Photo: Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership
Hmong dance festival in southwest Minnesota. A Community Development Investments grant from ArtsPlace aims to give newcomers a voice.
Never underestimate the power of art and cultural events to improve lives.
As Amy Evans reports in the magazine Shelterforce (published by the National Housing Institute), the community development field has come to recognize that the arts are key to integrating diverse populations.
Evans discusses the issue with the McKnight Foundation’s Vickie Benson.
“More and more, it seems that arts and culture are being perceived as essential to the core fabric of what builds and nourishes communities — and that gives Benson enormous hope. ArtPlace America, a decade-old collaboration of foundations, federal agencies, and financial institutions, has been one of the driving forces for that shift, Benson says, by insisting that the arts must be in conversation with other sectors, whether community development, housing, or health.
“In Minnesota, the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership (SWMHP) has joined that conversation. With the support of a community development investment [CDI] grant from ArtPlace America, which will provide $3 million in funding over three years, SWMHP is exploring ways of building arts and culture into its operations.
“It’s a bold step for the organization, and one that Benson wholeheartedly applauds.
” ‘Music, dance, or visual art are forms of expression within many cultures. And just the weaving together of these many, many varied cultural traditions is a natural path for people to communicate with each other,’ says Benson. ‘That is what I hope to see, that communities will understand the importance of arts and culture not as an add-on but as a core piece of community development.’ …
“A couple of decades ago, [the future of the southwest Minnesota town of Worthington] future looked bleak. The farm crisis had taken its toll; the town’s population dropped from 10,243 in 1980 to 9,980 in 1990 as people left the area in search of better opportunities.
“The expansion of the meat processing industry in Worthington turned this trend around. JBS Swift and Co., a subsidiary of ConAgra Foods Inc., established what would become its principal plant in Worthington. The impact was far-reaching in the area, propping up small businesses like Smith Trucking Inc. and local hog producers.
“In 1989, increases in productivity led to an additional shift at the plant, attracting workers from literally around the world. … The so-called foreign-born population of Worthington jumped in parallel from 3.7 percent of the total population in 1990 to more than 15 percent in 2000.
“Mike Woll remembers when that shift took place. ‘Worthington’s history of immigration dates back to when I was in high school, when we had some early Lao immigrants,’ Woll recalls. ‘The community became incredibly diverse.’
“Walk into Woll’s high school today and some 50 dialects can be heard, from Central American to Southeast Asian to East African. Downtown on 10th Street, Woll says, ‘you’ll see people from all over the world. Myanmar, Ethiopia, Laos, all sorts of Latin American influence. It’s a remarkable place.’ …
“Woll hopes that one outcome of Worthington’s participation in the CDI Initiative will be preservation of one of the community’s strongest assets.
“ ‘Diversity brings challenges, but it’s put Worthington ahead of the curve. It gives us a broader scope of the world,’ Woll says. He is proud to know that his college-aged son, who grew up in Worthington, can take living in a multicultural environment for granted, even more so than his peers from places like Minneapolis and Chicago. But making space for multiculturalism to truly thrive means giving voice to communities that often haven’t had a seat at the table. Woll hopes that the CDI Initiative will help expand leadership roles to segments of the population who have so much to say, but haven’t had the platform to say it.
“ ‘If not for a program like [ArtPlace], those cultures do get lost,’ Woll says. ‘Having a bit of institutional strength and a financial boost from ArtPlace can help take what are challenges and turn them into positives.’ ”
More at Shelterforce, here.