One year ago, St. Cloud’s community was faced with a conflict of animosity and hate. After a small group of native St. Cloud citizens tried to organize an “anti-Somali” rally, a counter group emerged in the community, creating what community members know now as the Social Responsibility Student Organization (SRSO).
SRSO formed from a diverse group of community members, students from SCSU, St. Cloud Tech, as well as St. Johns and St. Benedicts University.
Students, staff and community members from the entire central Minnesota region joined together to counter protest against the anti-Somali group who, at the time, was supposed to protest at Lake George.
SRSO’s turnout for the march a year ago was substantial. A large group of community members from all backgrounds and religions came together to speak out against the intolerant group and to express to all that the voices preaching the animosity were part of an extreme minority in the central Minnesota region and that the vast majority of citizens speak out against these types of atrocities.
That was one year ago Saturday, and has St. Cloud seen progress?
Some would say progress has been made, but not enough. However it is clear that the road to healthy community integration, no matter where animosity stems from, will be a hard road to take.
“I think it’s important to bring people together and, you know, in an opportunity to make this a great place and get to know each other in a positive way. It’s not a reaction to anything, this is just a beautiful city and the only thing we are reacting to is a beautiful day,” said St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis, who spoke at the event at the Atwood Mall.
“One thing I love about being the mayor is that I get to meet so many people on a regular basis and that is an opportunity that I’m honored to have and I always tell people that the best way for you to make this a great community is to get to know your neighbors,” he said.
During the mayor’s speech, he offered anyone in the community dinner at his house, with the exception that he or she must be someone he does not know.
“I like to put my money where my mouth is, so I want to get to know my neighbors more and when I talk about my neighbors as beyond just the few blocks that I live on, the people that live in this community so what better way to do that then to break bread with someone,” he said.
Though members of the community, like Mayor Kleis, believe that integration is becoming more apparent in the community, others feel as though the road to equality is still a long one.
“Progress is often measured by how a community responds to certain things and how they continue to respond to certain issues,” said Jaylani Hussein, the executive director of CAIR in Minn., an organization that helps to empower Muslim youth by advocating against discrimination.
“I think, though we had a good response last year, we are still facing a lot of the similar issues,” Hussein said. “Earlier this year we had students who protested against harassment and bullying at St. Cloud Tech. We have continuing issues with housing discrimination and employment discrimination, specifically targeting Muslim communities.”
“There is more organizing against the Muslim community by creating a climate of fear and false information as a way to try to build a bigger support for their message,” Hussein said.
Hussein commented that, though Mayor Kleis is doing something, he is not doing enough and would like to see him do more for Muslim residents in the St. Cloud community.
The event, aside from the differences in policy, was a positive, diverse turnout with equality being the center point. Many attendees were inspired to keep marching down the long road that Hussein talked about and to continue progressing towards tolerance and equality.
Roads like this are hard ones to follow and hard ones to stay on.
Ben Bourgoin, the current sitting president for SRSO, knows all too well the struggles to start a movement like SRSO.
“I’ve had a lot, a lot of mentors. I’ve had a lot of people who have built me up to be this strong so I have role models, and sometimes my strength comes from remembering how much they believe in me,” Bourgoin said. “But part of it is just common sense, I mean it’s common sense that we should treat people fairly. It’s not something radical. It’s not radical that we should give equal rights to humans that live in the same places that we do. It’s not radical that we should allow people to have fair jobs- to not get harassed in the streets. I mean we live in a broken world but damn if I’m not going to try and make it a better one.”