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Building social capital from diversity in Austin, for student success

Date Published: 05/07/2014

Author: Dane Smith and Maureen Ramirez

AUSTIN, MN --It started with platters and bowls heaped with tasty fresh-cooked food _ a taco bar and a build-your-own-casserole table. Before long, as comfort levels rose, people began to hold each other’s babies, toddlers from South Sudan played with pre-schoolers from Central America, and grandmothers from continents apart began to share stories about their grandchildren.

And we began to feel the impact of “intentional social interaction,’’ a civic engagement model based on great eats and artful stimulation of conversation. In this case the social interaction revolved around the question of how to realize the full potential of ALL the young people, from birth to career, in a rapidly diversifying population in Austin and rural Minnesota.We held this “Austin Feast and Education Conversation” in Cunningham Hall of Queen of Angels Roman Catholic Church, serving a parish with a rich cultural mix in this southern Minnesota meatpacking and ag-processing center. Our partners were Riverland Community College, the Parenting Resource Center, and Vision2020Austin. The maestra of the event was the ebullient Marnita Schroedl, who in recent years has brought together thousands of Minnesotans for cross-cultural conversations at “Marnita’s Table.’’

We’re still collecting our notes and analyzing the input from the many small group conversations involving about 120 participants, more than two-thirds of whom were people of color, mostly immigrants from Africa, Mexico and Latin America.

This listening and learning will help inform our work at Growth & Justice as we help build a movement in Greater Minnesota for highly organized community partnerships that improve student success from cradle-to-career.  We know that conversations like these will help Austin put together “Austin Aspires,’’ a strong new community-wide partnership to drive improvements in student success and to close opportunity gaps, and which is part of the ambitious Vision2020 comprehensive plan for this region’s future.

This work is never easy. It takes work and persistence to really listen and learn from those we instinctively view as different. But it is also almost immediately rewarding. A crowning highlight for us at the Austin conversation was the large sharing circle we formed at the end of the event. Kids vowed to do better in school and work harder. One mom said she had decided to go back to school herself. The South Sudanese and Latino parents profusely thanked the organizers for being invited together at last for this serious conversation. And one woman said that the love in the room was actually the answer to the questions we were asking.

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