The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 4, 2013

Group explores ideas of a welcoming community

By Robb Murray
Free Press Staff Writer

MANKATO — They’re not sure where all this talking will lead. But they say it’s a good start.

The Minnesota Council of Churches Refugee Services held a unique gathering Monday. It brought together community members of all stripes — leaders, students, immigrants — for an afternoon of conversations about community building that, organizers hope, can ultimately help this community.

While the Council of Churches Refugee Services provides the backbone of the event, the way the event went down was a function of a group called the Sowelu Institute. Sowelu built the meeting around the so-called “world cafe” style.

Attendees sat at round tables and, instead of listening to someone at the front of the room speaking, the talking was done at individual tables. There were 70 people at the event, but the conversations were never bigger than five people.

What did they talk about? Sowelu came up with the topics, which included: Discuss a time when you felt welcomed into a community; visualize a community where you feel like you belong; and list three building blocks to creating that community.

At some tables, the conversations were very focused and on topic. At others, the discussions veered off on tangents, which organizers say is OK and part of the plan. And at still others, the conversations were strained, where people struggled to address the topic of the moment  — which also was OK and part of the growth that organizers say comes from having important conversations.

After three rounds of 20-minute table conversations, each table sent a representative to the front of the room to summarize their table’s findings on the building-block questions. A few common themes repeated: leadership, diversity, education, respect, access to opportunity, safety.

Al Roehm, director of the United Way’s Connecting Kids program, said the event was a good one.

 “It was good to connect with people from other avenues I wouldn’t normally have contact with,” he said.

Ronda Redmond and Katie Boone of Sowelu said they were impressed with the turnout.

“One of the things that makes it a success was the amount of people willing to walk in the door for two hours of talking,” Redmond said. “I’m seeing people exchanging business cards, writing down email addresses.”

Added Boone, “This is community-powered problem solving. It’s all about engaging in the collective. ... People are leaving with a different understanding of community.”

Jessica O’Brien, director of the Minnesota Council of Churches Refugee Services, said she was excited about the potential of these kinds of conversations.

“It’s exciting to hear goals prioritized collectively,” she said.

The ideas discussed at Monday’s meeting will be addressed by a planning committee to determine the next step