Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #172. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Nov. 6, 2021; in print Nov. 7

“Just the facts, ma’am!” These words instantly take those of us of a certain age back to “Dragnet” and its protagonist, Sgt. Joe Friday. These days “the facts” are themselves too often contested. But facts still matter, and we have a new source of them: the Greater St. Cloud Equity Dashboard, released last week.

The dashboard is an initiative of the Morgan Family Foundation, produced by Minnesota Compass, a project of Wilder Research. (Disclosure: my wife is one of the advisers.) Its aim: better recognition and understanding of inequities and disparities, and support for community efforts to advance social equity.

Seventy-two pages (available at, so it’s comprehensive – income and poverty; workforce and employment; education; housing; health; law enforcement and the judicial system; civic engagement; access to transportation and high-speed broadband. These are all interconnected. A Sunday column can highlight only a little.

The new reality is stated at the outset. Greater St. Cloud’s population has grown by 7 percent since 2010, while its population of color has nearly doubled. Today about one in four residents identify as a person of color, Hispanic, or Latino.

In every dimension of the dashboard the gaps are stark. The discrepancies are experienced not exclusively, but in the extreme, between whites and people of color.

And the disparities are rooted in social and political and economic structures, in historical patterns, in public decisions that cumulatively litter the landscape with barriers that hamper flourishing for all of us. As I noted in last month’s column, Heather McGhee, in “The Sum of Us,” demonstrates how diversity morphs into zero-sum “othering,” and people of all ethnicities are harmed, excluded, denied opportunities. The new dashboard can extricate us from the zero-sum trap.

Here are some specifics.

  • Two-thirds of white low-income residents and three-quarters of low-income residents of color are housing cost-burdened – that is, they have to pay more than a third of their income for housing.
  • While high school graduation rates are lower for students of color, a higher share of those same students than white students report connection to a caring adult in the community – an asset that is being enhanced by many youth-serving organizations.
  • With the Affordable Care Act, health insurance disparities have diminished, but difficulties navigating the health system persist.
  • Local police departments have made significant strides in diversifying personnel, but perceptions of differential treatment of people of color persist.

The disparities, in other words, are a self-reinforcing spiral, a vortex that drains our community of assets that everyone has to offer.

Statistics are not just numbers. With help from the Central Minnesota Community Foundation, the Morgan Family Foundation supported Wilder Research to go beyond the numbers to seek voices of individual people.

Here are some instances of how the vortex is experienced.

  • “We never get the jobs we have education and experience for,” said a Somali resident. “We are being held back and not supported to be fully included in employment opportunities and then we are held back from making more money and pulling ourselves out of poverty wages.”
  • “The story in those numbers [of student achievement disparities] follows us [African Americans] as part of a generational legacy of intergenerational trauma – numbers that keep telling us ‘You’re not good enough.’ I’m trying to save my kid and save myself from that.”
  • “We’re people too. We’re not normal, but we would like to be able to have a chance out in society. But how can we make employers understand the ways that people with disabilities can contribute?”
  • “Rents are very high, right?” said a Latino resident. “Well, accept it and pay, because it is what it is, and it is what you need, a place to live. It’s difficult, right?”
  • “People [in the health care profession] just don't sometimes resonate with the cultural or specific experiences that BIPOC communities face,” noted an Asian resident.
  • “Our men of color feel anxious about the police in the neighborhoods,” said a Somali resident, “and they are not doing anything harmful.”

Statistics are facts. So are the stories people tell about what it’s like to live (comfortably or precariously) here, work (or not work) here, feel at home (or feel excluded) here.

Much to learn. Even more to do. The dashboard (which is also a mirror) includes this from the SCSU 2020-21 Social Capital Survey: 63 percent of residents said yes to “People can be trusted.” But: disaggregated, that’s 68 percent of white residents; 32 percent of African American, Black or Somali residents; and 44 percent of Latino residents.

“Just the facts.” If we face them we can change them. Six tightly packed pages of the dashboard are devoted to “Coming together: Greater St. Cloud community solutions for addressing disparities.” We can become a community where people trust one another. Solutions are not top-down or bottom-up. They’re all-in-it-together.