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ST. CLOUD MAYOR DAVE KLEIS: ”We tell our own stories and talk  about what the idea of ‘home’ means for each of us.”

Breaking through the Filter Bubble

Technology has made us more connected. But we are also more intellectually isolated. Here’s what Central Minnesotans are doing to create connections across the social and political spectrum.

By Elizabeth Foy Larsen | Photography by John Linn | Illustration by Chris McAllister

 When she graduated from Sauk Rapids High School in 1997, Natalie Ringsmuth says she was part of a community that looked like her and worshipped like her, meaning that the majority of people she knew were white and Christian. Then, after receiving a degree in music education from Concordia College in Moorhead, Ringsmuth moved with her husband Jeremy to Atlanta, a city that’s celebrated for its racial and cultural diversity.

That variety—which also spans religious and political beliefs—appealed to Ringsmuth. “We loved that our workplaces and churches there were diverse,” she said. “It wasn’t the exception in most parts of Atlanta, it was the rule.”

So when the Ringsmuths and their three children moved back home to Central Minnesota in 2008, Natalie was pleasantly surprised to discover that the region had undergone a transformation, thanks in part to the arrival of people from African countries, including Somalia, Ethiopia and South Sudan. “I realized we had a ton more diversity,” said Ringsmuth. “And that was something I was grateful for. I don’t want my kids to be shocked by the rest of the world because they didn’t grow up in a place that reflects that diversity.”

As Ringsmuth would soon learn, not all her fellow citizens shared her enthusiasm. In fact, some people in the region were concerned about the demographic changes happening in cities and towns across Central Minnesota. That divergence reached a boiling point in May 2015, when more than 100 Somali teenagers staged a walkout of St. Cloud Technical High School to protest what they viewed as racist and threatening taunts by some students. “On Facebook and the comments section for the St. Cloud Times and other news outlets in Central Minnesota there were more people who were hateful and angry than people speaking about peace and positive solutions,” said Ringsmuth.

Where some would feel helpless or defensive in the midst of opposing—and in some cases polarized—viewpoints, Ringsmuth saw an opportunity for dialogue. So that same spring she started #unitecloud, a blog and online community that aims to facilitate conversations about hot-button topics from different perspectives.

“We desire to be in the middle of the conversations,” she said. “Not on the left or the right.”
In today’s world, that’s an increasingly unusual place to be.

CONNECTED BUT ISOLATED
Communities have always had divisions, of course. “Growing up in my community in the 1950s through the 1970s, we had the wealthy and the not so wealthy,” said Tim King, a community leader in Long Prairie who founded La Voz Libre, a bilingual newspaper, and Dreams United/Sueños Unidos, a nonprofit organization that serves the area by promoting opportunities for the Latino and Anglo communities to come together. “We had a railroad track and talked about west side and east side.”

Today, even though technology and social media connect us in ways our grandparents could not have imagined, we also are more inclined to remain in what technology experts call the filter bubble—a state of intellectual isolation that is caused when computer algorithms track our online preferences and feed us content that conform to our conscious or unconscious biases. While it’s human nature to gravitate toward information and relationships that validate our choices and values—a 2016 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences analyzed 376 million Facebook users’ interactions with more than 900 news outlets and found that people tend to seek information that aligns with their views—the downside is that we often are getting only the side of a story that appeals to us.  

That’s a challenge when you consider that an analysis from the Pew Research Center found that being fed a steady diet of information that conforms to our biases makes us more vulnerable to accepting and acting on misinformation, including fake news. That isolation can take a toll—not just on us as individuals but also our communities, especially if we live in small towns, which usually are prized for their personal connections. 

“If a community isn’t thriving, we know that part of the reason is because people feel isolated from one another,” says Michelle Kiley, community development program manager at the Initiative Foundation. “A vibrant and authentically connected community occurs more often when individuals invest time offline and out of their individual, private spaces—when they can get face-to-face with their neighbors and find new reasons to love where they live.”

DINNER AND UNDERSTANDING
The value of moving beyond social media to connect face-to-face was one reason that St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis started hosting monthly dinners for seven St. Cloud residents in his home. Kleis provides the meal—it’s often chili, but he changes his menus according to his guests’ dietary restrictions.The only requirement is he and his guests have never met.

“I started this as a way for people to get to know their neighbors,” said Kleis, who also hosts weekly Town Hall meetings. “We talk about St. Cloud and what we see as the city’s opportunities and challenges. And we tell our own stories and talk about what the idea of ‘home’ means and where home is for each of us.”

Kleis uses the dinners to encourage participants to get more engaged in the community and says they’ve been an effective way to seed local boards and commissions with motivated volunteers. But he also believes that the dinners serve another equally important purpose. “Almost to a person, people say they get a lot of understanding about different perspectives,” he said. “No one has left without a positive impression of their neighbors.”

Getting beyond sensationalized headlines is also the goal of Dine and Dialogue with Your Muslim Neighbor, an initiative started in 2017 by Hudda Ibrahim, a St. Cloud resident who was born in Somalia and now consults with companies and communities across the region on how to integrate new Americans into the workforce.

“I think it’s my responsibility to educate people about my faith and culture and why Somalis came to Central Minnesota,” she said. Ibrahim, part of the Initiative Foundation’s first cohort of Initiators Fellows, also contributes food to Circles of Understanding, an event sponsored by the St. Cloud Area Faith Leaders group that aims to promote understanding among people of different religions. Participants spend two hours together, talking and getting to know each other.

Ibrahim thinks these efforts are helping. “Every time we create a personal connection with our neighbors and coworkers it will lead to a change in the hearts and minds of our community,” she said.

That’s also the motivation behind Long Prairie’s annual Cinco de Mayo festival, which is sponsored by Dreams United/Sueños Unidos and is a celebration of the town’s diversity. In 2017, the Initiative Foundation awarded the organization an Innovation Grant to support the festival. “This is an example of a community where cultural shifts occurred quickly due to economic pressures locally,” Kiley said. “I would be remiss to say it hasn’t been without its challenges. But they chose to gather as a community with positive and clear intentions and to create new support networks to troubleshoot complex and deeply rooted issues.”

BONFIRES AND BLOGS
Filters can also be generational. In Eden Valley, the community has had to learn how to communicate across age differences to decide the priorities for a number of community issues, including a building that is both a library and a community center. “You have people who are against the community center and people who are against the library,” said Troy Huschle, who is a member of the town’s city council.

An organization called Eden Valley Citizens For Progress (EVC4P) has created four groups—Community Facilities, Library, Economic Advancement, and Marketing Eden Valley—to come up with fresh ideas to help enhance the Eden Valley community. And Huschle and family host regular backyard barbecues and bonfires. All are welcome as long as guests agree to three rules: You can’t talk about politics; you have to have a sense of humor; you must be able to laugh at yourself. 

After four years, Huschle says that the conversations started around the bonfire have resulted in one new council member in office, four new volunteers for Eden Valley Citizens for Progress and countless new friends. “A lot of good friendships have been formed,” said Huschle. “And neighbors watch out for everyone and create a pretty safe place for our children.”

Still, sometimes there is a need to put political divides front and center. And for #unitecloud, it turns out that doing this online is more effective than face-to-face conversations.

“Our goal is to help people see their belief bubble and to step out of it,” said Ringsmuth, who notes that her parents and several family members voted for a different candidate in the 2016 presidential election than she did. “There are not many people in our community who will show up at an event that bills itself as a way for Democrats and Republicans to find out what they have in common. At #unitecloud, we want people to read about and respond to these really tough issues from the comfort of their own home.”


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