Community Creativity Conversations is an audio series that features cultural leaders who are making art central to problem solving on more issues in more communities. Learn from Midwesterners who are making intersectional change, addressing racism and inequity, and bringing people together through creativity and art.
In our second episode, hear from Dawn Espe and Jane Leonard, two Minnesotans who are passionate about equitable community development. Writer and radio producer Leah Lemm spoke with them about a new resource they’re working on to help solidify and advance equity efforts in rural Minnesota and beyond.
Listen to the audio interview:
Read the Rural Communities Equity Action Guide:
The guide was created by Mónica Maria Segura-Schwartz, Katie Pierson, and Jane Leonard of Growth & Justice with the support of Region Five Development Commission and the Equitable Economics Ecosystem project team members.
Just What Can a Resource Do?
For the last year, Dawn Espe and Jane Leonard have been working across Minnesota to compile a guide on equity work for rural communities.
On its surface, the guide is an amazing tool to help people access tools and methods to advance equity in their local areas. But it also represents something deeper: it is a way to connect rural residents who want to advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion, and justice, which can sometimes feel like lonely or disconnected work.
The Unique Needs of Rural Areas
Dawn Espe works with the Region Five Development Commission (R5DC), which works to improve the vitality and quality of life for everyone living in their five-county region. In the majority of this region, communities are made up of 1,000 or fewer people.
As Dawn worked to support her region, she noticed that a majority of diversity, equity, and inclusion resources focused mainly on urban areas. So, she went to Jane Leonard, President of Growth & Justice, for assistance in creating a much-needed resource for rural communities, built upon the Minnesota Equity Blueprint and MADO’s DevelopMN plan. They set out to create a guide that could help rural Minnesotans create an environment where everyone is able to reach their full potential through increased equity.
The Rural Communities Equity Action Guide specifically focuses on examples from rural communities that illustrate bridging connections between cultures in an area. It features six case studies from around Greater Minnesota, written in an accessible, non-academic tone. This allows the message to be relatable and accessible to anyone who wants to gain perspective about equity in rural Minnesota and start taking steps.
There are many organizations and people who are working to promote and provide equitable spaces in rural Minnesota and beyond. The guide is one step towards having those stories shared, and starting a crucial conversation about how equity and prosperity are linked.
We were finding that there weren’t a lot of tools and resources that spoke specifically to our rural communities about diversity, equity, and inclusion, and justice.
~ Dawn Espe
Wadena County in Minnesota is one community where the Equity Action Guide is being used
Stories as the Foundation
The Rural Communities Equity Action Guide’s stories originate from organizations and people who have done equity and inclusion work in small to mid-sized communities. Each case study community has its own specific processes, outcomes, and takeaways, and each is at a different stage in the process of equity work.
The guide begins with a foreword, which was written by Jane as a personal reflection highlighting the significance of equity in her own family’s history—working together so everyone can thrive. It starts with a quote: “Equity is a part of our rural and national heritage.”
From Jane’s great-grandparents’ perspective as immigrant farmers in Central Minnesota, it was crucial to work collectively with other immigrant farmers in the area. They combined forces to work out solutions towards fair treatment by agriculture suppliers and transportation. Together, the farmers formed a chapter of the American Society of Equity.
This understanding of equity hasn’t been perfect or enjoyed by everyone, but it is a part of the heritage of Greater Minnesota. It’s a reminder that immigrants and newcomers have played a significant role, and being welcoming is a strength.
When we really started to dig into what the makeup of their communities were and who really was there, we discovered so much more diversity than they could have ever imagined.
Young dancers perform in Winona County, where project FINE is located
A Case Study: Champions of Change
One of the case studies in the guide centers on Project FINE’s story, which shows how being welcoming has strengthened its city and local community.
Project FINE (Focus on Integrating Newcomers through Education) was created over 30 years ago as a program in Winona County, organized by the University of Minnesota Extension Office, to help connect refugees to food, shelter, and other basic needs.
Now, it’s a non-profit that has expanded its reach and services in the past few decades, particularly since 2005. Executive Director Fatima Said, a refugee from Bosnia and Herzegovina, attributes the growth and funding support to building reciprocal relationships and sharing success stories; basically, making friends in the community.
Project FINE is now thriving with more than 70 community partners. Together, they provide much-needed services and support for immigrants, refugees, and residents. These connections are crucial to the project’s success, with Fatima stressing the significance of working together to make progress.
One of many ways Project FINE has expanded their reach is through Welcoming America, a nonprofit that believes all people are vital to their communities. Fatima and Project FINE were selected by Welcoming America to be a “Champion of Change” in 2013. With the advocacy of Project FINE, the city of Winona also joined the Welcoming America network in 2016, which recognized the city’s efforts towards inclusivity.
The organization continues to bring people together through celebrations to build relationships in their areas, demonstrating its mission to “strengthen and enrich community by facilitating the integration of people who are ethnically diverse.”
Explore the Equity Story Map created by Growth & Justice
Part of a Larger Whole
Beyond the Equity Action Guide, Region Five Development Commission and its partners are building many spaces for people to share their stories.
One such project is the Equity Story Map, which is a living document that is updated with stories from those from around Minnesota who are working in the equity space. Dawn and Jane encourage organizations and people doing equity work, anywhere in Minnesota, to share their stories and experiences on the map.
You can also find art pieces, videos, and music created through community participation, all taking place through the Welcoming Communities initiative.
By creating an equity resource specifically for rural communities, Dawn and Jane hope to see the work of including and welcoming diversity expand and grow. “With the storytelling, map, and guide, there’s so many opportunities right now for us to connect and support each other,” says Dawn.
Seeing, hearing, and sharing through these many methods help connect those active in rural equity efforts, where otherwise it may feel like lonely work. This growing support and inspiration is helping solidify and advance equity in Greater Minnesota.
Community members connect at a Project FINE program
Region Five Development Commission
Find out more about Region Five Development Commission on their website.
Growth & Justice
Find out more about Growth & Justice on their website
Community Creativity Cohort
The Community Creativity Cohort is a group of 40 organizations who are making art central to their community building efforts. The Cohort is funded by the Bush Foundation and operated by Arts Midwest. This conversation was recorded as part of the Community Creativity Cohort convening in March 2021.