In 2019, a group of four artists spent three days in Milan as part of a series of workshops in small towns across Minnesota. Artists Amanda Fredrickson, Meghan Grover, Amelia Hefferon and Sarah Meister met at grad school in New York and created The Defrost Project, using theater and storytelling to cultivate connection, explore local issues and celebrate rural communities.
With a grant from Milan Community Foundation – one of Southwest Initiative Foundation’s 30 affiliate partners – the artists returned this year to guide community members in exploring what it means to live in Milan, investigating what challenges Milan faces and imagining possible solutions.
“I think art gives us language and a way in [that] we don’t use every day. It opens up responses, questions, thoughts,” Sarah said, adding that it’s full of joy and play while also building critical thinking skills and helping us envision what isn’t already known.
The self-proclaimed Norwegian capital of the United States, Milan is a small town with a vibrant community fabric. Its Scandinavian roots are planted beside a community of newcomers from the Federated States of Micronesia who began arriving 20 years ago. Now half the town’s 428 residents are native Pacific Islanders or their children. Micronesia is a region between the Philippines and Hawaii that encompasses more than 2,000 islands. Milan’s Micronesians come from the island of Romanum in Chuuk State.
Galeasa Elias is a ninth grader at Lac qui Parle Valley High School. Born in Chuuk, she’s lived in Milan most her life. She likes going to the lake and swimming, going to the park and camping, playing volleyball. She feels connected to her native culture despite living an ocean away.
“There’s a lot of us out here in Milan. All my family members are here,” she said.
There are always gatherings and celebrations, with food as a centerpiece. Galeasa’s favorites are the Filipino dish pansit, which has chicken and vegetables, and musubi, meat with rice and seaweed.
Being apart during the pandemic was hard for Galeasa, who was happy to come together with her friends for two weeks in August with The Defrost Project.
“I’m just happy to have everyone here and together, especially after the COVID stuff. Being with everyone and working on these projects was my favorite part.” ~Galeasa
What was meant to be a three-week project became a year of virtual programming due to the pandemic, with a finale in person. In August, Amanda, Meghan, Amelia and Sarah came to Milan to join with local organizations in hosting events, workshops and celebrations around town. They asked the kids what forms of art they found interesting, and many said architecture.
The project focused on places that are important now and what spaces there could be in the future. There was movie night in the park, a special 4-H Summer Camp, an interactive play open to all ages called “Time Warp” and a celebration with a time capsule open house.
For the community time capsule, Galeasa brought a necklace that reminds her of her grandma, who passed away, and a flower that reminds her of the blooms in her tropical homeland. They lay on tables next to a quart of homemade pickles, a roll of toilet paper, cloth face masks, a swimsuit and more contributed by community members.
In the time capsule, kids recorded their hopes for the future. Some things they want to see change are bullying and racism and garbage in the park. In contrast, they hope the trees and nature, the people and volleyball matches can be found in the Milan of the future.
“We need to learn how to take care of people better,” said Galeasa, who also helped create a mural for the project that depicts the “sharks and islands” in life – what the kids feel afraid of, and the places they feel comfortable.
Ann Thompson grew up in Milan, in a house across the street from the park that’s still a social hub. The fourth generation of her family to call Milan home, Ann owns Billy Maple Tree’s Gift Shop downtown. She’s a local 4-H volunteer, an ESL teacher, board member of the Milan Community Foundation and head of the Greater Milan Initiative. Four years ago, the Greater Milan Initiative received a grant from Southwest Initiative Foundation to start a youth center for kids in grades 7 through 12. Ann is the adult guide and played a major role in The Defrost Project.
“I feel really lucky that I know a lot of the kids and they trust me. Whatever I can do to help make kids’ lives better I will do it. If you’re an immigrant, there’s all these obstacles to navigate. These kids are navigating two cultures. They want to fit in, and they want to make their families happy. It can’t be easy.” ~Ann
The Milan Youth Center and The Defrost Project came together for a two-day virtual spring break camp earlier this year. They talked a lot about COVID and the shutdown, about what it meant, what they were missing and what they were looking forward to when things opened up again. Then, the kids paired up and took photos of places where they liked or felt safe or relaxed. And they interviewed kids and adults around town about what it means to live in Milan, what they like and what they want to see change. The ideas and voices from the video fit together in a poem for the future, part of the project that froze time in this town, and thawed connections.
“You should be proud of where you live. Living in a rural area doesn’t mean you’re settling for something less,” Ann said.
“There’s always change,
And through the imperfections,
I hope you still see we love Milan how it is.
I hope there’s going to be more people
that care about each other and love each other.
Milan feels like home
when we’re all together.”
Grow Our Own Opportunity Grant funds Milan Youth Center
In 2016, Southwest Initiative Foundation launched a 10-year commitment to “Grow Our Own,” closing the opportunity gap for our kids and their families. Shortly after, we opened a special Grow Our Own Opportunity Grant for our community foundation affiliates. In 2017, Milan Community Foundation and the Greater Milan Initiative Project applied for funding to start the Milan youth Center. The Greater Milan Initiative was formed in 2007 and purchased the former Milan school building to create a community center.
“Since many of the youth living in and around Milan are living in two worlds, so to speak, they serve as excellent ‘bridges’ within our community, reaffirming Milan’s long history of support for education and families knowing that children are our future. We want to give them every possible opportunity to succeed,” said Ann Thompson, who leads the Greater Milan Initiative.
The project received a Grow Our Own Opportunity Grant and has since offered programs to enhance youth success in education and provide them with life enrichment activities. The Milan Youth Center was a major partner in The Defrost Project activities and continues to give our kids support and opportunities to reach their full potential.