Jun-Li Wang moved to the Twin Cities in 2002, but she didn’t feel that Minnesota-native vibe until the miserable polar vortex two years ago.
That’s when Wang scored a marked-down, toasty warm, Eddie Bauer faux fur-lined hat with ear flaps for 10 bucks.
“I put it on and told my friends they’d failed me,” joked Wang, a St. Paul community organizer. How had they neglected to inform her that this was the secret to surviving a Minnesota winter?
Um, maybe because they’re from here?
Thanks to Wang, recent transplants and those who’ve returned to St. Paul will get a uniquely warm welcome this week.
Wang is founder of St. Paul Hello (stphello.com), a partnership of businesses, nonprofits and individuals eager to connect St. Paul’s newcomers so that they’ll stick around.
“As we think about the vibrancy of a place, we are really good at attracting young professionals, but not good at retaining them,” Wang said, “and even worse at retaining young professionals of color. Many who stay never quite feel as if they’re part of this community.”
That’s why Wang’s nascent organization is presenting its inaugural Welcome Hat event Tuesday from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Minnesota History Center. No Dumbledore sightings are expected, and nobody gets a key to the city. But everybody gets an iconic winter hat with flaps, handed out by the likes of Paul Bunyan, St. Paul Saints pig mascot Mudonna, St. Paul City Council President Russ Stark, Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter “and some of those cute guys from Minnesota United FC.”
Quite the icebreaker.
The event’s levity, though, underscores a heftier mission, one that Noel Nix, a 33-year-old aide to Commissioner Carter, understands well.
“I’ve made friends with people who come, and then they go because they don’t necessarily feel they’re making connections that make this place feel like home,” said Nix, who is African-American. He moved from Flint, Mich., to the Twin Cities to study business at the University of Minnesota, later meeting Wang through his community work.
Despite marrying a Minnesota woman with extended family here, he said, “I can very much relate to folks who move here for professional reasons and wonder, ‘How do I connect?’ ”
Along with local music and light food, Tuesday’s event will showcase the city’s connective resources — everything from the St. Paul Neighborhood Network to Rondo Avenue Inc. to the Growler magazine — with representatives on hand to answer questions, and maybe ask a few, too.
“Our region is coming to grips with the fact that it matters that this is a welcoming place for newcomers,” said Peter Frosch, vice president for strategic partnership at Greater MSP. The Twin Cities area economic development partnership has launched the Make It. MSP. initiative, a consortium of more than 70 organizations focused on attracting a talented workforce.
Why do people move to the Twin Cities or return here? Frosch wonders. What’s key to making them stay? What might push them away? What is most perplexing to newcomers about the culture here?
“We need to learn what we don’t know by reaching out directly to newcomers,” he said. “I do not have data. We’re going out to create the data.”
Friends from childhood
It’s important to note that most “not from here” folks (including yours truly) do not believe there’s anything intentionally unkind in the lack of inclusion. It’s more the reality of this highly unusual state of mind in which friendships forged in childhood remain strong into adulthood, few people move away (or, if they do, they return with a spouse) and growing families leave little space at the Thanksgiving table.
Add to that a distinct Scandinavian reserve, which led Wang to wonder early on if something was wrong with her.
“The first year, I thought, ‘Maybe I have B.O.?’ ” Wang said with a laugh, reflecting on a lack of social invitations, despite being married to a Minnesotan. “Maybe I seem desperate?”
She’s come a long way since, digging into work for Springboard for the Arts and many other organizations.
Nice Breaker gatherings
With financial support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Wang is launching St. Paul Hello with a plan for monthly Welcome Hat events and Nice Breaker gatherings, ranging from pub crawls to gardening classes. The first Nice Breaker is a Saturday tour along the Green Line.
Wang is among many transplants who’ve learned a secret about the Twin Cities: Stick around and get involved, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find many other regions with this abundance of cultural options, top restaurants, philanthropy, beautiful neighborhoods and fine schools.
Mike Reynolds, a Hamline University English professor, expected nothing more than “the cold and Jesse Ventura” when he moved here in 2001. He was struck by the vibrant arts scene.
“Here, every street corner seems to have a cultural venue. The reading scene is amazing. The restaurant scene has blown up. And I’ve never experienced anything like the political engagement,” said Reynolds, whose wife also teaches at Hamline.
“We really like St. Paul.”
Wang really likes to hear that. It would warm her heart to hear others say the same — soon after arriving.
“I hope people don’t say, ‘Hi, I’m Joe and I’ve only been here for 15 years,’ ” Wang said. “I hope people feel welcome right away.”