AUSTIN, Minn. — Varinh Van Vugt moved to Austin as a child when her family was among the first Southeast Asian refugees to resettle in the city after the Vietnam War.
Over the years, the Laos native has seen waves of newcomers from Latin America in the 1990s, then others from Africa in the early 2000s and from Southeast Asia more recently.
This southern Minnesota community has seen dramatic growth in diversity in recent decades, especially when compared with similar-sized cities in the state.
Today, if you randomly picked two people from Austin, there’s a 54% chance they would be of a different race and Hispanic origin, according to the city’s diversity index score from the 2020 census. This is more than triple what the score was in 2000.
Austin, a city of just over 26,000 in southern Minnesota, is named for Austin R. Nichols, a fur trapper and the area’s first European settler. Hormel Foods Corp., which is known for Spam and other meat products, is the city’s largest employer, giving it the nickname “Spam Town USA.”
Some Austin residents say diversity increased because of job opportunities at places like Hormel, low crime rates and a welcoming environment.
Van Vugt said she stayed in Austin because the community tries to support diversity. But it still has flaws, she said. Local leadership is heavily white, and the schools continue to grapple with mostly white teachers.
“There’s that potential for growth and there’s a desire for growth,” Van Vugt said. “And there’s a lot of support here for that change.”
But adapting to the growing diversity has not been easy.
In December, there were protests and racial tensions in the city after an Austin police officer shot and killed Kokou Christopher Fiafonou, a Black man.
At the high school, some students said there have been incidents of white students using racial slurs.
“There [are] still students that have mindsets where they think they can say certain things to minorities, and it’s not OK,” said Mayra Zarate, a high school senior of Mexican descent.
John Alberts, the district’s director of education services, said the administration is aware of these incidents when students report them, but declined to elaborate, citing student privacy.
Bonnie Reitz, Austin’s mayor from 1997 to 2007, said she dealt with people who did not want the city to support newcomers. Some people even came from other towns to speak out against increasing diversity, she said.
“There were some really tough times, and very likely, there are still people who would not be real excited about it,” Reitz said.
Austin’s population, which had been predicted to decline, grew nearly 6% between 2010 and 2020. The white population was the only racial group that decreased.
“The people coming, our immigrants and refugees, are a big part of the reason why Austin is doing well,” Reitz said.
Increasing representation in government
Oballa Oballa, the first and only person of color on the City Council, started as an honorary council member — a program created to try to diversify local government.
Originally from Gambela, Ethiopia, Oballa fled the country in 2003 and spent 10 years in a Kenyan refugee camp before resettling in the U.S. He became a citizen in December 2019 and ran for City Council a year later.
Oballa said the city needs more people of color in leadership positions so that it reflects the community.
“But me being the first refugee and first person of color on the City Council, it has really opened the eyes of so many people,” Oballa said.
City Council Member Jason Baskin said Austin has seen more diverse candidates run for local office in the past four years than ever before.
In 2018, the mayor appointed a task force to develop a strategic welcoming plan, with goals for the next five years to increase representation.
Nearly four years later, some programs are succeeding while others were paused because of the pandemic, Baskin said. For example, the city wanted to hire a multicultural liaison, but hasn’t yet done it because of the pandemic.
One success was the honorary council position, which allows residents to become temporary, nonvoting council members.
Martirez Barrios Vasquez, originally from Mexico and an Austin resident for 20 years, said she feels the city has improved accessibility.
“Now we can talk to them and ask if we can do certain things or certain activities in certain places,” Barrios Vasquez said. “They’ve been pretty helpful and accessible.”
Supporting students of color
Austin Public Schools passed a key milestone during the 2019-20 school year, marking the first time the student population was majority people of color.
One of the district’s challenges, though, is the lack of diverse teachers, Alberts said. There were fewer than 10 teachers of color out of more than 300 teachers in the district during the 2020-21 school year.
Zarate said she never felt connected to her teachers — something she thinks is important because it allows students to feel more comfortable asking for help. She also said she noticed that other kids who speak Spanish, or other students of color, don’t feel as close to their teachers as white students.
One way the district is trying to diversify its staff is by helping former students become teachers in the district, Alberts said. This involves partnering with surrounding colleges, so students can earn a teaching degree at Riverland Community College (RCC) in Austin and student teach there. This would hopefully create a pipeline of diverse teachers, Alberts said.
There is also a scholarship program, funded by the Hormel Foundation, to help Austin graduates get to college in the first place, providing two years’ free community college.
The district has also implemented resources like “success coaches” to support students of color, Alberts said.
Valentina Gallegos, one of the district’s 14 success coaches, said she helps involve parents in their students’ academics, connects students with resources and provides interpretation services.
High school juniors Natural Soe, who is Karen, and July Oo, who is Karenni, said they would like to see more celebration of culture in schools.
Soe and Oo said the school should create a day where students can share traditions or other aspects of their cultures. They said this would help students connect better with each other.
“There’s always a connection you can make with other people,” Soe said.
One of the most visible celebrations of the city’s diversity — the Taste of Nations, where residents share their cultural food with the community — will be held May 21.
Van Vugt, the program coordinator for Austin’s Welcome Center, which helps plan the event, said she expects many people will come this year because it was canceled in 2020 and hosted virtually in 2021.
The Welcome Center also helps immigrants and refugees transition to life in Austin. The center provides interpretation services and connects people with resources to address medical, social, legal, financial or educational needs, Van Vugt said.
“Having all these diversity initiatives … that really helps our immigrant communities,” Van Vugt said. “It’s saying … everyone is different and it’s OK.”
Maia Irvin is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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