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 #140. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Mar. 1, 2019; in print Mar. 3

Over the years in this column I’ve celebrated resources that enhance life in the greater St. Cloud area. Here’s a selection: Quarry Park; Munsinger and Clemens Gardens; Paramount Center for the Arts; Family YMCA; GREAT Theatre; Pathways4Youth; St. Cloud Hospital; Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Minnesota; Partner for Student Success; Catholic Charities; Community Pillars; United Way of Central Minnesota.

Woven through each of these is a story of people working together — in some cases over a long period of time.

And stories of this sort have been getting national attention.

Two well-known New York Times columnists, the politically conservative David Brooks and the politically independent (and Minnesota native) Tom Friedman, have been dismayed and disheartened, as I have been, by the dysfunction and nastiness in our national life.

Friedman sees “three accelerations — in globalization, technology, and climate change — that we are going through that are stressing everyone and demanding very different political choices” from the options that are currently on the horizon.

Brooks tells of what he has found in his travels all over the country: “Different kinds of pain share a common thread: our lack of healthy connection to each other, our inability to see the full dignity of each other, and the resulting culture of fear, distrust, tribalism, shaming and strife.”

What gives Brooks and Friedman hope?

For Brooks, it’s what he calls “weavers.” Social isolation, he believes, is the problem that underlies a lot of our other problems. And how is this problem being solved? “By people around the country, at the local level, who are building community and weaving the social fabric” — who “want to live in right relation with others and to serve the community good.”

For Friedman, it’s what he calls “creative adaptation,” something “happening in many of America’s counties, cities and towns.” The key is trust across sectors of the community, where “complex adaptive coalitions” are forged, “involving business, labor, philanthropists, social entrepreneurs, and educators.”

The greater St. Cloud area is characterized by the “sweet spot” it occupies, in unforgettable words of Rev. James Alberts II: “Small enough to make it work, big enough to make a difference.”

All this is prelude to what I want to say about stories that appeared in the St. Cloud Times in recent months:"Liberty Bank donates downtown building for children's museum" (Sept. 10); “Liberty Bank's generosity creates development opportunity beyond just downtown” (Our View, Sept. 14); “Bank out, imagination in: Children's museum plans underway in downtown St. Cloud” (Nov. 25).

Three things about the Great River Children’s Museum resonate with Brooks’s weaving the social fabric and Friedman’s complex adaptive coalitions.

First, weaving and adapting require time and persistence. There have to be weavers and adapters who are not easily discouraged, in it for the long haul.

It was in 2012, seven years ago, that plans commenced. A nonprofit was formed, spearheaded by Glen Palm, retired child and family studies department chair at SCSU, whose whole career has prepared him for this initiative. He and colleagues visited many children’s museums (there are approximately 350 in the world, including mid-sized Minnesota cities that are already ahead of us — Duluth, Rochester, Mankato, Hutchinson, and Grand Rapids) to learn about design and best practices.

Second, weaving and adapting require thinking outside the boxes we have stuffed ourselves into.

Liberty Bank knows that development and revitalization are not strictly limited to economics, a point underscored in the Times’s Sept. 14 “Our View.” The bank, for years a visionary leader in forward thinking about what makes St. Cloud truly GREATER>, saw its old building not as a private asset on its balance sheet but as a community asset of an ideal size in an ideal location for access.

Third, weaving and adapting involve not only including everyone, but also training everyone to be a weaver and an adapter — what Brooks calls “living in right relation with others.”

The Great River Children’s Museum says it directly: “the children of Central Minnesota will have a place to learn through play and make meaningful connections with each other and the adults in their lives.”

Like the YMCA, where every day you can see the diversity of this area on full and glorious display, the Children’s Museum will be a place of true commUNITY, a “safe haven” and a “town square.” I suggest to the museum that it take a programming cue from the St. Cloud Public Library’s display of flags of the 80+ nations from which we come.

My wife and I, with our grandkids, have visited children’s museums in Portland, Oregon, Columbia, South Carolina, Chicago and St. Paul — and they, too, were multicultural magnets. We’ve had as much fun as the kids. We’re eager to take them to the one here. I urge every grandparent reading this to support the Great River Children’s Museum!