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Extension > Family Matters > Northeast Regional Challenges Span the Spectrum

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Northeast Regional Challenges Span the Spectrum

Twenty staff members joined Family Development leadership at the Northeast Regional Visit on August 13 at the Regional Extension Center in Grand Rapids. This region is the largest geographic region in the state. Due to the sheer size of the region, the grand challenges discussed at the Northeast Regional Visit varied significantly for different sections of the region.

Counties west of St. Louis County. The grand challenges for this section were dominated by racial disparities; poor health, including high rates of diabetes; and the limited access to basic needs, such as food, housing, and health care, experienced by American Indian families.



Staff showed particular concern for young American Indian males: those in attendance discussed racial profiling in the justice system where 50 percent of those arrested are native young men. With some of the lowest graduation rates in the state, these young men, often struggling with alcohol abuse and homelessness, need to be repositioned to have indigenous knowledge back at their core.

Another theme that arose was that of mental health issues among young people. In Itasca County alone, 350 children are receiving mental health treatments, but this number likely represents a fraction of the services needed. Health care systems are slowly responding to these issue. For example, there is an online referral system with hospitals now that wasn’t in place before. In addition, health care industries are shifting from a colonial framework to an indigenous knowledge framework to improve healthcare for all in the region.

St. Louis County and counties to the east. Discussions of the challenges in this section were dominated by the region’s inextricable links to the global economy. With a large swath of natural resource-based industries, including mining and lumber, residents’ fates are reliant less on their skills and more on what is going on globally. For example, prior to the regional visit, over 1000 people had been laid off in the region because of foreign steel “dumping”. In response, the contract negotiations between the steel company and employees became highly contentious and there were threats of a strike. In another example, the staff discussed the thin profit margin of the wood products industry. One person stated, “If Blandin [Paper Mill] sneezes, the community catches a cold.” There are also constant and confusing reports about companies expanding and contracting. All of this creates a large workforce who experiences constant disequilibrium, with an external locus of control. All of these factors contribute to a need for re-training of employees.

Southern St. Louis County and counties to the south. Duluth is the juggernaut, or driving force, in the region. Duluth is the fourth largest city in the state, and activities happening there and in the surrounding area give FD staff some hope, from food systems changes to health promotion efforts. One example is the Grocery Express bus line, a special Duluth Transit Authority bus route improving food access for residents in some Duluth neighborhoods considered "food deserts."
Karen Mason (left) and Lisa Lamar board the DTA's "Grocery Express" at Super One on a recent Tuesday afternoon.
Photo credit: Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com
However, staff noted that the outlying communities are being left out of the picture. FD staff cover vast areas with only a few organizations to help or partner. This is especially true in the more agricultural areas in the Northeast region. In these areas in particular, and throughout the region in general, residents exhibit a strong “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality, even when people are experiencing food scarcity, unemployment, and mental health issues. Staff recalled how people often have an attitude that "I'm fine — but my neighbor needs help." This presents a unique challenge for FD staff: How do you help those who don't want to admit they need it? 

For one innovative approach to tackling this challenge, see Lori Hendrickson and Becky Hagen Jokela's article: 'Changing' Partners and Approaches to Meet Family Needs.


Intra-regional differences. The Northeast Region has recently received two SNAP-Ed Community Partnership Funding grants. In Virginia, The Rutabaga Project, through the Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency, will develop an action plan with community participants so that the development of a local food system is affordable, accessible, and sustainable. Its development will be human-centered, and community well-being will be foundational to the project. Over in Duluth, Churches United in Ministry, in collaboration with Center City Housing Corporation, aims to promote healthy eating and active living among the families and children living in the supportive housing that they own and operate together. Through the partnership, they will surround families in their supportive housing programs with experiences that promote healthy eating from farm to fork and from cradle through maturity, through cultivation, farmers markets, and food preparation.

Staff demonstrated a true level of energy (and internal locus of control) even with grand challenges all around them. FD staff are concentrated in three Regional Extension Centers and nearby County Extension Offices. Here’s more information about FD staff in this region:
  • 2 Family Resiliency Extension educators
  • 1 Health and Nutrition Extension educator
  • 2 SNAP-Ed regional coordinators
  • 13 SNAP-Ed educators
The Northeast Region's challenges span the spectrum: from the individual to the global, from mental illness to food access. FD’s use of the Spectrum of Prevention to guide our work uniquely positions us to take on these challenges, from Grand Rapids to Grand Marais.


Mary Marczak, Director of Urban Family Development and Evaluation
Michael Brott, Communications Manager
Heather Lee, Educational Resource Development and Support Manager

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