Guest Commentary: Creating a sense of belonging right here in southern Minnesota

Published 6:30 am Saturday, August 28, 2021

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By Tim Penny

President & CEO of Southern Minnesota

Initiative Foundation

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Many of us who grew up in, or currently live in, rural Minnesota know that there is something about our communities that fosters a sense of belonging. It might be that the nature of small towns makes it easier to get to know people, or that festivals, historic downtowns and beautiful natural landscape provide a way to feel connected to a place. However, everyone has had moments where we felt like we didn’t belong. For some people, that experience might be because of language barriers or cultural differences, and it might last a long time. At Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF), we know that the communities in our 20-county region have the power to make everyone feel welcome.

Several years ago, SMIF became a member of Welcoming America, joining many other organizations and communities in our region which are dedicated to making southern Minnesota a welcoming place for all. At SMIF, we strive to contribute to a welcoming atmosphere in the region through all of our programming and investments. We are here to support all families in our region – whether through distributing books to children for early literacy support or working directly with children on developing social-emotional skills for lifelong success. We are also here to support all entrepreneurs in our region through accessible business financing opportunities, some of which is funded through the Minnesota Emerging Entrepreneur Loan program which helps ensure that business owners from populations who have historically faced barriers to accessing capital are able to get funds to start and grow their business.

While we hope that all of SMIF’s opportunities contribute to a welcoming region, there are several programs in particular that have been explicitly created to break down barriers and create pathways for growth. In 2016 SMIF launched a program called The Prosperity Initiative. This program provides free business coaching and training to entrepreneurs who identify as Black, Indigenous or People of Color (BIPOC). Whether folks already have a business, or just an idea for one, they are paired with an expert coach who guides them through the process of building a business plan, creating a marketing plan, finding access to financing and navigating regulations. Over the past six years, 67 entrepreneurs have graduated from The Prosperity Initiative, and we recently welcomed a new cohort of eight to the program.

Last year, SMIF held a special, one-time grant opportunity called the Inclusive and Equitable Communities Grant. In partnership with Region Nine Development Commission and SE MN Together, SMIF approved ten grants through this program, totaling $160,000. Over the past year the organizations that received the grants have been working on initiatives which either increase equity and inclusion within communities or support entrepreneurs in communities of diverse backgrounds.

One of those grant recipients is Rice County Neighbors United which has been developing plans for a business association to empower existing and new minority-owned businesses in the county. The Village Community Garden and Learning Center is using their grant to increase the capacity, knowledge and support for immigrant farmers in the Rochester area who grow culturally relevant food. In Winona, the public schools are using the grant to improve educational outcomes for refugee and immigrant students and identify ways in which the schools can make systemic changes to build a more welcoming, affirming and richer learning environment for all students.

There are many other ways we are working to be welcoming to everyone in our region. SMIF recently held two First Aid/CPR trainings in partnership with Healthy Community Initiative in Rice County for child care providers who speak Spanish as a first language. We have also been able to increase our distribution of books that are bilingual or focused on inclusive themes to children and families in the region. In everything we do, we strive to foster a sense of belonging.

We are also looking forward to Welcoming Week this September 10 – 19, a nationwide celebration through Welcoming America. Welcoming Week, themed “Belonging Begins with Us,” is a time when a chorus of thousands — in communities large and small, rural and urban—celebrate the benefits of an inclusive society and deepen their commitment to creating places that are welcoming to everyone, including immigrants. This week is an opportunity to celebrate the values that unite us as neighbors, parents, and colleagues and to make our communities more welcoming to all those who call southern Minnesota home.

Many communities and partners in our region are holding events during Welcoming Week. Rochester Diversity Council is hosting a workshop about developing cultural inclusivity and Project FINE is hosting a workshop in Winona about recognizing and respecting differences and practical tips to foster a welcoming environment. Other communities, like St. Charles, are hosting community celebrations. SMIF staff You can find a listing of events in our region at

Belonging begins with us. We can all help make southern Minnesota a welcoming place for all.

We are currently recruiting additional members to join this year’s Prosperity Initiative cohort. Contact Maddy Fisher at or 507-214-7029 or visit for more information.