ST. CLOUD – As a native of Ghana, Emmanuel Oppong has unique insight on what it means to be an immigrant.

Oppong is the community engagement director for the city of St. Cloud, where the nonwhite population has grown from about 10 to 20% in the past decade.

Since being named engagement director in 2016, Oppong has built off his personal experiences to help improve the city's relations with immigrants and refugees, as well as help to diversify city boards and advocate for mental health resources.

Oppong previously worked as a clinical therapist — often with marginalized populations — and as a consultant to organizations relating to culturally sensitive practices in mental health care.

Oppong was named a Bush Fellow in 2017 and also helped found the Jugaad Leadership Program, which provides people of color and other underrepresented community members in central Minnesota with leadership skills and mentoring opportunities.

In a written response to the Star Tribune, Oppong, 37, talked about how his role has shifted during the pandemic and how he's working to help improve representation and health care access for immigrant and refugee communities. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Q: You were one of the first participants in Mayor Dave Kleis' "dinner with strangers" initiative, where he invites residents he doesn't already know to his house monthly to share a meal and conversation. How did that lead to your role as community engagement director?

A: Before working for the city, I was the clinical supervisor for a mental health clinic based in the Twin Cities with a local branch in St. Cloud. I was also serving as the social action director for the Zeta Nu Sigma chapter of the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity, a historically African American Greek-lettered fraternity. The mayor thought I would be a good fit for the community engagement position.

Q: What do you do in your role? Has it changed during the pandemic, where people are more isolated?

A: My responsibility is to leverage community partnerships, represent the mayor and city at community events, help plan and implement programming, and manage the city's boards and commissions. The mayor's vision is to have the boards and commissions truly represent the residents of St. Cloud. City boards have historically been made up of older, often retired, white men; we are intentionally recruiting more diverse residents through collaborations with our community partners, leaders and programs.

The pandemic shifted my role into crisis management, community outreach and education through an equity and inclusion lens. I worked with the local counties to provide necessary COVID-19 resources to underrepresented, marginalized and the BIPOC communities. I was tasked with relaying information about COVID-19 and the city's business relief programs to those communities, which sometimes had challenges accessing information due to language barriers.

Q: When you were selected as a Bush Fellow in 2017, you said your goals were to improve access to mental health care for immigrants and refugees. Has access improved in central Minnesota?

A: Access to mental health care for immigrants and refugees has improved significantly in central Minnesota. About five years ago, I established a task force dedicated to promoting equitable access and reducing the stigma on mental health. At the time, there was only one clinic in central Minnesota with culturally competent mental health services aimed primarily at immigrants and refugees. The clinic served as a model for the state's Health Department. I also served on a state advisory council to provide recommendations on the need for community-based cultural competency mental health care.

In recent years, St. Cloud police department has started a partnership with mental health professionals to respond to mental health emergencies, St. Cloud Hospital is constructing a unit to provide better emergency mental health assessments, and Stearns County has established an action team to address mental health — all of which will help families and individuals dealing with mental health illnesses and crises, including immigrants and refugees.

Q: How does your education in community counseling help you connect with people in your role?

A: One of this profession's critical elements is demonstrating empathy. I use person-centered therapy, which demands therapists show unconditional positive regard, be empathetic and listen authentically to clients' needs in a nonjudgmental way. These skills have helped me connect with people regardless of race, class, socioeconomic status, religion or sexual orientation. During the pandemic, I have used my education and experience to provide coping skills to struggling families or individuals dealing with grief and loss, as well as provided information on community resources to businesses, leaders, schools and organizations.

Q: A few years ago, St. Cloud City Council discussed a resolution to ban new refugees — and instead adopted a resolution to support being a welcoming community. Do you think the city and its residents are welcoming? What can be done to improve this?

A: Resistance to change is a natural response that can be destructive or constructive. Communication alone does not change behavior; relationships do. St. Cloud has changed demographically over the last few decades; we have students from across the globe and the nation that are choosing to stay here after attending St. Cloud State University or St. Cloud Technical & Community College. Immigrants and refugees are moving to the area and starting families and businesses. It means there is a need for structural and institutional change in addressing systemic racism.

Like any other city, St. Cloud is not immune to challenges. I have seen the positive impact of community partners, businesses, schools, leaders and organizations collaborating through initiatives like Create CommUNITY, which has a mission to dismantle racism through systemic change.

The first step is valuing all individuals and populations equally, meaning one group should not be negated or undermined when it comes to policy creation and implementation; representation matters at the decisionmaking table.

It is imperative to recognize and rectify historical injustices, and that will require massive investment. The city continues to educate its leadership team through anti-racism training and working to build cultural competence.

Following the death of George Floyd, there has been a call for a move from conscious awareness to action and I have seen St. Cloud becoming a pacesetter in this call to action. Stakeholders are engaged in intentional discussions on accelerating diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in central Minnesota — and the city and mayor are part of these commitments.

Jenny Berg • 612-673-7299

Twitter: @bergjenny