Dennis Waskul, a sociology professor at Ridgewater College and the chairman of the Willmar Human Rights Commission, gave an introduction to the need for human rights in an increasingly diverse rural Minnesota.
Waskul emigrated from the Ukraine when he was 11 and remembers his grandfather struggling with names like Anderson and Olson and wondering, "Why do they have to have such difficult names?"
Waskul cited an increasing diversification in Minnesota, and not just in the metro area. He said 10,000 Liberians are now living in Minneapolis and St. Paul has more Hmong than African-Americans. Willmar now has between 300 and 500 Somalis.
Waskul compared Paynesville with Pelican Rapids, a slightly smaller town in north central Minnesota. A plant there, according to Waskul, has recruited employees from 26 countries.
The reason for this immigration to our country is the opportunities here, Waskul told the chamber members. A man he knows in Willmar used to make 50 cents an hour in Guatemala but now makes $9 an hour at a turkey processing plant.
Diversity and uniqueness should be valued, according to Waskul. People want different houses, cars, hairstyles, clothes, and hobbies. He noted that a business community comprised solely of restaurants likely wouldn't be very successful. Just like diversity is needed in business, diversity in races and cultures is beneficial to a community.
Joe Voss, the chairman of the Paynesville Human Rights Commission, which organized Waskul's appearance at the chamber meeting, said the goal is to "recognize differences and still know that people are the same."
Waskul also spoke about providing adequate opportunities for youth, saying they need guidance, role models, community involvement, and positive social outlets.
The local human rights commission was formed five years ago. The commission also has dealt with issues concerning people with disabilities and senior citizens.
Paynesville is the smallest community in the state with a commission, according to Voss, who got the idea of forming one while serving as the city's mayor and being exposed to diversity issues in other communities.
"When this diversity comes, and it will," explained Voss, "let's be ready and not have to deal with an explosive situation."
"We're trying to make a place for everyone in our community," he added.
The local commission consists of nine members. Father Richard Leisen represents the churches, Police Chief Tony Schmitt represents the police, Jean Soine represents the city council, and superintendent Howard Caldwell represents the school. Sherri Liebl and Joe and Sue Voss are community members, and Allison Thompson and Jaime Teicher represent the youth.
After the first of the year, the commission will be holding its annual coloring contest.
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