FARIBAULT, MINN. – It was a beautiful August night in this Cannon River town about an hour south of the Twin Cities.
Neighbors sipped lemonade and munched on cheese curds and chicken fingers, as music played and children romped at Heritage Bluff Park.
The idyllic scene had an idealistic purpose: to inspire Faribault residents to lead virtuous lives.
It’s an ambitious goal. But as this city of nearly 24,000 adjusts to changing demographics, a large group of residents felt that now was the time to encourage people to bring out the best in themselves.
Thus was born Faribault’s Virtues Project, part of an international effort that’s been recognized by the United Nations as “a model global project that unites all cultures.”
At its heart, the project’s goals are simple, said Kymn Anderson, one of the organizers.
“You have all these wonderful things inside you, and it’s our life’s work to bring them out in ourselves and others,” she said.
The Virtues Project (thevirtuesprojectfaribault.com) is meant to inspire the practice of virtues in everyday life — dozens of them, including caring, cheerfulness, diligence, honor, kindness and tolerance. The effort is intended for everyone, but it’s especially aimed at teaching children the importance of virtue at a young age.
“We want to get to the 4- and 5-year-olds,” said Marcia Morris-Beck, a member of the project’s steering committee. The group is providing educational information to every kindergarten and preschool class in the city.
The Virtues Trail, the opening of which was celebrated at the August event, is a kid-friendly park along the Riverbend Trail System near downtown. The focal points of the park are 10 posts, decorated by local families, each supporting a two-sided steel panel polished to a mirror finish.
Etched on each panel is the name of a virtue. When a child (or an adult) looks into the panel, they see a reflection of themselves, along with the virtue inscribed on the panel.
The project is the creation of local artist Wanda Holmgren, who teaches art to primary students at Roosevelt Elementary.
“I want people to look in the mirror and say, ‘I am kind,’ and then go be kind the rest of the day,” Holmgren said. “I hope it can have an impact,” she added. “Our community needs some unity.”
Like many smaller Minnesota cities, Faribault has seen significant demographic changes. As recently as 2000, the city’s population was 90 percent white. The 2016 census estimates that number now at 73 percent. About 12 percent of the city’s residents are Hispanic, and some 9 percent are black, many of them Somali.
“Admittedly, there are some people that are not happy about diversity in our community,” Morris-Beck said. Others, like Holmgren, embrace it.
“I work in a school that has people from everywhere,” Holmgren said. “My children go to that school. I love that people are exposed to that diversity.”
The Virtues Project also has tapped into a desire to revitalize Faribault’s downtown. More than 90 local retailers have jumped on the virtue train, selecting a virtue and displaying a poster in their window.
“We hope to increase unity in the downtown area and have conversations,” said Cindy Diessner, another steering committee member. “Say hi to everybody, meet them, welcome them; tell them you’re glad for the virtues they’re bringing to our community.”
Julie Fakler, who manages operations at a local arts center, said the project’s simple and practical concepts have been helpful.
“It brings a positive message that people can actually use in their life,” she said.
The project began two years ago with a two-day training course for leaders. Nearly 70 people signed up, Morris-Beck among them.
“I thought, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to use this,’ ” she recalled. “But I wanted to be involved. The more I learned about it, the more it tugged at my heart strings.”
As residents are exposed to the Virtues Project, they have questions, Morris-Beck said.
“People ask, ‘Is it about religion?’ ” she said. “Well, not any one religion.”
The goal, Diessner said, is to inspire residents to see their glasses as half full.
“We focus too often on the negatives,” she said. “We need to see the positives in ourselves and our children and our community.”
That’s important in the age of social media, said Paul Swanson, a local resident who turned out for the Virtues Trail dedication.
“A lot of kids have a million Facebook friends, but no real friends,” he said. “People are getting sick of Facebook and Twitter. They want to get out and actually do something physical.”
Laura O’Connor moved to Faribault from the Twin Cities eight years ago. A stay-at-home mom with three children, O’Connor said she can really see the value in the Virtues Project and hopes it continues to add new pieces such as the trail and park.
“To be able to see this and walk it, I can work on all the things I’ve been journaling,” she said. “I think a lot of moms could use this.”
O’Connor, who is half Vietnamese, said she’s hopeful the Virtues Project will contribute to healthy discourse in her adopted hometown.
“I think it can bring our community together,” she said. “Just having the language is a big thing.”