Mutual respect: Group seeks pro-active approach to race relations
When "Bemidji Leads!" developed the list of Destiny Drivers for Bemidji about four years ago, members of the coalition knew there was an important focus missing in the mix - race relations.
"They had the goals - Bemidji would be a community that embraces its diversity, but it was one of those goals that they never were able to craft a driver," said Shared Vision member Joe Johnson.
"Be more pro-active - make sure the best days of Bemidji are ahead of us and not behind us," said Millisa Smith, also a member of the group.
Johnson is the American Indian advocate liaison at North Country Regional Hospital. Smith is a development specialist at the Headwaters Regional Development Commission.
In response, about 18 months ago, the Bemidji Area Race Relations Council and "Bemidji Leads!" collaborated to form Shared Vision. This core group is dedicated to improving understanding between the Indian and non-Indian communities for the success of the Bemidji community as a whole.
Shared Vision's mission is "to be a catalyst that encourages the Bemidji community to work together to expand social, economic, educational and leadership opportunity for all races."
Instead of just talking about the issues anecdotally, Smith and Johnson said the first step was to discover through a professional survey the real state of affairs. About a year ago, Shared Vision contracted with Wilder Research of St. Paul to conduct a survey to determine the perceptions about race relations among the two communities. The survey will be published Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Shared Vision defines four major areas of focus:
ECivic participation and leadership
EEducational attainment and skill development
ECultural understanding and respect
Smith and Johnson said the outreach is necessary among all sectors of the community.
"The difference between the way people perceive people is how well they know them," Johnson said. "One of the goals of Shared Vision is the increase people getting to know one another."
Smith said the aim is not simply tolerance, which means putting up with each other. The real goal, she said, is to "increase how people value each other."
Again, Johnson said, the focus is on perceptions.
"People talk about problems, issues, but people always stand on their side of the fence and speak from their side of the fence," he said.
The real goal is to transform the perceptions of both sides out of "they and them" mindsets and achieve a sense of "we and us."
"It's a common problem - it's owned by everybody," Johnson said. "If people step out of their comfort zones, they'll find a lot of enjoyable experiences."
Smith added that if people can share a vision of what they want the future to be like, they can "become the change we want to see in our community."
Johnson said Shared Vision doesn't have a "magic wand" to bring turn Bemidji into a community that values its diversity, but he and Smith encouraged anyone with ideas and strategies for improving race relations to contact Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.