BEMIDJI -- Three prominent Bemidjians addressed topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion within the community during a community conversation hosted by Bemidji State University this week.
The event, the fourth in a series of conversation webinars, boasted a line up of Bemidji Mayor Jorge Prince, City Councilor Audrey Thayer and School Board Member Gabriel Warren who spoke about building community, fostering dialogue and creating change.
Warren, who is a professor at BSU and a school board member, kicked off the event by speaking about his experience building community and relationships through meaningful discussions with people who may have different backgrounds, experiences or cultures.
He reminisced about how he needed to intentionally cultivate community, as he uprooted his life and moved to the Bemidji area a few years back, not knowing anyone in the area.
“That came with some cultural differences I wasn’t familiar with prior to moving here, as well as some differences in the way things operate and function,” he said. “We were moving and we knew that it was going to be a brand new adventure for all of us so we had to basically define what we want ‘community’ to look like for us.”
Warren encouraged others to do the same -- to reevaluate the role you want to play within your community and to take an active part in it.
He laid out steps to help build community, including: changing your perspective, being authentic, taking a genuine interest in others and engaging in meaningful conversations with people who aren’t like you.
Up next, Prince spoke about how he defines "diversity," and why he thinks it needs to be at the forefront of community discussions.
He recalled being one of the only Latino families in Bemidji growing up, and his experience learning English through school and television as a child.
Prince’s definition of diversity encompasses more than a traditional definition might.
“Often, when we think of diversity there's a real focus on race, there's a real focus on culture, perhaps on gender, but I started to think about things like experiences, talents just a different types of abilities and skills that people bring to the table,” he said. “Socio-economics, differences in religion, differences in age and the list goes on.”
Prince said he felt pride in the community’s diverse council.
“I’m truly excited because I believe we may have the most diverse city council that the city of Bemidji has had in recent history,” he said. “We're almost equally balanced amongst men and women, we have a broad background as far as cultures, races, ages and philosophies. We have a truly diverse city council."
He advised people who are trying to cultivate a more diverse community to ask three questions: Who is missing from this conversation? Who haven’t we heard from? Who needs to be invited and included?
“If you want your community to move forward, you have to be willing to have difficult conversations, and that means at times you yourself may not feel comfortable,” he said. “I've learned that when I’m not comfortable it usually means I’m growing, and that's a good thing."
Thayer, who represents Bemidji’s Ward 1, wrapped up the event by speaking about historical communication between the city of Bemidji and the surrounding tribal nations, and ways that communication could be improved.
She stressed the importance of listening to the unheard voices in the area.
“Most people who are not heard are talking about justice, just wanting to have that place where they're heard. Sometimes that is the most important piece,” she said. “You will hear my voice consistently in the community (saying), ‘Who's not at the table? ‘Who’s not being heard?'”
She spoke about remaining positive and optimistic, despite spending a large amount of her time addressing historical trauma and racial inequities.
“Hope is what we need to survive,” she said. “We have some class issues and we do have some gender issues, but that doesn't mean we cannot create a different narrative. But it takes all of us.”
Thayer encouraged people in the area to put themselves in, “somebody else’s moccasins” and educate themselves about people around them from different backgrounds.
BSU professor Debbie Guelda, who moderates the community conversations events said the feedback so far for this session has been so positive, that she hopes to bring the three together for another webinar event soon.
Click here to watch a recording of the live event.