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Shared Vision: A catalyst for change in Bemidji

Several years ago it was commonplace to see cigarette-smoking in local restaurants. Smoking was a cultural norm that our society tolerated and allowed. Determined to create a healthier community, B-TEAM organized a campaign that forever changed what we once considered acceptable. Would you do a double-take if you saw someone lighting up in a restaurant today? Of course you would.

Another cultural norm existing in our community today must be challenged. According to the study commissioned by Shared Vision, nearly all American Indians in the Bemidji area are experiencing discrimination in some aspect of their life: shopping, law enforcement, restaurants and bars, employment, housing, and the community in general.

Not surprisingly, most American Indians also report that Bemidji is not a welcoming community. If you are white, your experience of discrimination is the complete opposite of your Native neighbor – 70 percent have never experienced discrimination. In education, we know that American Indian students have a much lower rate of on-time high school graduation, and post-secondary attendance.

Disparities are seen across the board in so many areas of community life. This is something we can no longer tolerate and the Bemidji community can no longer deem acceptable. The norm must be changed. Why? Simply put, it just isn’t right and it is not who we want to be as a community.

Interestingly, while we cannot be proud of the state of affairs regarding discrimination and race relations in the Bemidji community, we have every reason to be hopeful that our will and efforts to make changes can be successful. The majority of white respondents in the Bemidji Area Study on Race Relations felt that racial diversity in the Bemidji area is one of our community’s strengths.

So, though disparities exist all around us, white citizens value the diversity their Native neighbors bring to their lives. Along with that, more than 90 percent of respondents stated they wanted to get to know people from other cultural and racial groups. As a community poised to finally address its issues with racial bias, we can proceed with confidence that our hearts and minds are in the right place. And through Shared Vision, we finally have the vision and the momentum to create the changes we need.

Shared Vision seeks to be a catalyst that encourages the Bemidji community to work together to expand social, economic, education and leadership opportunities for people of all races. We will soon begin efforts to bring more leadership training opportunities to our community, so we will eventually see more Native American residents in leadership roles in our local governments and service organizations. And through partnerships with businesses, governments and other institutions, we hope to improve the economic situation for many Native Americans by providing increased numbers of internships to those about to enter the professional work setting in Bemidji. The faces on our decision making boards and in our businesses and work places need to more accurately reflect the population of our community.

We hope to be the catalyst that brings agencies, schools and volunteers together so every student with need has an individualized academic achievement plan and tutor support, so the Bemidji community graduates Native American children at the same rate as the entire student population. Further, we hope to create a partnership between our high schools, tribal colleges and universities that results in substantially increasing the number of Native American teachers graduated and placed in our schools, and providing excellent cultural diversity training in teacher training programs.

To make our community more welcoming, Shared Vision has an initiative that will put signage in Ojibwe and English in public places. To bring more knowledge and understanding of our Native neighbors to the community, we hope to engage various agencies in developing a “Dispel the Myth” presentation and speaker’s bureau.

The Cultural Connections Picnic, a wonderful venue for celebrating the diversity of our community, will expand this summer to include more music and Native dance and drumming as it celebrates its 4th annual event Aug. 20 at the UpNorth Marina on Lake Irving. Our goal is to increase community involvement with this event, build on past successes, and move to the Bemidji waterfront next summer as the 5th Annual Cultural Connections Music Festival.

Bemidji has an opportunity to put its best foot forward, and create the “shared vision” that we be known as a community that works together to expand opportunities for people of all races, and that we embrace cultural understanding and respect between the Indian and non-Indian community. This is the new norm we are striving to attain. And as a catalyst for change, Shared Vision hopes to empower the Bemidji community to step up and be part of the solution. We certainly can’t do it without you.

Carolyn Jacobs serves as co-chair of Shared Vision, and can be contacted at sharedvisionbemidji@gmail.com. The Bemidji Area Study on Race Relations commissioned by Shared Vision can be viewed at hrdc.org.