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ACLU office in Bemidji to close: Organization cites budgetary concerns

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BEMIDJI — Walking through the barren halls of what was once a vital office, a man finds his way to the last furnished room.

"Can you help me?" he asked in strained English.

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Since 2004, citizens have been able to walk through the doors at 303 Railroad Street SW in Bemidji and share their stories of injustice. Now, those tales will need to be told by telephone to the American Civil Liberties Union in St. Paul. The Greater Minnesota Racial Justice Project North has concluded its chapter in Bemidji.

"The office is officially closed," said GMRJP North Coordinator Audrey Thayer. "This is the hard part, seeing the people."

The ACLU’s decision to close the Bemidji office is rooted in budgetary concerns. As the ACLU is tightening budgets across the state, all staff will be taking a pay cut. Thayer will be laid off and the office will officially close. Oct. 31.

"Contributing money to fight racial injustice doesn’t look as attractive on a foundation’s portfolio," Thayer said.

Unlike many nonprofit organizations, the ACLU is not eligible for government grants. The project was supported by donations and member contributions.

During the past nine years, the ACLU worked to reduce racial disparities faced by communities of color, notably the American Indian population, in Beltrami, Becker, Cass, Clearwater, Hubbard, Itasca and Mahnomen counties, as well as the Red Lake, White Earth and Leech Lake Nations.

Thayer explained that claims of racial profiling against American Indians were coming into the St. Paul office, which alerted the ACLU of a problem in the region. Once the claims were found to be substantial, the GMRJP was organized.

"Racial profiling and lowering incarceration rates is how it started. Then Pandora’s box opened up," Thayer said.

In 2004, the American Indian jail population was around 80 percent; it is now between 50 and 60 percent. Through community events, GMRJP fostered relationships between the American Indian communities and law enforcement.

In pursuit of justice, Thayer said the group worked to educated political candidates on racial justice issues. The group also worked to expand the arts community, exploring the difference between diversity and justice.

"It’s Minnesota nice up here. You don’t talk about the ugly side of America," Thayer said. "Diversity is celebrated. Justice brings up issues."

Thayer said there is much more work to be done. She urges people in their 20s to become active in fighting for racial justice; to move from small-town thinking to thinking globally.

Because of the success in the Bemidji office, the ACLU is able to continue efforts in its Mankato office. The Mankato office has a dedicated funding source that supports work focusing on immigrant discrimination in southern Minnesota.

The man who appeared in Thayer’s office on Friday will be helped, because Thayer wouldn’t allow him to go unaided, but the local artery to the ACLU has been closed.

"The job really isn’t going to end for me," Thayer said.

The ACLU maintains it will continue to be a resource for individuals and it remains committed to fighting for racial justice in Minnesota both at the capitol and in the courts; the ACLU of Minnesota can be reached at (651) 645-4097 or online at

www.aclu-mn.org

.

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Crystal Dey
Crystal Dey covers crime, courts and Beltrami county government for The Bemidji Pioneer. Originally from Minnesota’s Iron Range, Dey has worked for the Echo Press in Alexandria, Minnesota, The Forum in Fargo, North Dakota, The Tampa Tribune in Tampa, Florida, the Hartford Courant in Hartford and West Hartford News in West Hartford, Connecticut. Dey studied Mass Communications at Minnesota State University Moorhead with an emphasis in Online Journalism. Follow Staff Reporter Crystal Dey on Twitter @Crystal_Dey.
(218) 333-9200 x343
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