An anti-racism book club in Cook County. A leadership development program for underrepresented community members in Northfield. A youth-led charge to talk about race and equity in greater Minnesota.
Those efforts are part of a statewide push by University of Minnesota Extension to educate residents on racism, equity, diversity and inclusion. The more than century-old organization, which has long taught Minnesotans about agriculture and natural resources, is expanding its mission in light of the national racial reckoning sparked by the death of George Floyd last summer. Extension educators are working with cities and nonprofits to create more welcoming communities and empowering 4-H youth to help lead the effort.
Communities must address their racial divisions and disparities to truly thrive and attract the new residents they need to survive, Extension leaders say.
"As the population in Minnesota ages, the newcomers coming into Minnesota, into these rural communities, tend to be more diverse," said U Extension Dean Beverly Durgan. "If [communities] don't have these tough conversations, they're going to continue to lose population."
The emphasis on race and equity marks a new chapter for Extension, which was founded in 1909. While the organization had launched some efforts related to diversity and inclusion in recent years, the work has accelerated since Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
In northeast Minnesota, Extension educator Lori Rothstein partnered with nonprofit Cook County Higher Education in June on a book club to reach residents who wanted to learn more about racism and police brutality. The club had to be divided into four separate virtual reading groups because of high demand from people of all ages and ethnicities, Rothstein said.
Together, they read four books — "The New Jim Crow," "My Grandmother's Hands," "How to be an Antiracist" and "Me and White Supremacy" — in a four-month span, examining the perspectives of people of color and reflecting on how they can be allies in their communities.
At their final book club meeting last fall, participants chose to buy and donate copies of "Walking the Old Road: A People's History of Chippewa City and the Grand Marais Anishinaabe" to local schools. Some book club members have since joined local task forces and initiated conversations about race with their friends and family members, Rothstein said.
Cook County Attorney Molly Hicken said the book group prompted her to reflect on racism in the criminal justice system. Since it concluded, Hicken has started discussions about race with the Cook County sheriff and other criminal justice professionals. She also testified in favor of a bill in the Legislature that would create a process to automatically expunge certain criminal records.
"I kind of had to face … the racialized impacts of the system that I work in," Hicken said.
Adults are not the only ones having these discussions. Youth involved in Minnesota 4-H programs, which are run by Extension, are trying to start conversations about race in their communities. Some were empowered to do so by a "Let's talk about race" webinar series that Extension launched last summer.
Educators leading the series teach 4-H youth how to talk about race with their peers and adults. They also invite young activists to speak at the meetings and give advice.
During the latest webinar meeting Wednesday, 4-H youth reflected on what they learned and updated their peers on steps they have taken in their communities.
A girl from Chisago County said she launched a writing workshop to help people learn how to write inclusive stories that respectfully portray diverse voices. A girl from Wright County started a culture club in her school for students to learn about diverse communities; her teachers and peers have generally supported the club, she said, though she's refrained from calling it a "racial justice club" out of fear of pushback from adults in her community.
"Youth are … leading by example," Minnesota 4-H state director Jennifer Skuza said, but "some topics just don't flow as easily" in certain communities. Skuza added, though, that families of 4-H youth with whom Extension frequently communicates tend to be more receptive to the conversations.
Shaping local leadership
Other Extension initiatives have focused more on leadership development than direct discussions about race.
Through a partnership with the Greater Mankato Diversity Council and the Region Nine Development Commission, Extension educators are teaching local leaders in Sleepy Eye, Springfield and New Ulm how to make their communities more inclusive. Participants in this year's "Welcoming Communities Project" cohort range from city administrators and superintendents to town residents who want to do their part, Extension educator Toby Spanier said.
In Northfield, city leaders teamed up with Extension educator Jocelyn Hernandez-Swanson last year to create an emerging leaders program in hopes of diversifying their local boards, commissions and committees.
Fifteen community members enrolled in the monthslong leadership development program and learned how to assess their strengths and lead and motivate others. One program participant wound up running for and winning a seat on Northfield's school board, becoming its first Latino member. Some others joined city advisory boards and task forces.
"In greater Minnesota, there's always existed diversity," Hernandez-Swanson said. "But I think now what we're seeing is that people of color … they're stepping more into public and visible leadership."
Partnering with Extension helps small cities such as Northfield do thorough diversity and inclusion work that they might not have the resources to do on their own, said Northfield program coordinator Beth Kallestad. With the help of Extension, she said she hopes to make the emerging leaders program an annual tradition.
Durgan, the dean of Extension, said her organization's efforts to promote equity, diversity and inclusion are not just a response to this moment of racial reckoning. Like agricultural and conservation outreach, this work has become a part of Extension's mission and will be sustained for years to come, she said. She noted that Extension is also looking inward through employee town halls and listening sessions to ensure its workplace is welcoming.
"Are we in this for the long haul? We are," Durgan said. "The issue of equity, diversity, race is
an issue that is not going to go away."