Diversity grant aimed at students, community leaders

Published 1:56 pm Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Karem Salas thinks once people see what she and the other Austin High School students in the Youth Leadership Team are doing, they’ll want to come help. What Salas, an AHS senior, hopes is that people will watch as the Youth Leadership Team completes community service projects and offer support to people of all backgrounds around town. Salas and the Youth Leadership Team are a small part of what the Austin Human Rights Commission hope to accomplish in the community.

Due to a $40,000 grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield, Austin’s HRC is making a large effort towards diversity efforts in Austin, whether it’s offering race relations training to community leaders, organizing immigration information seminars or getting students to help their fellow resident.

“The focus is providing opportunities in the community … activities that include the diversity of our community in its entirety,” said Kirsten Lindbloom, chairperson of the HRC.

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To that end, the HRC has been busy using the grant, which it received in August and officially accepted in September, to further the city’s diversity in a number of ways.

Community leaders met last month for what HRC members call community training, which amounts to holding conversations about race and ethnic relations and talking about positive ways to hold discussions like these throughout the community. According to Kristi Beckman, an HRC member, community leaders will walk away with a better understanding of how to better talk about diversity issues.

“That will hopefully build their confidence,” Beckman said.

“(They’ll be) more well-informed and I think just creating a cohesive group. It’s bringing together community leaders so they can feel supported.”

While about 30 community leaders met last month, about 60 leaders, such as members of the Austin Public School district, social workers, representatives of Austin Medical Center and other leaders will come together this Friday to receive the same training.

The grant helps fund more community talks, according to Lindbloom. Last month, a seminar was held at Riverland Community College that dealt with immigration issues. The purpose of the seminar, Lindbloom said, was to clear up any preconceived notions about immigration reform and give the facts about the immigration system as it currently operates. That way, people can start talking about immigration reform with more facts and make actual solutions to the problem.

“In order for people to really be talking about immigration reform, they need to know what the system is as is,” Lindbloom said. “And most people don’t know how the system works as is.”

The immigration talks have been happening every couple of months or so with several meetings within the past month, as organizations and residents have asked for more information. More talks haven’t yet been planned, but will be if there is more interest for them.

Part of the grant requirements the HRC has to fill is the creation of a youth commission on diversity. When AHS senior Jay Ettinger called Lindbloom to discuss a DECA project where high school kids of all backgrounds perform community service projects, Lindbloom saw an opportunity to create and help fund that group’s efforts. Thus, the Youth Leadership Team (which now calls itself CORE) was formed out of about 20 students at AHS.

“We have our own social capital, our own groups that we bring to the table,” Ettinger said. “We’re kind of just the core that plans it, then go out and reach the rest of the student body to bring the projects to life.”

CORE serves as the youth component for the recent BCBS grant, as well as several smaller grants. Its mission, according to group members, is to get out into the community in different ways while showing Austin how well people of diverse backgrounds can work together.

Some of the projects that are currently being planned include college visits for AHS students of color, activities at the annual Christmas in the City and helping a local family with various projects.

According to AHS senior Mark Thorson, a family at his church is currently in need after the father fell ill, so CORE members will help rake leaves and do other household chores.

Salas and AHS junior Diana Ramirez are part of a CORE group recruiting for college visits to colleges and universities that AHS students may be interested in going to. Thus far, they’ve been promoting a visit to the University of Minnesota-Winona on Nov. 22 and will be deciding on a private college to help promote later in the semester.

Keiry Villalta, Ramirez and other members will be working on creating holiday activities for Christmas in the City which will illustrate other Christmas traditions “besides Santa Claus,” that are celebrated in the community. According to Beckman, who is also the district’s integration coordinator, Mexican Christmas traditions such as ponche, a hot Christmas punch, will be showcased along with various informational displays about other traditions.

“It shows that we have different things and we can share them with other people and see if they like it,” Villalta said.

Although the projects they’re planning differ, the group agrees their mission is the same: They are making a concerted effort to reach out to a community they feel fractures itself through racial and ideological boundaries.

“I feel like Austin is a town that’s a little divided,” Ettinger said. “We acknowledge that there’s (other groups) but we don’t really interact with the other cultures. We thought that community service would be the way to do it, if they saw the kids going out into the community as a group from many different backgrounds that maybe it could give a little hope to the adults in the community.”

As CORE and the HRC continue their work in the community, they’ll have to raise $10,000 as part of the grant process to keep their momentum going. According to Lindbloom, $4,000 is currently secured from other organizations in the community, with a possible $1,500 from another grant coming in. Lindbloom said the HRC is about to undergo grant applications for several smaller grants as well.

Regardless of where the money comes from, members of CORE and other community leaders are determined to bring a little more tolerance into Austin.

“Austin is not just a town full of Hispanics or just (natural born Americans). We’re all in here. We just need to get to know each other and everyone’s culture,” Ramirez said.