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‘Changing’ Partners and Approaches to Meet Family Needs in Northeastern Minnesota

An article published in the Milwaukee Sentinel Press on December 24, 1983 about the mining layoffs during that time describes a situation eerily similar to today’s situation across northeastern Minnesota. The article stated, “A huge sign on northern Minnesota’s once prosperous Iron Range reads: ‘Unemployed again, thanks to foreign imports.’” We’ve been through this before. Mining has always had a cyclical nature, but now our economic influences are global.

The Hull Rust Mahoning Mine in Hibbing, Minnesota
Photo credit: Minnesota DNR
During the Northeast Regional Visit in Grand Rapids, we talked a great deal about the economic impact of the taconite mining industry in northeastern Minnesota. In this region, natural resources drive our economy. Along with approximately 2,000 jobs temporarily lost during the past nine months through mining, there are additional “indirect” jobs impacted from International Falls to Duluth and Grand Rapids to Grand Marais. Workers that typically bring home $60,000–80,000 annually (or about $1400 per week) are now receiving roughly $660 per week in unemployment benefits, which are set to run out soon for the first wave of workers laid off in the spring of 2015. What will those families do once the funds run out?

Add to that the other natural resource-based industries throughout the region where employment is often seasonal — timber and tourism. That means many families in this region are figuring out how to make ends meet until the next opportunity to work. At the same time, the region is seeing income inequality grow: Taconite mining, the economic foundation of our region, is crumbling, which exacerbates the region’s pockets of generational poverty. St. Louis County’s poverty level alone, has risen to an estimated 17.7 percent, up from 16.5 percent in 2013.

Many families in northeastern Minnesota will say that they will make do and get through this, but what can we in Extension do to help them become more resilient and better able to use or access resources during difficult times? The ways in which communities address these issues are changing. One example of community outreach is reflected in an effort named “Change the Range.” The way the initiative works is simple. Individuals and organizations within communities have gathered cold weather gear, bagged and hung them in public areas outside where people who need such items might access them.

Photo Credit: Grand Rapids Herald Review.

Each bag has a label reading, “I am not lost. If you are stuck in the cold this season please take me to stay warm. Change the Range."

Grassroots efforts such as Change the Range may not include our typical partners, but may lead us to new or different ways of working in communities. Even more, as we partner with in communities, who are the organizations that families will go to first when in need? If it’s not University of Minnesota Extension, do we partner with those organizations that families would identify? Our challenge may be to think more broadly about who, when, and how we partner to meet family needs throughout the region.

Lori Hendrickson and Becky Hagen Jokela
Extension Educators — Family Resiliency

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