Becoming A Diverse, Accepting Community

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by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

"If my child had prejudice in his head, I’d be ashamed. I would see it as my failure as a parent."  -- Salman Rushdie, Author

When our grandfather came to rural Benson as a young boy of five-years-old, he couldn’t speak English. Norwegian was his native tongue. But he quickly learned English attending country school in Six Mile Grove Township. He only attended school through the eighth grade but was one of most well read people we knew growing up.

He grew up working on the farm, then as many did, worked a variety of jobs before becoming a plumber who also dug and built basements. Ole Anfinson worked hard to make a better life for his three children. His oldest child, Ronald Anfinson, graduated from Benson High School and went on to be a bombardier on a B-24 bomber in World War II. After the war he went on to graduate from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

When he returned to Benson, he worked with our grandfather at first before getting a job of the Swift County Monitor-News as a reporter. Like his father, he worked to create a better life for his children, eventually buying the Monitor-News along with partner Jim Kinney of Glenwood.

Today we own the Monitor-News, which plays an important role in informing, educating and entertaining the community. But it is only because our great-grandfather left Norway bringing his family to America for a better life that we had the opportunity for the life we live today.

Monday morning we went up to the Northside Elementary School to take photos of the children starting their first day of school. There were big smiles on the faces of most children as they laughed, played and met new classmates. Of course, there were tears as parents of preschool and kindergarten children parted as their son or daughter began his or her very first day of school.

But what struck us most as we took photos was the diversity of the children in the elementary. A school once almost exclusively filled with white children is now seeing an increasing mix of Hispanic and Black children among its students. Their parents are here for the same reasons my grandparents came – a better life for their children.

When they grow up and go off to school to become business owners, doctors, lawyers, engineers, welders, farm workers, agronomists, secretaries, teachers, ministers, and the other workers will they return home to make the community vibrant and successful? Two generations from now will they and their children be so integrated into the community that we don’t think twice about the color of their skin?

We certainly hope so.

Immigrants, as always, are the future of our community. Swift County’s population has fallen to under 10,000 people. That is lower than it was in 1900 when a steady stream of Norwegians, Swedes, Irish, Germans and other Europeans were migrating to America to populate the cities and rural communities of an expanding nation. The county’s population peaked shortly after 1950 at over 15,000, but has seen a steady decline as family sizes have shrunk, as fewer and fewer immigrants move into the county, as young people moved away to big cities, and as the older generation died at a faster pace than children were being born.

The “immigrants” we see resettling rural Minnesota may be from Mexico, Africa, Europe, Southeast Asia, the Middle East or China. Or, they may be coming from the inner cities of America. All seek a better, safer, life for themselves and their children. As a community we should be opening our arms to these new residents, making them feel welcome.

Not all people feel this way. Prejudice is still alive and well in America. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has stirred feelings of resentment and prejudice through his constant promise to build a wall to keep Hispanics south of the border; he would ban nearly all Muslims seeking safety from oppression and war, and opportunity for their children in a country not torn by violence, from coming to America.

Trump inflames prejudice with his words. His followers, some, not all, take to heart his messages on race and religion. Conversations in their homes further arouse their anger, which can easily be voiced as words of hate. Children listen. They hear the words of hate.

Unfortunately, this innate prejudice has lived in some families for generation after generation and is only being stoked to a more intense level by Trump’s passionate speeches.

His words create a challenge for our teachers. They must be watchful for the hateful expressions voiced in a parents’ home to make sure they aren’t carried onto the playground, lunchroom, or classroom by children. It is also our responsibility when confronted by blanket, prejudicial comments on race or religion to point out that the vast majority of people no matter what their color or beliefs, seek the very same things we do – opportunity, peace, freedom.

Our grandfather had a favorite quote he would recite to us from time to time when we would visit him in his little trailer home on the west side of Benson. He was well into his 80s at the time. “They enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin.” It is from a Bertrand Russell poem. He read it to us to instill the thought that we couldn’t sit idly by as a spectator to injustice. We all need to do our part to make this a better world.

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