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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