“If you want to know what Minnesota will look like in 20 years, go to Willmar,” Ken Warner, head of the city’s Chamber of Commerce, once told MSNBC.
Over the past 30 years, this largely white farm town has witnessed a darkening of hue with an influx of Somali and Latino immigrants, who now compose a quarter of its 20,000 people. The same thing is happening in cities great and small across Minnesota. But in Willmar, the newcomers haven’t been entirely welcomed.
Some residents refer to the city as “Little Mogadishu,” and not in a good way. Councilman Ron Christianson has been dogged for liking Facebook posts that call immigrants filth-ridden criminals with low IQs. There’s even a budding “Willmar First” movement, the kind of push that rumbles up when older whites feel under siege.
Gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson didn’t hesitate to leverage the unrest during a debate last month, part of a concerted Republican attempt to portray the arrivals as a pricey burden.
“I’ve heard from people and they say, ‘We don’t know how many refugees we have here, and we don’t know what the cost is, whether it’s the cost to our school system, whether it’s a cost to our county, whether it’s cost out city.’”
It was a none-too-subtle play on the welfare queen myth that follows immigrants in outstate Minnesota.
“He said the Somali community is not thriving in Willmar, and they are not achieving the American dream,” says JaNae Bates of Isaiah, a multi-faith religious group that works for racial and economic equity.
Johnson neglected to offer proof of how the Africans have fared worse than our Scandinavian ancestors, who were known to pack 10 kids into one-room farmhouses, working land that yielded little more than rocks and tree stumps. After all, Willmar’s Main Street provides ample evidence to the contrary.
There are now dozens of Somali-owned businesses filling once empty storefronts in the city. The newcomers have also stemmed the out-migration of young whites from the countryside, and built the Community Integration Center, providing free lessons in culture and English.
Still, Bates worries about anti-immigrant rhetoric that begins with President Trump, then spills across the country into the western plains of Minnesota. It’s a divide-and-conquer strategy as old as humanity.
“People are really starting to thrive and enjoying community with one another,” says Bates. “But there are these few powerful people who have this self-interest in that not happening.”
So Isaiah created a video for this election season that forgoes the sinister soundtracks and everyone-else-is-evil themes. Their message is that Minnesota is “greater than fear.” The ad simply shows good, earnest people, describing how they’ve chosen to get along. And it’s quite beautiful.
Bates understands how easy it is to hate your neighbor when the drumbeat of fear surrounds us.
“When you have these few people who point the finger at their Muslim neighbor, it raises those anxieties that you don’t trust your neighbor. We’re trying to make sure that infection cannot spread.”