Outstate Minnesota’s great divides

What divides a community? My coworkers at MPR News, Dan Gunderson and Molly Bloom, put that question to members of our Public Insight Network who live outside the metro and drew some interesting responses. People not only described issues but also possible solutions.

They pointed to tussles over mining, “white anglers versus tribal netters,” casino politics, capital building projects, the best way to create more jobs and whether it’s a good thing to have larger medical systems buy local hospitals.

“Racial divides are prominent within the community,” wrote Melissa Bartlett, a charter high school teacher in Bemidji. “At school we work hard to abolish them.”

I followed up with Bartlett by phone and she expanded on the role she tries to play when it comes to teaching tolerance in a school that’s over half Native American. “We have the luxury of small class sizes,” she said. “We don’t really give students a choice but to interact with each other.” The goal is to prepare students for the “real world,” she said. That involves shucking off the prejudices inherited from parents and others. “We call people on it,” she said. “We say, ‘Think of a better way to express yourself.’ We want our kids to succeed and make a difference after they graduate. One way to do that is to cultivate an acceptance of people who are not like us.”

Dana Ludwig from Duluth wrote, “I think our community is aging and this creates a divide. There is also, I feel, a resistance to change and grow. Our progressive mayor is trying but I feel sometimes the climate of tolerance and diversity he is trying to create is being fought really hard. It makes me sad.”

Irene Hartfield from Babbitt described a conflict over copper mining. “Some residents are all for the jobs these projects will provide at all cost, and some are against the mining because of the possible damage to the environment,” she wrote. “People feel strongly on both sides.” Yet, she said she’s “optimistic” about the future. “More and more ‘outside’ people are moving into the community and bringing fresh perspectives and energy to different improvement projects. The old way of thinking is diminishing. More people are stepping up to volunteer and serve in city government, to make a difference.”

Hartfield said her community has become more outspoken, which she considers a good thing. She also praised an emerging arts culture, something other respondents mentioned too and a topic we’ve reported on at Ground Level.

Religiosity can be a point of contention, wrote Annette from St. Cloud (she requested that I not use her last name). “I am an atheist, but I see this community as way too religious,” she wrote. “It can be difficult because there is not tolerance for non-Christians and it is worse for the atheist or agnostic.”

Reached by phone, she said she thinks religious fervor has increased since 9/11. “There has been a critical intolerance since 9/11. People have used that too much to be divisive.” Her approach is to try to “get people thinking” on an individual basis. “But I have to get to know them for a while first,” she said.

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