Rahima Jamac, like many graduating seniors, spent her last year of high school at home, on her laptop. The coronavirus pandemic changed her life in a way not soon forgotten – homework and interactions with classmates were often done via a screen. It’s also not the only thing that’s changed the life of this Somali-American teenager. The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer one year earlier has, too.
“I do think there’s been a change in the community and the school. There’s a lot more awareness on social justice and racism, and our school has been pushing equity more,” Jamac said.
Born in Atlanta, Jamac moved to St. Peter, Minn. with her family when she was a toddler. For her, St. Peter has always been home, even if others felt she didn’t belong there.
“When I was growing up, there wasn’t a big Somali population. There were only a few kids, there wasn’t a lot of diversity at all when I was younger. I felt different for sure.”
Even before George Floyd’s killing, St. Peter schools had tried to address racism. Two years ago, a Somali middle-school student sustained head injuries from being pushed into a glass case by a fellow student. The incident prompted the district to enact a program called “Life’s Journey,” where the administration and staff could reflect.
“It’s really about understanding your own perspective and your own history and how you see the rest of the world. To better understand yourself, you better understand others,” said Bill Gronseth, superintendent of St. Peter Public Schools.
Gronseth wasn’t superintendent then. But many feel that, because the violent act happened in the middle school, it was a wake-up call for the district and community.
“If we don’t have those conversations, it doesn’t create that atmosphere where people feel safe and welcome,” Gronseth said.
He says every district – especially rural ones – should be having these conversations. Students of color now make up 30% of this rural school district, far outpacing the demographics of the city as a whole.
Community leaders estimate there are about 400 to 500 Somali and East African residents in St. Peter. Many have moved to the area in just the last five years, leaders say, in search of jobs, good schools and a quieter life.
“All of [my children] say they feel welcomed,” said Mohamed Abdulkadir, who runs the St. Paul Islamic Center and a non-profit focused on after-school education. “When we approach people, they welcome us, [but] we don’t know what’s in their hearts.”
In recent years, the city has included Somalis in the annual Fourth of July parade. And he says the school district is working on inclusion efforts. But of the city’s 103 full-time employees, only two are perceived to be people of color. And he says there are still many local businesses who won’t hire Somalis.
“[The] report card I can give [St. Peter is] maybe C, C+. I know people might feel bad about that, some people work so hard, day or night, even if I have a small issue, I can call them. But there are only a few,” he said.
Yurie Hong, a professor at Gustavus Adolphus College, started a local chapter of the progressive politics group Indivisible. Recently, the group partnered with the ACLU of Minnesota, the Greater Mankato Diversity Council and others to look at area policing, and took input from area residents. Hong said the testimony from people of color was most troubling.
“There is an experience that race is a component in the way that they’re being treated,” Hong said.
What’s different now, she said, is that after the killing of George Floyd, there has been a broadening of voices calling for change.
“It’s not just something happening in the Twin Cities, but it’s rural communities that don’t have a lot of diversity. There’s a lot of white folks becoming personally invested, when they don’t need to,” Hong said.
The group delivered a report to the St. Peter City Council earlier this year. Among some of the feedback reported were instances of over policing and under policing.
“These towns have been predominately white, and laws reflect that, and there’s a hesitation to address issues of race,” said Julio Zelaya of the ACLU of Minnesota.
The report authors made a list of recommendations, from making the city’s police website more transparent, to increasing the powers of the city’s police civil service commission. A city official said it was not clear whether all the recommendations could be legally implemented. The city plans to hold community-wide conversations on race later this year. Zelaya said he was disappointed that the report’s recommendations haven’t been officially addressed.
“The report was introduced. It said this was what we want to see in the community, and we have yet to see the city council pick it up and move anything with it,” he said.
This summer, the town plans to hold Community Conversations on race and equity. Meanwhile, some change is already underway – and that change is led by young people. Last month, students at St. Peter High School staged a walkout on their own.
“It has maybe half, there’s a lot more people than I thought. It was heartwarming to see a whole group of students out there, even the teachers out there, you could see they supported us,” Lily Ruffin, 17, said.
Ruffin is part of a new club at the high school that revolves around racial and social justice. Advisor Jen Maldonado said it was a natural offshoot from a state program that had brought students together between different neighboring school districts.
Rahima Jamac is also a club member. She said she hopes that the school will eventually make it available to the general student population at the school.
“I’m hoping there’s less talk, more action. There’s a lot of talk and conversation – this is the problem, this is a potential solution. I want more action, let’s do this,” she said.
In 2014. Dr. Ayaz Virji gave up a lucrative career in Pennsylvania and moved his family to rural Dawson, Minn., to run the local hospital. But once the 2016 election was decided, he noticed a different tone coming from his neighbors: As the only Muslim family in town, Dr. Virji, his wife and their children found themselves constantly defending Islam and Muslim Americans. One Greater Minnesota Reporter Kaomi Lee has chronicled Dr. Virji’s story since 2018, starting with Muslim Doctor Finds Purpose and Pushback in Rural Town.
Continue reading about Dr. Virji’s journey in What’s It Like for a Muslim Doctor Living in Rural Minnesota? and Why This Muslim Doctor Is Taking a Break from Rural America.
In One Greater Minnesota Reporter Kaomi Lee’s first installment about racism issues in Pine Island, she learned about the opposition that Black Lives Matters demonstrators faced in the small town. And in her second installment, she checked in with some residents in the small community who have experienced an awakening on racial justice issues since the police killing of George Floyd.