Grantee Welcoming Community Program

In a world that feels divided by differences, Northspan's Welcoming Community program is partnering with communities to co-create a more inclusive northeast Minnesota.

This one-year-old initiative is designed to build trust among people from different backgrounds and lived experiences, with a special focus on small, rural communities.

As a regional nonprofit rooted in economic development and research, Northspan naturally began with data. They studied regional demographics to identify Cloquet and Cook County – both neighbors to sovereign Native nations – as pilot sites. With a Northland Foundation grant of $150,000 and a diverse advisory group guiding the work, Northspan dug in.

Community assessments from nearly 100 people living in each community highlighted pain points and opportunities. They revealed that people wanted conversation and change but were afraid of making missteps.

Outreach led by local “champions” drew residents to join an Inclusion Learning Cohort. The groups met monthly to learn, examine biases, and explore ways to drive change.

It was encouraging to hear how each of us wanted…to live in harmony with one another…making sure our neighbor is okay no matter what differences we may have with that person. — Hillary Hedin, Cloquet cohort member

Each group also received funds to pursue an inclusion project of their own. Cloquet, whose cohort included a strong showing of youth, plans to cultivate elders’ knowledge of gardening with a community plot. It will be common ground for different generations and cultures to work and enjoy nature together.

In one of their pivotal group sessions, the Cook County cohort took part in the powerful "blanket exercise," which illustrates the many impacts of colonization. For their project, they plan to work with Tribal representatives to customize the exercise with a Minnesota perspective and package it for widespread learning.

Northspan has gleaned lessons, too. Teaching constructive dialogue tools, hiring local experts to lead education, and staying flexible proved key and will help refine their process in the next two cohort sites.

At its core, Welcoming Community seeks to create space for community members to learn and grow. Through understanding and action, one-by-one they will help lead the way to a more vibrant future for all.