A Welcoming Community Grows in Rural Minnesota

In 2011, the hiring manager at Quality Pork Processors contacted Jake Vela, executive director of Austin, Minnesota’s Welcome Center, to let him know that 300 new immigrant workers would soon begin working at their Austin facility. That call was the catalyst for Jake and his staff to learn everything they could about their newest neighbors.

From specially designed focus groups with the new employees—almost all were Karen, a small ethnic group from Southeast Asia—Welcome Center staff learned about their culture and how they were settling in. The Welcome Center also discovered that many of the new workers first found housing in Minneapolis and had to drive nearly two hours to their jobs in Austin each day. This posed a challenge for businesses, workers and their families:  long commutes, missed work during Minnesota winters, and families left behind as mom and dad headed out to far-flung jobs. Jake describes what happened next: “I’m happy to say in the first year, we helped 464 Karen people and 15 Karenni families move to Austin.  Our proactive strategies have proved themselves again and again:  110 families have now moved to Austin.  Seventeen families have purchased homes. Two new Karen stores have opened in this community.”

embedinfographicLocated south of Minneapolis, Austin is a city of 25,000 residents, the county seat for Mower County and home to the Hormel Corporation.  At the crossroads of farming and food production, Austin launched and continues to learn new ways to achieve the RuFES EARN IT GoalWorking families earn a living that allows them to survive, thrive and raise their children in their community.   And in the process, Austin is emerging as an example of the RuFES GROW IT GoalWorking families accumulate and maintain assets that gain value and advance family and community prosperity over time.  To help rural families get ahead, rural communities need to be places where families and young people are able – and want – to stay, return or move (Grow It – Goal 10).

One-third of U.S. counties have fewer residents today than they had in 2000. And almost all of those counties (96%) are rural. Thriving populations lead to dynamic schools, resilient economies and robust infrastructure. For RuFES Action Network members seeking to reverse the trend of declining rural populations, Austin’s story is both instructive and inspiring.

So how did it start? In 1999, within a context of daunting cultural, political and economic change in the community, a group of the town’s local leaders were convened by then-mayor Bonnie Rietz to form Apex Austin.  In their meetings they asked two key questions: Who are these newcomers? And how do we help them stay and prosper?

At that time, Austin was experiencing declining population first-hand.  Mower County’s population had dropped 23% from its peak in 1960. Buoyed by local industry and businesses, local leaders saw demographic shifts in their workforce, but few workers chose to settle in the community. For those newcomers who did settle in Austin, cultural and language barriers were at risk of dividing, rather than strengthening the community.  Apex Austin recognized that Austin’s future would be woven inextricably with the new residents’ futures. At a time when many rural communities faced devastating out-migration and declining school enrollments, Bonnie and her fellow Apex leaders knew:  The community would thrive if newcomers could find services, homes and opportunities “right here in Austin.”

From this shared goal, Austin launched The Welcome Center as the cornerstone of its strategy.  The Welcome Center, a non-profit founded in June 2000, is the community’s multi-cultural center, building community by welcoming newcomers, supporting residents in transition and creating access and opportunity. The Welcome Center combines both economic self-sufficiency programs designed to help newcomers acquire new job skills, learn about American financial systems, establish their own businesses, and move into permanent housing, and community-wide education to familiarize current residents with the strengths and characteristics of newcomer populations.

Welcome Center Cultural Education Workshop

The Welcome Center offers presentations and workshops to familiarize current residents with newcomer populations.

The Welcome Center allows Austin, in Jake’s words, “to anticipate and work across differences.” In 2012, The Welcome Center:

  • Connected 815 immigrants and refugees to a myriad of resources including but not limited to housing, health, employment, childcare, education, financial services and more.
  • Collaborated with other organizations on the 1st Annual Taste of Nations event showcasing the diversity in Austin and Mower County by bringing people of diverse backgrounds to share their food(s), stories and performances.
  • Worked with skill development organizations to develop culturally competent tutoring, mentoring and training programs.

Local businesses and foundations, like the Blandin Foundation, are playing a critical role by investing in local leaders and cultivating community. Blandin Foundation CEO Dr. Kathleen Annette explains:  “For us, so much comes down to community leadership.  Becoming a welcoming community was the key to that community’s success—and they’ve been working on it ever since.  By helping new residents become thriving residents, they’ve turned differences into strengths. Leadership matters!”

Today, Austin’s growing population is diverse and thriving. Newcomers – like Karen homeowners and entrepreneurs – are vital contributors to Austin’s future. The return on Austin’s investment is captured well by Bonnie Rietz’s reflection:  “You know, 15 years later, I think I am the only original member still in the Apex group!  We just welcomed two new members this week.” She continues: “This is the key, really:  our resilience comes from our commitment to welcoming newcomers.”

What three pieces of advice would Austin leaders offer?

1. Invest in community leadership: The specific issues or groups of newcomers may change over time, but continually investing in leadership gives communities their most valuable and renewable resource.

2. Be prepared to learn as you go, but learn with a purpose: The Welcome Center has become proactive in anticipating and honoring differences.  Welcome Center Executive Director Jake Vela’s candor is refreshing:  “We made mistakes with newcomers from Africa.  We applied the same strategies that were successful with Latino families.  But, we learned that there are huge cultural differences between Latino and African communities.  We learned a transformative lesson:  to be successful, our community must learn as much about the different cultures of newcomers as we ask our newcomers to learn about America.  It is a two-way street!”

3. After 18 years in public service, Bonnie Rietz is firm in her belief: “When it comes to addressing the changing demographics in your communities, don’t wait for federal or state policy makers to address issues you see every day.  Don’t let inaction or divisiveness frustrate your efforts; start today and start local.”

By organizing around a common purpose, the RuFES Action Network can create communities where all families and young people feel welcome to stay, return or move.

Check out these RuFES Action Ideas for strategies to combat population decline in your rural community:

  • Keep It Remittances. Community organizations partner with financial institutions to provide an affordable alternative to high cost money transfer operators.

The RuFES Action Network is a group of Rural Family Economic Success practitioners helping families in rural communities earn more, keep more of what they earn and grow what they keep into assets over time. The network is administered by the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group with funding support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. To receive timely alerts and invitations like this, join the network at RuFES.org.

RuFES is a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group.
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