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Central Region: Where the One Thing in Common is Diversity

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

With this report on the Central region, we wrap up our series on statewide visits with Family Development (FD) staff and educators. To accommodate the large numbers of staff in the Central region, FD leadership held three conversations:
  • September 23 at the regional Extension office in Andover; 15 staff members attended.
  • September 24 at the Robert J. Jones Urban Research and Outreach Center in Minneapolis; 24 staff members attended.
  • October 12 at the St. Paul Student Center; 39 staff members attended.
The Central Region stretches from St. Cloud in the north to the southern counties wrapping the Twin Cities and encompasses the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. According to the Metropolitan Council, the seven-county metro area was home to 2.85 million people in 2010; that number is expected to grow to 3.102 million by 2020 (For more, see this 2014 Star Tribune article: Twin Cities metro still growing). St. Cloud anchors the northern part of the region, with a population that hovers at just over 66,000. Dotted between are smaller towns, bucolic farmsteads, rivers and scenic bluffs. The region continues to show a growing level of diversity.

No summary can do justice to the rich stories of grand challenges and opportunities voiced by over 75 FD staff members living and working in the Central Region. The following offers a glimpse into some of the grand challenges facing the Central Region.

Growing Ethnic and Racial Diversity Across the Region

During the three regional conversations, staff noted the continuing rise in ethnic and racial diversity. Their stories are borne out by the numbers from the latest American Community Survey (2011–2013) that showed that one in every four residents of the region was a person of color (Read the full Met Council 2014 report.). In seven cities with at least 20,000 residents, that percentage grows to at least 30 percent of the population being residents of color.

Staff noted that the growing diversity of the Central Region offers many opportunities to engage diverse populations on cross-cutting health promotion efforts, but also poses a number of challenges. Some of these challenges are great in scale. For example, in St. Cloud and Columbia Heights — at nearly opposite ends of the region — staff reported racial tensions with the Somali community in the schools. In St. Cloud, about 100 Somali students walked out of class last spring to protest bullying, while in Columbia Heights, a school board member’s disparaging comments about Muslims raised racial tensions there. In both cases, many people expressed support for the Muslim community, demonstrating that the level of engagement around these issues has increased.

Other challenges are those that affect our everyday practice, including utilizing English-Language Learner resources for teaching with diverse audiences or the difficulties in gathering data from participants who do not trust institutions and do not want to provide personal information.

Our Work in the Context of Growing Health, Economic, and Educational Disparities and Inequities

At all three visits in the Central Region, health disparities and inequities was a common theme. While Minnesota overall is seen as a healthy state, we have pockets with great disparities. Staff reported mistrust in the healthcare system, which is especially high in minority groups in North Minneapolis. Staff have found that working with agencies who have concerns about filling out the paperwork and the need to understand the concerns because historically marginalized groups can harbor mistrust in the healthcare system. This is an opportunity for FD to explore how to move forward with our own work while taking into consideration the concerns of the populations.

Children’s Hospitals created a position for an American Indian Liaison and they are now looking at how to measure it. This is a population with higher neonatal alcohol syndrome — 60 in each 1000 births. In Dakota County, public health is taking a deeper look at issues around mental health. The area has been conducting more education on teen suicide as they have seen a higher rate of teen suicide. Staff pointed out how Allina Health is encouraging people to Change to Chill through an online resource for teens where they can learn how to meditate, practice guided imagery, or live a more balanced life.

The conversations around health sparked engaged conversation about our own well-being. We are often working with professionals who are experiencing or have experienced secondary or historical trauma. In addition, many of the families we work with are trying to do so much with decreasing income. These situations can affect us all. As one staff member at UROC said, “We are health care providers to a certain extent, but who takes care of us?” Staff noted a personal grand challenge for individuals: how best to practice self-care. A grand challenge for all of FD is how to establish a work culture that is mindful and attentive to issues of staff well-being.

Similar to other regions, the Central Region staff also expressed concern about how these inequities affect our children and youth. For example, staff talked about the continuing and growing learning gap among minority students in the region. Staff also talked about growing youth homelessness (now numbering over 4,000, according to the Wilder Foundation). Some counties are already addressing homelessness. In Dakota County, a new resource center with drop-in hours opened, providing an easy point of entry for youth experiencing or at risk of homelessness.

FD in the Central Region

Central is the only region where both of our signature health and nutrition programs, SNAP-Ed and EFNEP, are implemented. Staff spoke with great interest of working better together across Health and Nutrition programs and connecting SNAP-Ed and EFNEP participants with other FD programs covering financial management, parenting, and trauma. According to staff from the southwestern and southern part of the region — Dakota, Carver, and Scott counties — there is high interest in financial capability and empowerment. This is an opportunity for FD to grow our financial literacy work and perhaps connect in our health and nutrition work as well.

An opportunity to connect our programs across FD is the SNAP-Ed Community Partnership Funding, where the Central Region recently received six grants that seek to improve the health of Minnesotans with limited financial resources and learn from our community partners:

  • Twin Cities Mobile Market, a program of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, will partner with SNAP-Ed educators to promote healthy eating among residents living in poverty in Hennepin and Ramsey counties through their 16 “mobile markets.” This project aims to expand the environmental change work in low-income neighborhoods by partnering with SNAP-Ed to make policy, systems, and environmental changes that support healthy eating.
  • Brooklyn Center Community Schools will work to improve access to healthy foods, increase fruit and vegetable consumption, and provide education about nutrition and the benefits of non-processed  (whole) foods. The audiences are Brooklyn Center secondary students and the broader community.
  • In Richfield and East Bloomington, the City of Bloomington’s Division of Public Health is applying a coordinated approach to obesity prevention targeting Latino children and families in childcare, schools and community settings.
  • Little Earth of United Tribes in Minneapolis will provide support for families in the Little Earth community to become role models for healthy living habits. Four families with children who participate in the Wild Rice Camp and/or dance troupe sponsored by Extension’s Center for Youth Development will be given resources to change and improve their lifestyles. The ultimate goal is to build a cohort of families with the skills and knowledge necessary to help themselves, and others in the community, live healthy, active lifestyles.
  • The Minnesota Academy of Pediatrics Foundation will inform and equip pediatric primary care providers, including family physicians, who serve a high number of SNAP or SNAP-eligible patients, to screen all patients for food insecurity and establish or improve existing referral processes to SNAP-Ed and related programs.
  • Pillsbury United Communities will enable residents of several neighborhoods in Minneapolis to gain access to public land for use in establishing community gardens. Eventually residents will be offered healthy cooking classes through SNAP-Ed, as well.

Central Region by the Numbers

Given the sheer size of the Central Region, it makes sense that we have a large, robust team at the ready. Helping to address and partner with others on the challenges in the Central region are our own FD regional staff:
  • 1 Family Resiliency program leader
  • 7 Health and Nutrition program leaders
  • 3 Center-wide program leaders
  • 3 Children, Youth & Family Consortium Extension educators
  • 5 Family Resiliency Extension Educators who work regionally (1 more position will be posted)
  • 2 Family Resiliency Extension educators who are county-based
  • 4 Health and Nutrition Extension educators who work regionally (2 more positions will soon be filled)
  • 1 Health and Nutrition Extension Educator who is county-based (in the process of posting)
  • 3 SNAP-Ed regional coordinators (in the process of hiring)
  • 24 SNAP-Ed educators
  • 2 EFNEP community program specialists
  • 12 EFNEP community nutrition educators (1 more position is posted)
  • 1 additional Health and Nutrition program staff member
  • 5 Family Resiliency Extension specialists (that is, faculty) 
  • 2 Health and Nutrition Extension specialists (that is, faculty)
  • 14 Applied Research and Evaluation team members (2 more positions will be posted)
  • 8 Communication and Educational Resource Development team members
  • 9 other administrative and mission support staff
See our recent Staff Announcements for details. Our Central team is located through out the region:
  • Three regional Extension offices
  • Multiple county Extension offices
  • St. Paul Campus
  • The Robert J. Jones Research and Outreach-Engagement Center

And coming soon: a new St. Paul location! See New Urban Office Opening in this edition.

In this heavily populated region, Family Development is continuing to invest and partner in order to address the difficulties faced by the families we serve. The experience in the Central Region, like all the regional visits, reminded us all that FD has an obligation to play a vital role in addressing the grand challenges identified.

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