Willmar, Minn. — In 1949 my aunt and uncle moved from Minneapolis to this town in west-central Minnesota, where they started a small steel distribution company. I visited them regularly for 50 years. About 40 years ago, my aunt whispered to me one day that she had been in her local grocery store and had heard someone ... “speaking Spanish.”
It was said with wonderment, not malice, like, “You’re not gonna believe this, Tom, but some Martians landed in Willmar.” It was surely my aunt’s first encounter with new immigrants in her largely white, Lutheran, Scandinavian town, where she and her husband — two Minnesota Jews (known as the “frozen chosen”) — had been about the most exotic things going for years.
I never forgot her comment, and, since I’ve been visiting towns around America for the past two years, I decided to go back to Willmar to see how it had changed since my aunt and uncle passed away over a decade ago. I started my tour at Willmar High School, where the principal, Paul Schmitz, began by showing me a big stainless-steel world map hanging in the lobby, with pins representing all the different places the students hail from.
At the start of every school year, members of the Student Council climb up a ladder to the map, remove the pins of the graduates and insert fresh ones for the new ninth-graders. That map has pins from some 30 countries across Latin America, the Middle East, Asia and the rest of the world. Willmar, population 21,000, is now nearly half Latino, Somali and a Noah’s ark of other East African and Asian immigrants. The languages spoken in the high school include English, Arabic, Somali, Spanish and Karen (spoken by an ethnic group from Myanmar).
And best of all, Schmitz told me the map was donated by the people who had bought my aunt and uncle’s steel company!
The cliché about America today is that we’re a country divided between two coasts — two coasts that are liberalizing, pluralizing, globalizing and modernizing. And in between is “flyover America,” where everyone voted for Donald Trump, is suffering from addictions and is waiting for the 1950s to return.
That’s not what I’ve found. America is actually a checkerboard of towns and cities — some rising from the bottom up and others collapsing from the top down, ravaged by opioids, high unemployment among less-educated white males and a soaring suicide rate. I’ve been trying to understand why some communities rise and others fall — and so many of the answers can be found in Willmar.
The answers to three questions in particular make all the difference: 1) Is your town hungry for workers to fill open jobs? 2) Can your town embrace the new immigrants ready to do those jobs, immigrants who may come not just from Latin America, but also from nonwhite and non-Christian nations of Africa or Asia? And 3) Does your town have a critical mass of “leaders without authority”?
These are business leaders, educators, philanthropists and social entrepreneurs ready to lead their community toward inclusion and problem-solving — even if formal leaders won’t. These leaders without authority check their party politics at the door and focus only on what works. They also network together into what I call “complex adaptive coalitions” to spearhead both economic and societal change.
Willmar has the right answers to all three questions. It has almost zero unemployment. If you can fog up a mirror, you can get a job in Willmar — whether as an agriculture scientist or as a meatpacker for the Jennie-O turkey plant. The math is simple: There just aren’t enough white Lutheran Scandinavians to fill those jobs.
Many of the people coming here for work are people who practice faiths not previously common in these parts, like Islam, Baha’i and Buddhism; whose skin is much darker than the locals’; and whose women often wear head coverings that aren’t baseball caps. They also don’t speak with Minnesota accents like those folks in the movie “Fargo.”
Have no doubt, the battle for inclusion is a daily struggle in Willmar and across Minnesota — and in some towns the battle is still being lost. But if you are looking for a reason to be hopeful, it’s the fact that in places like Willmar, a lot of people want to get caught trying.
In Minnesota, the towns that are rising are places “that have said we need a trained workforce with a good work ethic and we’ll embrace a redefined sense of community to get that,” explained Dana Mortenson, CEO of World Savvy, a global education organization that also works in Minnesota towns. And the ones that are struggling — and losing both jobs and population — “are often the ones who can’t manage this new inclusion challenge.”
And that is why “Willmar matters. It might be a small town, but it is reflecting all the global issues,” observed Hamse Warfa, a Somali-American entrepreneur who’s now Minnesota’s assistant commissioner for economic opportunity and the highest-ranking African immigrant in the state government.
Social networks, globalization, climate change, economic opportunity, demographics and war are throwing more people together with more “other” people in more remote places than ever before. What’s happening in Willmar tells you just how deep this is going and why every town in America needs to get caught trying to make diversity work — or it will wither. It’s that simple.
Willmar’s mayor, Marv Calvin, is Exhibit A of why leadership from positions of authority also matters — because so many people in a community take their cues from mayors, principals and agency heads. Now in his fifth year on the job, Calvin is a former fire chief. He and his wife had lived on nearby Lake Andrew, but now reside in town. He comes across as a big good ol’ boy, who leans conservative, but underneath is a steely resolve to do whatever it takes to transform Willmar for the 21st century.
“We had 1,200 to 1,600 Somalis when I started as mayor in 2014 and now we have 3,500 to 3,800,” said Calvin. “We also have 800 Karen people from Burma.” Add to that over 4,000 Latinos and you have a town of 21,000 that had been virtually all white and Christian its entire existence become nearly half new immigrants in the blink of two decades.
And it is pretty clear where this is going. In the public early childhood program, the mayor said, 45% of students are of East African descent, 35% Latino and 16% Caucasian (although a lot of whites send their kids to private schools).
“If that doesn’t wake you up about the community we have to build, you have to be sleeping pretty hard,” said Calvin.