Rosenblum: An unlikely spokesman spurs honest talk about race

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 29, 2012 - 10:58 AM

Steve Pederson

A Metropolitan Council report predicting that four of 10 Minnesotans will be non-white by the year 2040 just made Steve Pederson's job easier.

As the face of Minnesota shifts dramatically, it is likely to bring tensions and opportunities. But it definitely will take one argument out of the race talk, Pederson said.

"We can no longer say, 'We don't have a problem because we don't have diversity.'"

Pederson, a trainer with Diversity Resource Action Alliance in Alexandria, Minn., was honored last week with a Facing Race Ambassador Award. The award, presented annually by the St. Paul Foundation, highlights ground-breaking racial equality work by Minnesotans.

Macalester College Prof. Emeritus Mahmoud El-Kati, a writer, radio commentator and creator of Solidarity, a new social justice advocacy group, also was honored.

Slight and soft-spoken, with a closely cropped beard and wire-framed glasses, Pederson seems an unlikely leader in the hot-button dialogue around race. He grew up on a farm near Alexandria, Minn., "where you don't know what racism means."

Now he does. His work takes him into communities and corporations and, soon he hopes, into schools and law enforcement settings, for training and workshops. He also raised eyebrows by engaging in a Twitter discussion with a group of white supremacists in New York.

"You have to meet people where they are," said Pederson, 43. "If they've never felt the effects of racism personally, I can see why they don't see it as an issue."

We've had many reminders lately that race remains an issue.

The shooting death in Florida of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, unarmed and black, by neighborhood watch leader George Zimmerman led to a national outcry about racial profiling.

In Minneapolis, the closely watched trial of Amy Senser, charged with felony criminal vehicular homicide in the death of immigrant chef, Anousone Phanthavong, 38, has many questioning the role white privilege plays in the judicial system. Senser is married to former Vikings player Joe Senser.

Even the recent announcement of the Guthrie Theater's upcoming season drew criticism from many who were frustrated by its focus on the white, male experience.

The fact that Minnesotans are responding in an uncharacteristically noisy way shows how far we've come. We need to keep at it. The Met Council reported that the seven-county metro area will gain almost 900,000 people by 2040, including 463,000 international immigrants.

Pederson's childhood was a different world completely. Pretty much everybody looked like him. But he remembers how the few kids of color in his classroom were treated cruelly.

In addition to his diversity work, he and wife, JoAnn, are adoptive parents of Alan, 5, and Valencia, 8, who are both African-American. "I do have a son who looks like Trayvon," he said, referring to President Obama's comment after the Florida shooting. Pederson said his children give greater urgency to his work.

"Steve inspires me because of his authenticity and willingness to step out of his comfort zone," said Sharon Goens, racial equity conversation coordinator for the St. Paul Foundation. "He shows us that we all have the power to make a difference."

A few weeks ago, Pederson was doing diversity training when he noticed a participant sitting back, arms crossed. "He thought this was a bunch of [crap]," Pederson said. Three and a half hours later, the man "sat up and got kind of emotional. He said, 'I cannot deny the concept of white privilege anymore.'"

How does that happen? Small groups and one-on-one conversations, he thinks, where everyone is heard. "Let everybody say their piece," Pederson said. "Talk about it."

Goens agrees with a laugh. "As a person of color, we're always talking about it," she said. But Goens, too, has seen progress toward racial equity in Minnesota. "Fifteen years ago, it was only people of color talking about this."

Now a growing number of people who are white are joining the conversation, she said. The most heartening addition: white men.

"With the changing demographics, they're saying, 'It's in our best interest to learn how to work with, sell to, engage with people who are different.' The challenge is really trying to help white people see how racism hurts them, and how it helps them to bring more people along with them. I can't help feeling more positive," she said.

Pederson is equally optimistic. Minnesotans hunger for thoughtful dialogue and relationships with people outside of their social circle, he said. While 2040 is far away, we already have many opportunities to talk to our neighbors, co-workers, bosses, service providers and classmates.

"This is not a zero-sum game," Pederson said. "With true inclusion, the world looks a lot richer."

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350

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