Finding the answers in Willmar

By Julie Tesch

I recently read an article about Willmar in, of all places, the New York Times, and I was surprised and amazed (I’m a bit sad to say) at its positive view of rural Minnesota.

I’m a bit sad at my level of surprise not because it was an article on Willmar, but because it seems like all we hear about rural America these days is its looming demise, how it needs to be saved, how we are somehow lesser than our urban counterparts.

But this article by Thomas Friedman, Minnesota native, New York Times correspondent and columnist and author of such books as The World is Flat, Thank You for Being Late, and The Lexus and The Olive Tree, spoke glowingly about how the people of Willmar have rolled up their sleeves to make their city grow and grow well by becoming a true melting pot of different cultures, and how more communities need to look at Willmar as a model for success.

Mr. Friedman had family in Willmar and spent a lot of time there visiting them over the last forty years, so he had a good reference point from which to see how Willmar has changed over the decades. Seeing rural Minnesota through his eyes on his recent trip back was refreshing.

Finding the answers in Willmar

Now let’s be honest, the media make it appear that there isn’t much love lost between rural and urban people and that rural America is being left behind.

“The cliché about America today,” Friedman writes, “is that we’re a country divided between two coasts — two coasts that are liberalizing, pluralizing, globalizing, and modernizing. And between is ‘flyover America,’ where everyone voted for Donald Trump, is suffering from addictions, and is waiting for the 1950s to return.”

What I have found after growing up in rural Minnesota, living in big cities for 25 year, and now moving back to my hometown, is that there is a basic lack of understanding and appreciation of different ways of life in America.

But a little discussion goes a long way. Is rural America struggling? Yes. Is there hope for the future?

Of course there is.

Friedman continues:

“America is actually a checkerboard of towns and cities — some rising from the bottom up and others collapsing from the top down, ravaged by opioids, high unemployment among less-educated white males and a soaring suicide rate. I’ve been trying to understand why some communities rise and others fall — and so many of the answers can be found in Willmar.”

Willmar, in west central Minnesota, has become a melting pot of immigrants from all over the world, most of them attracted there by the abundance of jobs in the meat packing industry. People from Mexico and Central America have been traveling to Willmar for work for decades, but lately, they’ve been settling there, too, and now in recent years the newcomers have been arriving from east Africa and Asia. They speak different languages, they dress differently, and they practice religions radically unfamiliar to the descendants of the city’s original European settlers.

The power to choose

There are three questions, Friedman says, that will make all the difference in whether a town decides to thrive or merely survive:

“1) Is your town hungry for workers to fill open jobs? 2) Can your town embrace the new immigrants ready to do those jobs, immigrants who may come not just from Latin America, but also from nonwhite and non-Christian nations of Africa or Asia? And 3) Does your town have a critical mass of ‘leaders without authority’?”

I’m not sure what he means here by “leaders without authority,” but I’m guessing they’re like the unelected people in Willmar who saw the problem, and instead of sitting around and letting things happen to them, they decided to get over themselves and their fears, to step up — be leaders — and work with the new reality, directing it for the good of everyone, longtime resident and new resident alike.

Is it hard work accepting new people into a close-knit community? Yes. Is it hard for new immigrants to come to a new town without knowing the language or culture? Yes. Change over time is generally gradual but interrupted by occasional, big once-in-a-lifetime shakeups. Between the workforce shortage and the arrival of immigrants, we’re in the midst of a big shakeup right now. Big shakeups like this are hard and upsetting for any town.

So the question is this: Does the town resist, pull into its shell and let the change wash over them while trying to remain the same? Or do its people make an effort, work to understand — and most importantly—steer and manage the change in a way that works out for everyone?

There are no easy answers to rural prosperity, but I do know that we need more towns like Willmar who are at least willing to try to build a better community for everyone involved. Because in the end we all want the same thing: a safe place for our families to live in peace and the freedom to go after the American Dream.