Minnesota is seeing major demographic changes, including increasing racial and ethnic diversity. Residents of color compose 22 percent of Minnesota’s total population, according to Minnesota Compass. This varies by age: 34 percent of our state’s youngest residents (age 0-4) are of color, compared to 7 percent of residents 65 and older.
In southwest Minnesota, many newcomers are Hispanic or Latino. Alma Contreras moved to the United States 14 years ago from Mexico and now lives in Murdock with her husband and their three children. She likes that the community feels safe, and she knows or recognizes most people in the small town. Still, it’s been quite an adjustment.
“I feel like at the beginning, when I arrived here, I didn’t see many Hispanic families or immigrant families. It was a little difficult for me because I had to learn how the system worked by myself, how the health system worked and how the school worked. I had a lot of questions,” Alma said.
Alma has worked at the Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg School District for eight years in preschool and as an interpreter. In the last six years, she’s noticed more Hispanic families arriving in the area. Based on her own experience, Alma tries to help bridge the language barrier for newcomers. She’s part of an organization called Conexiones.
“Our motto is connecting immigrants with the community. We provide information and resources to new people who move to the area,” Alma said.
In September, Alma represented Conexiones along with its executive director Autumn Macias at the Swift County Area Community Welcoming Week celebration in Kerkhoven. This community-led event is in its third year, celebrating diversity, advancing inclusion and bringing people of different backgrounds together around their shared values. It’s one of several activities across southwest Minnesota supported by Southwest Initiative Foundation through its membership in the Welcoming America network.
At Kerkhoven’s Welcoming Week event, a community resource fair featured more than 50 nonprofits, businesses and organizations representing the surrounding Swift County area – from the LifeLink helicopter to local 4-H members. There were prizes, bounce houses and lots of friendly faces, with about 450 people filling the small town’s park.
Organizer Annelle Guillemard has coordinated Welcoming Week in Kerkhoven for the past two years. She grew up in the area and moved back after teaching in Los Angeles. She knows many local families – including Alma’s – from 20-plus years working at KMS Public Schools. Annelle got involved in Welcoming Week after an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center designated as a hate group purchased a nearby church, which she says is an ongoing challenge to building cross-cultural relationships.
“Welcoming Week is a way to pull people together. The ultimate goal is to get to know people. Possibly you’ve lived on the same block with them, and you maybe don’t know who they are. This is my small way to try to change that,” Annelle said.
“It makes the town or the area more inviting,” Alma said. “I feel like Kerkhoven’s event was just perfect because families can see all the resources there are in the area.”
Establishing a welcoming culture in any community requires ongoing, consistent work to foster equity and inclusion. In many ways, Welcoming Week provides an opportunity to cultivate the awareness and energy that’s needed to sustain those year-long welcoming efforts.
This is the fourth year SWIF has supported Welcoming Week in the region, bringing together neighbors of all backgrounds to build strong connections and affirm the importance of welcoming and inclusive places in achieving collective prosperity. Other southwest Minnesota communities celebrating this year included Glencoe, Granite Falls, Marshall, Willmar and Worthington.
“Each community creates its own unique celebration reflecting the local community spirit. It doesn’t have to be a big event. It can be something small and grow from there,” said Than Than Kyaw, SWIF Community Engagement Specialist.
“Simple things make a difference,” Alma said.