I moved to Minneapolis from California in June to be closer to family and have been doing the usual things one does when new to a city: meeting people, finding my way around, looking for a job. In short, acclimating. My sister, who has lived here for many years, asks me nearly every day about my impressions. What I didn’t realize until she pointed it out to me was that I was describing nearly everything — the people I met, the places I went, the light rail and buses — as “nice.”
Which is how I learned about “Minnesota Nice.” And I have to say, I like it.
With that out of the way, it’s time for full disclosure. While all I wrote above is true, I left out a few salient details, namely, that I was in a federal prison in California for a crime committed in my previous life as an international lawyer. I was released to a Minneapolis halfway house following the completion of my sentence and am now trying to rebuild the honorable, respectable life I once had but that was shattered by my poor choices. So I guess you could say I’m not exactly a “typical” new arrival to the city. But this is also what makes my introduction to “nice” even more poignant and meaningful.
The sad fact is that after many years working in New York, Los Angeles and Moscow, followed by several years in federal prison, I grew unaccustomed to nice. In prison, especially, I unconsciously absorbed the institutional approach to inmates. It’s sad in retrospect, after now being exposed once again to the opposite, but I came over time to think of rude as normal and myself as somehow unworthy of kindness, more a number in a warehouse than a human being. It’s nice to experience now that it’s not and I’m not.
So while I may not be a typical new arrival, I am touched that so many have made me feel welcome. Examples are many. There have been the potential employers who, when I tell them of my background, do not judge and seem genuinely accepting and willing to take a chance on me and give me the second chance I so long for. There have been the workers at my halfway house, who treat us with genuine caring and respect, contrary to all of my expectations based on what I had heard about big-city California and New York halfway houses. And there have been the volunteers at nonprofits dedicated to giving those like me a meaningful shot at a second chance who clothed me when I came out of prison with only a few T-shirts and sweatpants and provided me with good leads on employment.
My experience as an atypical new arrival also has made me wonder what is a typical arrival any more. I know there are some who may read this and see me as undesirable, wishing that I, and others like me, had stayed away. But from my experience, most former offenders truly want the opportunity to contribute positively to society. And the fact is, they have more opportunities — are given more chances — here than in most places. The strong economy definitely helps. But it’s also the attitude found here. The acceptance.
And it also makes me wonder: If I am lumped into a category of “undesirable,” what of others? Donald Trump would have us believe that the Somali immigrants who come to Minneapolis seeking a better life are either dangerous terrorists or expensive burdens to the state. But my experience has been entirely different. I work with many Somalis in my night job at a printing factory, and I have been uniformly impressed by their work ethic, their generosity, their drive and their attempts to adapt to their new home. Most say they would not wish to live anywhere else but here.
As for me, I was able to find a job relatively quickly and begin the long process of rebuilding. And while, with my background and education, I do aspire to more than a night job in a factory, the fact is that my employer took a chance on me, recognized my potential and provided me with the first rung in the ladder of my second chance. If I had been released in Los Angeles, as I had originally planned, I’m not at all sure that would have happened — at least not as quickly as it did here.
I know not everything is perfect in this fine city. I watch the news and see the issues and tensions. Change is hard. And evolutionarily, it may be natural to have some trepidation about someone perceived as “other.” But as someone who, having once been in the privileged mainstream, now finds himself in a new, less-respected category, I can say that Minnesota Nice, and the extent to which it extends to new arrivals of all stripes and creeds, is truly nice.
Leigh Sprague is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Columbia Law School. He pleaded guilty in 2013 to transporting stolen funds in foreign commerce, a crime he says was a result of an addiction and resulting poor decisions.