Rural Minnesota Is Getting Less White. Meet the Progressive Women Running to Make the Government Less White, Too.

Immigrants, come to work meatpacking and farm jobs, have rejuvenated Nobles County. These women aim to make sure they’re represented.

Sarah Lahm

If elected, Leticia Rodriguez would be the first person of color to serve as a Nobles County, Minn. commissioner. Photo courtesy of Cheniqua Johnson

Nobles County, Minn. — Leticia Rodriguez, a longtime resident of rural Rushmore, Minn., is busy these days. She’s a mother, a grandmother, a nutrition educator and a community leader who provides translation services and other support to the area’s Spanish-speaking population. Rodriguez is also a first-time candidate for public office.

She is running for a nonpartisan position on the Nobles County Commission, the five-member body that oversees the budget and the overall economic and civic vitality of the county. If she wins in the November election, Rodriguez will become the first woman of color to serve in this role. She has considered running before, but now, Rodriguez says, she is ready.

Everything is changing,” Rodriguez tells In These Times. She is referring to the rapidly shifting demographics in and around Worthington, Minn., the county seat and biggest town in Nobles. She is also referring to the recent upsurge among women of color in the area running for office, having long supported and uplifted their communities without seeking the pay and recognition that comes with an elected position — until now.

If Rodriguez and Simon are suc­cess­ful in their cam­paigns, nei­ther one would be new to the role of pub­lic ser­vant. From their Covid-19 relief efforts to their recent work on vot­er reg­is­tra­tion dri­ves, ​“they are already doing the work."

Worthington, population 13,000, sits in the far, southwestern corner of Minnesota, just over the border from South Dakota. It is an agricultural area, where acres of soybeans and corn monocrops dominate land where, not so long ago, buffalo roamed and a biodiverse prairie thrived.

Food production remains a central industry for the city, where JBS S.A., a Brazilian company that is the largest meatpacker in the world, operates a pork processing plant. Recent immigrants to the U.S., primarily from Africa and Central America, have been drawn to Worthington by the availability of farm and meatpacking jobs, dramatically shifting the local demographics. Only two decades ago, Worthington was a majority white community in an overwhelmingly white state. Today, less than half of the city’s residents are white, and Latino residents form the largest demographic group. There are growing numbers of Black and Asian residents as well, and the area has also taken in one of the highest per capita percentages of unaccompanied minors in the U.S. in recent years.

Statistics like these have put Worthington on the map, locally and nationally. A 2011 article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press struck a positive tone, describing how a rapid rise in immigration had saved Worthington from a near-collapse driven by the farm crisis of the 1980s. In many ways, what’s happening in Worthington is happening across Minnesota, which is shifting from a majority white state into something much more diverse, thanks in part to the state’s long tradition of welcoming refugees and immigrants to the state. Groups such as Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota have provided food, housing, and support to people from around the world for decades, including Hmong refugees from the Vietnam War and, more recently, Karen people escaping oppression in Burma and immigrants from Mexico and Central America.

But not everyone has embraced the changes brought by this new wave of immigrants. In 2019, Washington Post reporter Michael E. Miller profiled the way many older, white residents in the area have reacted with fear, anger, and outright racism to the immigrants that have put their mark on the city. Donald Trump won Nobles County handily in 2016 and nearly carried the whole state. He has campaigned here repeatedly throughout the 2020 election cycle, warning his supporters that if Joe Biden wins he will turn the state into a refugee camp.”

To Rodriguez, however, whether or not immigrants and people of color belong in Worthington is not a question. We are no longer immigrants,” she says, noting that families she has worked with and mentored are now second and third generation Nobles County residents. These days in Worthington, Rodriguez says, it is largely Latino, Black, and brown residents who are buying homes, boosting enrollment in the city’s public schools and otherwise adding vibrancy and a growing tax base to the region.

Aida Simon, who came to the area years ago as a refugee from Eritrea, is running for a seat on the Worthington City Council. Photo courtesy of Cheniqua Johnson

Still, no person of color has yet been elected to a local or statewide office from Nobles County. Now, a trio of women of color, including Rodriguez, is working to change that. Running for office alongside Rodriguez is Aida Simon, who came to the area years ago as a refugee from Eritrea and is seeking a seat on the Worthington City Council. Cheniqua Johnson, a rising star in the state Democratic party, is managing both their campaigns.

In 2018, Johnson ran for a seat in the Minnesota House as a 22-year-old African-American woman from a rural district, reportedly at the urging of Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. She lost that election, but her historic candidacy has shifted expectations in Worthington about who gets to have a say in how the city and county operate.

If Simon gets elected to the Worthington City Council, she will represent Ward 1, where many people are struggling due to the impact of Covid-19. Simon points out that these residents are primarily Black and brown but have never been represented by a person of color.”

Rodriguez and Simon are affiliated with Voices for Racial Justice, a nonprofit based in the Twin Cities that is committed to building political power in Minnesota by lifting up communities of color. A local branch of the group, Seeds of Justice, has encouraged immigrants, refugees, and people of color in Worthington to run for leadership positions.

Many of the area’s immigrant residents work at the JBS pork producessing plant. Like other meatpacking plants in the U.S., where working conditions have facilitated the spread of Covid-19, an outbreak of the virus tore through JBS’s Worthington site in April. Eventually, the plant was closed for a few weeks in order to slow the spread of the virus and reopened in May.

The closure left many families in the lurch, Simon and Rodriguez say. Many have faced evictions and job losses due to the temporary closure while others felt forced to continue working at the plant in Worthington despite the risks. There are likely two reasons for this. First, the Trump administration deemed meatpacking an essential service, which allowed production to continue even as Covid-19 took hold and which meant workers had to show up or face losing their jobs. Second, a provision in the CARES Act, the federal coronavirus relief package, mandated that people living in mixed status” households, with documented and undocumented residents, did not qualify for stimulus funds, leaving many workers without a safety net.

The Covid-related school closures were also difficult for many parents to navigate, Simon says, because information about the shutdowns was conveyed only in English. Worse still, there is no comprehensive childcare program to help families deal with the loss of school-based care, Rodriguez says. JBS is a billion-dollar corporation, she notes, yet they have refused to offer on-site child care. The company did, however, recently donate $1 million towards a local sports facility.

This is what happens, Rodriguez warns, when women are not at the table.” In order to fill the gaps left by Covid-19 responses that jeopardized Worthington’s immigrant and refugee populations, she and Simon jumped into action to provide the kind of culturally relevant support they say was missing in the community.

I watched Aida go on a thousand runs, hand-delivering diapers and food to neighbors in need,” Rodriguez recalls. Through Seeds of Justice, the two also helped guide the Minnesota Department of Health’s response to the Worthington Covid-19 outbreak so that it was better suited to the area’s unique needs.

Nobles County quickly became a virus hot spot,” as Governor Tim Walz put it in April, thanks to an explosion of cases at both the JBS plant in Worthington and another outbreak at the Smithfield meatpacking plant in nearby Sioux Falls, S.D.. Within days, hundreds of cases emerged in the county, giving it one of the highest per-capita counts of all counties in the U.S.

In response, state officials called Nobles County residents afflicted with the virus and offered to put them up in a hotel room so they could isolate themselves from others. But this turned out to be unworkable, as many families of color in Worthington live in multi-generational settings and would not, or could not, leave to take care of themselves. Many were new immigrants who were scared to separate from loved ones, Simon says.

And so, Voices for Racial Justice and Seeds of Justice helped lead a serology study in October, in which Nobles County residents could come and get tested for the virus, with information shared in a variety of languages, not just English, and with additional support provided, including the distribution of food and other essential supplies.

In a promotional video for the event, Simon and Rodriguez both allude to the power of putting community members and leaders of color at the forefront of outreach efforts. It is important for government agencies to figure out from the get go what people need, or how they want to be involved, Rodriguez says, in order to serve them better.

If Rodriguez and Simon are successful in their campaigns, neither one would be new to the role of public servant. From their Covid-19 relief efforts to their recent work on voter registration drives, they are already doing the work,” Johnson says.

Much the same could be said in general of the immigrants, refugees and people of color living in this rural corner of Minnesota, the ones who work in the farms and meatpacking plants, whose labor is reviving towns across the southern half of the state, pumping tax dollars and renewed energy into fading main streets and shrinking public school systems.

What would change if Rodriguez and Simon win is they would be one step closer to helping reshape Worthington and Nobles County in the image of the increasingly diverse people who call it home. They would have a seat at the table, at last, and begin to achieve that most American of ideals: no taxation without representation.

As a 501©3 non­prof­it pub­li­ca­tion, In These Times does not oppose or endorse can­di­dates for polit­i­cal office.

Sarah Lahm is a Min­neapo­lis-based writer and for­mer Eng­lish Instruc­tor. She writes the Midwest Dispatch column for the Progressive magazine, and her work has appeared in other local and national outlets.

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