ST. CLOUD, Minn. — For the past five years, St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis has opened his home for monthly dinners, often serving Minnesota favorites chili and ice cream cake.
Anyone can sign up — the only stipulation is that he doesn't already know them.
Kleis, a former Republican state legislator, hosts these "dinners with strangers" as a way to better get to know residents in the city, which has grown increasingly diverse during his tenure.
In the past decade, nonwhite residents have grown from about 10% to 20% of St. Cloud's population. Many of the new residents are immigrants or refugees from East Africa, and many are Muslim, which has caused rifts in the predominantly white, German community in Central Minnesota.
Because of that, the city's earned a reputation — through national news stories in The Economist and The New York Times, as well as residents calling for a ban on refugee resettlement — as a place where longtime white residents harbor nativist views and are unwelcoming to new Somali immigrants.
For Kleis, these monthly dinners are a way for him to bridge the divide and hear about his constituent's concerns and ideas, the St. Cloud Times reported.
"One thing we all have to do is eat so sharing a meal is a great way to have a dialogue," he said. "It's a tremendous benefit to be able to get to know what's on people's minds in a real informal way."
It's also a way to meet with residents who he might not run into as the owner of a driver's training business or at city meetings.
"I really seek out meeting with people. It has to be intentional. If you're in elected office and you just wait for people to approach you with issues and concerns, you're missing out on finding out what's on people's minds," he said. "The more I have of (the dinners), the broader perspective I get from the community."
The dinners are so popular, there's a waiting list. Often, individuals or small groups will join with others to create a group of seven or eight people.
That's beneficial, too, Kleis said.
"It's not only what I gain from it. It's often more important what people gathered for the meal are gaining from each other," he said.
Since the first dinner in October 2015, Kleis has hosted longtime and new-to-country residents, college students, small business owners, doctors and more. He even met his community engagement director, then a mental health professional, at his very first dinner.
Many of the other guests have gone on to join city boards or commissions at the mayor's recommendation.
Kleis aims to make the dinners as inclusive as possible by asking guests about dietary restrictions. He serves chili — which he makes himself — because it's a comfort food.
"I haven't run into a lot of people who don't like chili," he said.
And while Kleis makes a point to ask guests what they like and dislike about the city, there's no limit to conversation topics. Often, people complain about roads and potholes.
"It runs the gamut," he said. "It's no different than a conversation with family or neighbors or friends. The only difference is we don't know each other."