Home » Front » St. Cloud leaders embrace the area’s growing diversity

Acknowledging the city’s ‘devastating’ history may help it leave ugly past behind

 

By Charles Hallman

Staff Writer

 

St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis admits that although his city has changed in recent years, the past can’t be ignored. During a scheduled speaking appearance at a local breakfast last month on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, the three-term mayor apologized for the city’s racial discrimination history.

In an MSR interview last week at his City Hall office, Mayor Kleis told us, “The night before I was at the NAACP Freedom dinner, somebody at the event mentioned [to me] the editorial” written by St. Cloud State University Professor Christopher Lehman and published that day in the city’s daily newspaper. Lehman called for an official apology by the City “for permitting slavery and segregation.”

“I went home that night and read the paper,” continued Kleis. “Professor Lehman is an historian, and I’d read a number of his works on St. Cloud history.

“It was my first opportunity to speak publicly after reading the editorial. If I would have read it Sunday morning, I probably would have [apologized] at the dinner that night.  I always speak extemporaneously… I also said

St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis Photo by Charles Hallman

St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis
Photo by Charles Hallman

[during the speech] that the aspects of our history were devastating to people and to the community. We have to recognize the good and the bad.”

According to latest census data, over seven percent of St. Cloud’s population is Black, almost four percent is Asian, and a little over one percent is Latino. St. Cloud’s overall population has increased 11 percent from 2000 to 2012.

“Systemic change often can be difficult and slow,” said the mayor, “but we’ve been focused on it and persistent in moving forward in that direction” since 2005. “When I took office eight years ago, less than two percent of all of the boards and commissions were made up of people of color. Now that’s 17 percent,” boasted Kleis, saying at least one person of color is now serving on the City’s several boards and commissions.

“That’s where the power structure is in the city,” he added. “Every board and commission is reflective of the city and [all] are very diverse. We have been pro-active in making sure that we bring all those voices to the table. I don’t speak for anyone or any group or any individual, so I want people to speak for themselves.”

Whenever asked on where she lives, Anab Dahir says some are surprised when she says St. Cloud, where she has lived for the past five years. “I am the only Black member” on the city’s seven-person housing and

Chief William Anderson

Chief William Anderson

redevelopment authority, adds Anab Dahir, who Kleis appointed last year.

She told the MSR last week that she heard all about the “problems” in St. Cloud before moving there. “St. Cloud is not the St. Cloud of years ago. It is changing,” she pointed out.

Dahir said she and another Somali plan to run for two of the four city council seats in this fall’s municipal election. She would like to see more Blacks and other people of color become homeowners in the area. “We don’t see many people of color owning [homes], owning property or owning a business.”

Kleis said that he has heard from many Somalis that life in St. Cloud is improving. Dahir concurs: “I like it here.”

“There is no trust and there’s no connection” if you don’t know your neighbors, the mayor said. “We have to make a conscious effort to get to know our neighbors,” and he wants to see more “conversations that are not government-led but more community-led.”

St. Cloud has had its share of problems, says longtime resident Icephine Johnson, who has lived  in the city for nearly 30 years. She told the MSR last week, “St. Cloud is not different than any other city in the United States.”

Police Chief William Anderson became the city’s first Black police chief when Kleis hired him in 2012. “[Anderson] and I share a philosophy about the department — he’s very community-focused. He has become a great asset to the city,” said the mayor.

“My working relationship with the mayor is stellar,” said Anderson last week in an email response to the MSR. “He and I understand where this city is going and how public safety strategies for the future need to be in alignment with the anticipated challenges that arise from the growth and changing demographics.

“We are proud of the internship program and the support we have received from the St. Cloud State University Criminal Justice Department,” continued the chief. “We are strategizing now on how best to attract more students of color to this profession…to target under-represented demographics with the hope of adding more ethnic diversity to the law enforcement profession.”

Kleis reported, “We’ve hired four officers in the last few months, [including] the first female officer of color. We have a young Somali community service officer that we hired and is on track to becoming a police officer in the future.

“We want [a progression from] internships to mentors to community service officers to police officers. That’s a goal, something the chief and I shared, and we are starting to see that,” the mayor said.

On the city’s “interconnected” relationship with SCSU, Kleis says, “We partner on a regular basis on neighborhood issues. We are very connected with the university.” He said the city is working with the school’s research department to create an “actual facts” sheet for new residents “to dispel some of the myths” about the city.

“There is still an element that oftentimes [sends] an email or we get a letter that’s hateful, and with the Internet, they come from all over the country. That’s the challenging piece…” noted Kleis.

“Change is difficult for people,” said Johnson.

“Of course, there is discrimination everywhere,” Dahir pointed out. “But I think we need to move forward. That’s what I believe.”

St. Cloud is working on “a comprehensive plan” for the first time since 2003, Kleis announced. “We’re planning the vision for the city.

“A lot of things have happened in St. Cloud over the years, but over the last decade, there has been a tremendous change that has happened in the area, particularly in becoming a welcoming community,” surmised Mayor Kleis. “I think the greatest challenge right now is trying to have a better understanding in dispelling the myths” about different cultures and religions.

Dahir predicts the next decade can be a boom for St. Cloud. “There are a lot of African immigrants coming here… St. Cloud is a city of opportunity. It is the ‘new’ St. Cloud.”

 

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to [email protected].

 

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