PROFILE: Faribault minorities develop political ambitions as officials seek staff to reflect community | News

Galvanized by the 2016 election, the Latino and Somali community in Faribault have begun intentional discussions to get one of their own on a board representing the greater community.

For some, it was better understanding the system after paying attention to the election, when no diverse candidates were seen running on the local level, and realizing they could be a voice to their community when it mattered. For others, it was the impact on immigrant and refugee populations that showed them the need to be part of the system.

Community members like Cynthia Gonzalez and Cecilio Palacios have become close with Somali residents who they say are more organized. Mohamed Hussein, of the Somali American Faribault Education, said he has also been in day-to-day discussions with others to pick their own leaders they can turn into candidates.

“We contribute a lot to the city, we don’t know what’s going on [and] in the end, we get affected,” Gonzalez said. “You just work and work and you’re not aware.” 

Now, they want to prepare people so they can run for office themselves. And it comes at a time when Faribault Public Schools, which also has a voter-elected board, and the Faribault Police Department work to bring on more diverse teachers and officers.

“Now it’s time for Hispanic representation,” Palacios said. “We are here.”

As of the 2010 U.S. Census, Faribault is 82.6 percent white, with 13 percent Latino. African-Americans make up 7.6 percent while, broadly, Asians make up 2.1 percent.

Twenty-nine people are City Hall staffers, according to city of Faribault Human Resources Manager Kevin Bushard, but there is no official data on their ethnic breakdowns, though they are split nearly 50-50 along gender lines.

Though Hussein said he feels like the Somali voice is heard, the Faribault City Council consists of all white members and he believes it would make a difference to have someone of the same background and culture help make decisions.

“It’s important because they know our struggle,” Hussein said. “They know the needs of the Somali community.”

For Somali-Americans, housing is an issue that drives some to neighboring towns like Northfield. Some families of six are crammed into a one-bedroom unit, Hussein said.

In addition, many must walk everywhere or coordinate rides with others in the community due to a lack of transportation options. 

Housing is also an issue for the Latino community, Gonzalez said, with reported incidents of landlords who increase rent and drive out tenants without replacing them, or declining to make repairs.

Gonzalez said they are in the research phase of civic engagement and want to establish an office or a meeting place to call their own. First, they want to get people in the loop so they can be part of the system and have several meetings in the works.

“We are starting from scratch,” Gonzalez said. “We are getting stronger and more brave.”

For other entities, the political climate and will of the voters, along with lack of options for diverse candidates, doesn’t play into the day-to-day of making city staff representative of its population. Sometimes, it’s a matter of public safety. 

Having bilingual officers like Somali-born and Owatonna-raised Said Hilowle since 2012, Faribault Police Chief Andy Bohlen said, helps the department connect better to the people they serve. Many newcomers who don’t speak English well or don’t know how the system works can be hesitant to talk to the police, until they see a Somali officer and calm down, Hilowle said.

“We used to have a hard time with people coming forward in the Somali community,” Hilowle said. “In certain cultures, you don’t want to be seen talking to a police officer.”

Hilowle−the department’s first Somali officer−said he can translate within minutes rather than relying on an interpreter hotline, connect better with victims or witnesses and relate the cultural norms of the community. Sometimes they might think that a standard procedure, such as getting a name and date of birth, means that they’re in trouble or their citizenship will be affected even if they’re just a passenger in a car crash.

“When I explain that to them, they normally understand,” Hilowle said. “I know [the department] appreciates having me around.”

Hilowle, along with Officer Sarah Tollefson, who’s from India and joined the force at the end of March, make up two of 35 sworn officers who are non-Caucasian, at least until July. The department has another three officers of diverse backgrounds−Latino, Somali and Sudanese males−in the top five of its approved hiring list, according to Bohlen.

“It is always a goal of a department to strive to be more reflective of the community we serve, but it is also very difficult to draw in certain segments of the population in the law enforcement so our candidate pool is sometimes limited,” Bohlen said in an email. “We’re always open to looking at more ideas to be more reflective.”

The department’s Explorer program helps recruit kids with a sincere interest in law enforcement, exposes them to the complexity of police work while providing community service and helps determine if they’re a good match for the job. Still, Bohlen said, there’s a statewide issue of not receiving enough minority candidates, and that departments in the Twin Cities area often snap up the best ones.

“The reality is, oftentimes a really good candidate, no matter the ethnicity, they’re on several eligibility lists,” Bohlen said. “Everyone’s competing for the best of the best.”

Of the 329 teachers in the district this school year, all but five are Caucasian, according to Human Resources Director Nicole Yochum. Two are African-American, two are Asian or Pacific Islander and one is Hispanic.

Compared to the city demographics, Superintendent Todd Sesker said he knows the district has a long way to go. The voter-elected Faribault School Board is also comprised of white members.

“Obviously we have a diverse community and we want to make sure that we’re a reflection of our community,” Sesker said. “We have been very purposeful in trying to seek out candidates that have a diverse background.”

The challenge, Sesker said, is a shortage of diverse students pursuing education as well as prioritizing the best candidate over the diverse candidate. The district has been working with Minnesota State University, Mankato to recruit students both in the area and of diverse backgrounds.

A 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Education stated that “a large majority of education majors and, more specifically, students enrolled in teacher preparation programs, are white.” Black and Hispanic students majoring in education have lower completion rates, as do black and Hispanic teachers with teacher retention rates, the report said. 

The study, titled “The State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce,” also pointed to research which shows that racial diversity of teachers can help close the achievement gap. They are more likely to have higher expectations of students of color, confront issues of racism, serve as advocates and cultural brokers as well as develop more trusting relationships particularly with students who share a cultural background with themselves.

Gonzalez said she felt that her son got more encouragement from his teachers at Bethlehem Academy, and that having teachers of the same background would have helped her daughter in public school.

“They didn’t feel comfortable,” Gonzalez said of her kids going through public school. “Everybody learns differently.”

While district English Language Coordinator and Faribault Diversity Coalition board member Sam Ouk would like to see more representation as well, he finds it more important for people who don’t look like each other to help and advocate for one another.

Looking back on growing up in poverty as a Cambodian refugee in Rochester, Ouk said his role models were white teachers who showed they believed in him. 

“These people truly guided me. I hope I can be just as impactful for our Somali community and Hispanic community,” Ouk said. “I hope my teachers who are predominantly white can be just as impactful.”

Sophomore Ilyas Adan said that he feels comfortable with his Faribault High School teachers, who are all white, even more so than his Somali tutors. He added they always remind him to do his homework and they all pay attention to his progress, nodding when asked if he feels supported by his teachers.

“They just want you to do the best that you can,” Adan said.

The idea is to have minority youth see Faribault as their home and to foster a feeling of belonging that some Cambodian youth didn’t have and subsequently made poor choices, Ouk said. Having a non-Asian mayor, Ouk added, shouldn’t stop someone like him from feeling like he could be the mayor.

“I think it’s more important for those that don’t share that experience [to] make connections with us and therefore we make connections with them,” Ouk said. “It has to be reciprocal.”

While Ouk said the Faribault Diversity Coalition has enjoyed the support of City Council members, the outreach and discussions with community members are just beginning.

Part of why members from the FDC host cultural celebrations like an international festival is to share a part of themselves with the community that can bring people closer together. Events like a killing field simulation with Cambodian elders and the corresponding questions that were raised display a desire to learn more about the Faribault refugee and immigrant population, Ouk said. 

“You get to learn more about each other and find you’re more similar than different,” Ouk said. “That cross-cultural connection is what’s going to move us forward.”

“It’s a struggle to try to keep the Cambodian culture alive here,” Ouk said.

Tasha Breyer and her Cambodian-born mother, Sakun Breyer, enlisted as event performers of a traditional coconut dance after growing up in Faribault and wanting to connect with the culture on her mother’s side. For years, Sakun didn’t think there would be a Cambodian community to celebrate with.

“It’s kind of brings me back to where I grew up and where I was born,” Sakun said. “It’s good to see that.”

Breyer said it seems that people are starting to become more interested in the specific cultures of the Asian diaspora, rather than generally grouping the varying descents and stories into one broad racial category. Publicly celebrating Cambodian New Year is a start.

“It helps preserve that and show our diverse members of the community that those aspects of our culture matter,” Breyer said. “There wasn’t a whole of Cambodian kids in school so as far as recognizing Cambodian culture, most people just look at you and say you’re Asian.”

Understanding those differences in language and culture, Breyer added, is especially helpful to help connect people to the right resources.

“I think it’s really important specifically for kids in the school,” Breyer said.

In their newfound goals for representation, Gonzalez and Palacios emphasized finding role models for Latino youth to get them to college. After all, they will be the ones to continue the work making the community part of the system.

Building the relationships through basketball with police officers or tutoring with community members are immensely helpful in their own right, Ouk said. Helping immigrant and refugee youth access mainstream resources, like the library, further connects them to the community.

“They get to feel like Faribault is their home,” Ouk said.