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Paynesville Press - August 8, 2001

Human Rights Commission organizes festival
for awareness

By Michael Jacobson

Without ethnic workers, Randy Pflipsen would be even further behind his manufacturing schedule at Master Mark Plastics.

Since January, the Paynesville plant has manufactured a new decking product, called Rhino Deck, with all new production lines. A fourth line got up and running last week, but the plant is still 60 semi-loads behind the orders for the new decking made from recycled plastic. (They have shipped around 200 semi-loads so far this year..)

Master Mark has four shifts that keep the plant running 24 hours per day, seven days per week. Of the 80 employees, 20 percent – 16 people – are ethnic minorities. "We wouldn't be able to run all our lines right now if it wouldn't be for the ethnic diversity," said Pflipsen, the manager of the Paynesville plant for five years.

This diversity is a change that has happened in the last five years. "When I first started here, we had next to nothing for minorities," said Pflipsen.

Preparing the community for more ethnic diversity is a founding goal of the city's Human Rights Commission, which was started in 1995 when Joe Voss was the mayor. The commission began by addressing discrimination, both age and disability, but has started to address race with the upcoming Festival of Ethnic Traditions. (See box.)

"If we just had a lecture, no one would come," said Voss. "Bring people for free food. Bring them for free entertainment, and maybe we'll get our message across."

"We don't want to be preachers at all. We want to do this in a manner that people can enjoy," he added.

While ethnicity in this community remains overwhelmingly white (over 98 percent in both the city of Paynesville and in Paynesville Township according to the 2000 census), the numbers of ethnic members in the community are significant: nearly 50 people of African, Native American, or Asian descent in the city and township combined and over 40 Hispanic residents.

Voss and Pflipsen expect more to arrive. Twelve percent of the population of Melrose, for example, are of Hispanic descent, according to the latest census.

Horror stories about ill-managed ethnic diversification in other Minnesota communities prompted the formation of the Human Rights Commission, said Voss, who has served on the commission since its inception and currently is the chairman. "We were told, ‘Prepare yourself. Be proactive,' " he explained.

The Human Rights Commission is not recruiting ethnic diversity to the community but is trying to make the community more aware of the diversity and to foster a working relationship with the minority communities. "I know you can get a lot more done being friendly than you can being antagonistic," said Voss.

"That's tough to do," admitted Voss, whose father emigrated from Germany and still faced prejudice in the German-American community of Pierz in the 1930s and 1940s. "They're are a lot of people – whether they know it or not – who have prejudices and fears," said Voss.

The festival is intended to raise awareness of the ethnicity already residing in the community and to remind the white majority that while they may only view themselves as Americans, at one point, their ancestors were immigrants, too. Ethnic groups these days, Voss pointed out, have the same desires as those of years ago: jobs, housing, freedom, family, good schools, etc.

"They're looking for a better lifestyle," said Pflipsen of the ethnicity on his staff. "Essentially that's what all of us are looking for."

And as manufacturers continue to search for workers, more ethnicity may come to town. "They're taking jobs that no one else will take," explained Voss. "That's why Stearns Manufacturing left," he added. "They couldn't find people."

Pflipsen, who is adding more lines to make more plastic decking as fast as the lines can be built, will need more workers to run the lines. The company expects to sell even more decking next year and may need to add another building to their Paynesville plant.

Pflipsen wants to learn some Spanish so that he can better communicate with a growing portion of his work force. He also thinks some of his workers would benefit from learning English and wonders if interactive classes could work: with Spanish-speakers teaching basic Spanish to English-speakers and vice versa.

The Paynesville Human Rights Commission has nine members: Pastor Rick Koehn (representing the ministerial association), Kent Kortlever (representing the police department), superintendent Howard Caldwell (representing the school district), Jean Soine (representing the city council), Sheri Liebl (at large), Joe and Sue Voss (at large), and Jamie Teicher and Maria Janotta (student representatives).

Each year, the Human Rights Commission sponsors a poster contest for second graders at the elementary school, an essay contest for eighth graders at the middle school, and the Ruth Aulick Award, a humanitarian award that recognizes community service.

Festival of Ethnic Traditions
Paynesville's first-ever Festival of Ethnic Traditions will be held on Saturday, Aug. 18, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the grounds of the Paynesville Area Museum. Admission to the festival is free, and food vendors will be offering free samples of ethnic food. (Larger portions will also be for sale.)

The museum will be open and will offer discounted admission ($1). The event is being held on the same day as the Chamber of Commerce's Craft and Market Day. Festival goers can take free busing – provided by the Paynesville Area Transit – from downtown to the grounds. Parking will also be available at Paynesville Farmers Union Cenex on Highway 23.

Festival Schedule
10 a.m. - Introductions, national anthem, and ethnic history
10:30 a.m. - Native American drum and dance troupe
11:15 a.m. - Bagpipe player providing Scottish music
11:45 a.m. - Irish music and dancing
1 p.m. - Accordion player providing Bavarian music
1:30 p.m. - Scandinavian music and dance troupe
2:20 p.m. - Mexican music and dance troupe

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