My name is Jessica Rohloff. I’ve lived in Kandiyohi County my whole life, coming up on 45 years.
I grew up living by the seasons of the farm and got my first town job at a local café. I love to see the world but I love coming home even more. It is where my people came looking for a better life and it is where they are buried.
Every two or four years, political parties and politicians develop an interest in my part of the world. They come to the parades and shake hands. We love having people stop by. And our Norwegian, Somali or Mexican families, just to name a few of the varieties, will make sure you are welcome and well fed.
The problem comes when you bring with you all your stereotypes of who we are. When you can’t get past the stereotype, you miss out on who we really are and what we really need. After you leave, sometimes we wonder if you heard us at all.
Yes, I had gun training at 12. And yes, I have been known to drive a truck. But that isn’t all I am. The stereotypes of uneducated, angry people who vote only on scarcity, racism and fear don’t fit me and don’t fit most people I know. So put away the plaid shirts and hunting vests and just be yourselves. We don’t need you to share our wardrobes or hobbies. We just need you to show up and learn who we are.
Come meet my friend Lydia. Lydia is a 16-year-old high school student who lives near me. Like most people her age, she worries about her friends, her homework and how she can go to college. But she’s also worried about her own safety. She grew up in an era of school shootings. What may seem like TV news to adults is vivid and tangible for teenagers. It’s a real fear. Lydia is tired of being told that gun control is not something we can talk about in rural Minnesota.
Or my friend Hamdi, who is a 20-year-old Somali-American woman who lives in Willmar. Hamdi is a faithful person. She is devoted to her Muslim faith and is dedicated to Willmar. She wants to earn a college degree, have a family and publish a book with her name on the cover, and she wants to do it here in rural Minnesota.
Rural Minnesota has farmers, packing house workers and miners. We also have brilliant young writers.
I wish more than anything you could meet my friend Veronica. A Mexican-American woman of faith and a mom who taught her kids the value of service to others. She took care of the elderly and the sick. That was before she became sick herself. She died last week at the age of 41, leaving her 18-year-old son to care for his younger siblings on his own.
She died in large part because she couldn’t afford the health care she needed. In the end it doesn’t matter much where you live. When someone you love is unable to afford the things they need to live, no one thinks about rural or urban.
The rural/urban divide narrative is just a tool. It’s a tool used to divide us. It only works if people believe that only white men live outside of the metro area and that all white men think alike. It just isn’t true.
My fellow Minnesotans, it’s 2018 and it is time to ask who benefits when we divide ourselves and fear our neighbors.
Yes, life is different in rural Minnesota. We are the people of dirt roads, small towns and island cities set in the fields. Our neighbors volunteer for the ambulance and fire crews. Where I live, we are the land of the Dakota and Anishinaabe.
We do work in agriculture, but we also work in elder care and education and manufacturing and the arts. In fact, our values are no different from those of the suburbs or cities. We believe in working hard and taking care of each other. We value our land, our water, and the future of our children — everyone’s children.
So please, candidates, don’t come tell us about how rural people are being ignored at the State Capitol if you are not willing to get to know us yourselves. Put your hunting vests away. Put your walking shoes on. Better yet, just listen.
Jessica Rohloff lives in Willmar, Minn.