off her radio show at newminnesotans.tumblr.com.

"The struggle for identity for new immigrants is really overwhelming, and it's exacerbated when refugees have nowhere to go back to," she said. "I can go home whenever I want and don't have the same issues of low education and post-traumatic stress. But for Somalis, Liberians and Hmong refugees, I find that continuous struggle for identity really a compelling story of the human experience."

Opoti has a red book inches thick with story ideas and shows no signs of losing her passion to tell those stories. She was less excited about the interview for this story.

"I don't like talking about myself," she said, shrugging, before sharing a personal story about her mother Dorothy's sudden death from a blood clot back in Kenya five years ago.

A teacher at Metro State helped her procure a bereavement rate for a plane ticket home, and students and neighbors smothered her with hugs.

"I just felt this huge support and sense of belonging," she said. "I wasn't an outsider anymore."

CURT BROWN

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