SLEEPY EYE — An initiative aimed at promoting inclusivity in rural communities will expand into Sleepy Eye this year.

The Rural Equity Learning Community — a partnership between nonprofit Region Nine Area Inc., Greater Mankato Diversity Council and the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality — received a $200,000 grant this week from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation of Minnesota for the project.

The groups will work with Sleepy Eye stakeholders for one year before turning the focus to another community the following year.

Corree Stamschror, Region Nine communications specialist, said the expansion adds to the work the group did with five other communities in recent years. Sleepy Eye Public Schools and the city’s economic development administration will help shape the project to its needs this time around.

“The program is designed in a way that Sleepy Eye will choose their initiative and pilot it over the next year,” she said.

Representatives from St. Peter, Waseca, Montgomery area, St. James and Fairmont came to the South Central Service Cooperative monthly for inclusive best practices trainings over an eight-month period in 2018. Participants included city and school district officials, faith leaders, business owners and medical professionals.

While those folks came to the Mankato area to receive trainings, the new grant allows the equity team to come directly to Sleepy Eye, said Bukata Hayes, executive director at the Diversity Council.

“(We) work with them as they craft a vision to be more welcoming and inclusive,” he said. “I think those are things that are needed in our towns.”

The focus on rural equity comes as Minnesota as a whole and Sleepy Eye grow increasingly diverse. Having champions in the community trained to recognize and address bias and stereotypes puts cities in a better position to thrive through demographic changes, Hayes said.

“I think it’s a powerful process, and I think it can prove beneficial and be replicated across southern Minnesota,” he said.

Sleepy Eye had 94 percent of its residents identify as white in the 2010 census. Population estimates indicated the number dropped to 91 percent by 2017.

Stamschror said the work in Sleepy Eye could kick off within the next two months and continue through summer 2020. The second community will be chosen at a later date and receive the trainings between summer 2020 and 2021.

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