Student Voices: Reflections on “Estar in el Prairie”

The prairie is dynamic and fluid: after four years in Morris, we are now about to graduate and leave Morris, for the time being. The we being myself, Jordan Wente from Dodge Center, studying economics, Spanish, and statistics and Natalie Hoidal from Forest Lake, studying biology and environmental studies. Complementing our diverse interests, we have a strong common affinity for the changing rural demographic landscape — a common passion for people, the prairie, and progress.

UMM seniors Natalie Hoidal and Jordan Wente

Regarding people and prairie, western Minnesota is quickly changing. From 2000 to 2010, the Latino population in Stevens County increased by 274%. As the demographics of rural Minnesota change, the futures of small towns will depend on how we welcome and adapt to newcomers. Immigrant communities often face language and cultural barriers. Instead of a blaring, visible racism what you see is more of a “silence of misunderstanding.”

Natalie and I were interested in finding ways to break these silences and better bridge folks from differing backgrounds. We quickly became involved with latino members of our community by joining two projects launched via the Office of Community Engagement: the ESL program and the Jane Addams School for Democracy Project.


The Jane Addams project is modeled after Jane Addams and the Hull House she founded in Chicago in 1889. Several years ago, Augsburg College launched a community-outreach program with the same name. The project aims to reach beyond ESL and structured organizations to create a safe space for communication. Given the prevalence of Spanish speakers, the Morris-based group is facilitated in English and Spanish, but other languages are shared when opportunities arise.


We observed keen interest in these programs on many different parts. However, there were still many barriers to folks speaking and hearing each others’ stories. When we talk about immigration in the rural development sector, we have large statistics and interactive maps — but what is missing are stories. We wanted to find some way to put faces, families, stories to statistics. After all, this is a very real human phenomenon that merits greater understanding beyond percentage points. 

And so after a summer dinner with my grandparents, the idea struck us: a community photography project that highlighted positive aspects of place and perspective. We would pair photographers and participants, and create a project that could be seen and interpreted by anyone. Late that night, we conceived “Estar in el Prairie.” 

In short: this project aims to address the nuances and challenges of rural immigration through storytelling.

 

When we created the project, a little over a year ago, we had two original, concrete goals:

  1. Document this migration and demographic change.
  2. Bridge cultural barriers by providing common grounds for communication.
    • Given the cultural and linguistic barriers that many new immigrants face, connection between established communities and new groups is often difficult. We hope that this project can begin to create relationships between photographers and participants that extend into the greater community
    • We will share this project with other Midwestern communities. This immigration of new cultures and people is not exclusive to the Morris community. The greater Midwest is also rapidly changing. We will begin by exhibiting this project in various communities around west-central Minnesota in art galleries, coffee shops, libraries, and other public spaces.

As we began to pair photographers with newly arrived Latino members of our community, we quickly added on another goal:

  1. Celebrate and expand upon achievements.
  • Morris has been an exemplary community in its response to immigration. The community’s establishment of the English as a Second Language program, the Jane Addams Project, LAZOS, women’s groups, and church services in Spanish should be celebrated. Some of the photographs in Estar in el Prairie document these commendable efforts.
A photo included in the book Natalie and Jordan created

Synthesizing the efforts of many, we utilize art to expand and expose these projects and their missions in greater Minnesota. Morris is not the only community to experience a changing economy and a rapid influx of new cultures. We believe that this art project and its simple photographs transcend town limits. Recognition of, and respect for, cultural diversity is pertinent to not only urban areas; as rural communities become proportionately more diversified, there will be greater need for intercultural communication and understanding. Estar in el Prairie ties these elements of community integration together; a photo is universal.

 

The project has received great success: we have had 3 public exhibitions of the project, one in Morris, Granite Falls, and one at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul.

The cover of “Estar in El Prairie” – the book Jordan and Natalie
published together.

Moving beyond lofty goals, it has been several months since our last show. The project was covered by Pioneer Public TV’s series, Postcards. We honestly could not have been happier with the project. Yet, the question still remains: where does this project go now? How do we measure the efficacy of the project?


By attendance alone, the shows were a major success. But, how do we get folks to see these portraits who might not otherwise see it? Many of these questions remain very difficult but important to ask.

In the end, we hope that other community members take similar initiative. There are many great ways in which we can use community-drive art projects such as this to stimulate conversation and understanding. Our data and facts show us that immigration will be critical to sustaining our rural economies, schools, businesses, and indeed communities. We think that art has very viable role in this process.

We are currently branching out to area businesses, partnerships, and organizations and looking for new exhibits and locations to hang the posters. As we contemplate future job options and graduate school, we hope some day to return to west central Minnesota. We’re excited to know that the people — the life of these areas — is changing like the billowing wind that sweeps the prairie.

Written by Jordan Wente, UMM class of 2015

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