By Tim Penny
President and CEO of Southern Minnesota
Many of us who grew up or currently live in rural Minnesota know that there is something about our communities that fosters a sense of belonging. It may be that the nature of small towns makes it easier to get to know people, or festivals, historic city centers, and beautiful natural landscapes provide a way to feel connected to a place. However, everyone has had times when we felt like we were out of place. For some people, this experience may be due to language barriers or cultural differences, and it can last a long time. At the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF), we know that communities in our 20-county area have the power to make everyone feel welcome.
Several years ago, SMIF became a member of Welcoming America, joining many other organizations and communities in our region dedicated to making southern Minnesota a welcoming place for all. At SMIF, we strive to contribute to a welcoming atmosphere in the region through all of our programming and investments. We are here to support all families in our region, whether that is by distributing books to children for early literacy support or by working directly with children on the development of socio-emotional skills for lifelong success. We’re also here to support all entrepreneurs in our region with accessible business financing opportunities, some of which are funded by the Minnesota Emerging Entrepreneur Loan Program, which helps ensure that business owners who have historically faced barriers in accessing capital to be able to obtain funds. to start and grow their business.
While we hope that all of the SMIF opportunities contribute to a welcoming region, there are several programs in particular that have been explicitly created to break down barriers and create avenues for growth. In 2016, SMIF launched a program called The Prosperity Initiative. This program provides free coaching and training to entrepreneurs who identify as Black, Indigenous or People of Color (BIPOC). Whether people already have a business or just an idea, they are paired with an expert coach who guides them through the process of developing a business plan, creating a marketing plan, researching access to finance and navigation through regulations. Over the past six years, 67 entrepreneurs have graduated from The Prosperity Initiative, and we recently welcomed a new cohort of eight into the program.
Last year, SMIF hosted a unique and special grant opportunity called the Inclusive and Equitable Communities Grant. In partnership with the Region Nine Development Commission and SE MN Together, SMIF approved ten grants under this program, for a total of $ 160,000. Over the past year, the organizations that received the grants have worked on initiatives that increase equity and inclusion within communities or support entrepreneurs in communities of diverse backgrounds.
One of those grant recipients is Rice County Neighbors United, which has drawn up plans for a business association to empower existing and new minority-owned businesses in the county. The Village Community Garden and Learning Center is using its grant to increase the capacity, knowledge and support of immigrant farmers in the Rochester area who grow culturally relevant foods. In Winona, public schools are using the grant to improve academic outcomes for refugee and immigrant students and identify ways in which schools can make systemic change to create a more welcoming, supportive, and richer learning environment for all students. .
There are many other ways we work to be welcoming to everyone in our area. SMIF recently organized two first aid / CPR trainings in partnership with the Healthy Community Initiative in Rice County for child care providers with Spanish as their first language. We were also able to increase our distribution of bilingual books or books focused on inclusive themes to children and families in the region. In everything we do, we strive to foster a sense of belonging.
We also look forward to Welcoming Week September 10-19, a national celebration across Welcoming America. Welcome week, themed “Belonging Begins with Us”, is a time when a choir of thousands – in communities large and small, rural and urban – celebrate the benefits of an inclusive society and deepen their commitment to create welcoming places for all, including immigrants. This week is an opportunity to celebrate the values that unite us as neighbors, parents and colleagues and to make our communities more welcoming to all who inhabit southern Minnesota.
Many communities and partners in our region organize events during Welcome Week. The Rochester Diversity Council is hosting a Workshop on Developing Cultural Inclusiveness and Project FINE is hosting a Workshop in Winona on Recognizing and Respecting Differences and Practical Tips for Fostering a Welcoming Environment. Other communities, like St. Charles, organize community celebrations. SMIF Staff You can find a list of events in our area at smifoundation.org/events.
Belonging begins with us. We can all help make southern Minnesota a welcoming place for everyone.
We are currently recruiting additional members to join this year’s Prosperity Initiative cohort. Contact Maddy Fisher at [email protected] or 507-214-7029 or visit smifoundation.org/prosperity for more information.