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Leading the Way

By Dana Yost
Independent Editor

In Ricky Singh’s family, there are passports from three different countries.  He is from India. His wife, Brigitte Martino, is French-Canadian. And his children are all American.

“So, three passports in the same household,” Singh said with a laugh Saturday afternoon.

The passports explain a lot about Singh’s background, but they also help illustrate the reason he and several others met Saturday at West Side Elementary.  They are members of the first-ever Emerging Leadership Investment Program, an effort led by the city of Marshall to encourage more of the community’s minorities to take on civic leadership roles and deepen minority groups’ sense of community.

Marshall has a broad minority population, with people from many backgrounds — Hispanic, Hmong, Somali, from India, and African-Americans.  Yet, despite the diversity, those at Saturday’s meeting said they share things in common: They all like Marshall, and they all want to give more to it.

“I wanted to get more involved,” said Singh, who immigrated from India and earned a doctorate in food science at Cornell University. He worked for eight years in St. Louis. He has been director of product development at Schwan’s research and development center since January 2003.

“My family absolutely loves Marshall. We moved from St. Louis, where we had a great life, and came to Schwan’s and wanted to see what kind of things there were here; for a family and kids, this is a great town.”

Singh’s wife is involved in the public school system, and a daughter is on the Southwest Figure Skating Club; she just won a title this weekend at a skating show in Kansas City.

“I also feel like I need to do more than just work at Schwan’s,” Singh said. “We have a dynamic team (at the Schwan’s R&D Center), very motivated. I felt it was time to be more involved in the community and to give more. I’m at a good stage in my life for that.”

The ELIP program is run through the city, and there is also involvement from the St. Paul-based Neighborhood House. The local efforts are directed by minority advocate Gustavo Estrada and Toby Spanier of the Extension service.   Saturday’s session was the third in the program. Three more are scheduled.

In the first sessions, participants have worked on building trust and learning about each other — their cultures, their interests, and where they want to Marshall to go in the future.

“The group feels very good about continuing to work and make Marshall a wonderful place to live,” Spanier said. “At the same time, having Marshall be a place where people can share openly about their cultures. We’re here to learn. The fact that we come from a great variety of backgrounds, there’s great learning in that. We all carry our cultures with us.”

Spanier kind of expected that. But he was surprised by something else — something that arose from exploring personal backgrounds.

“You can’t tell what somebody’s education is just by looking at them,” Spanier said. “With this group, I was surprised. I knew they cared about Marshall, but you have people here with PhD’s, master’s. They’re very serious about academics.”

Spanier uses an iceberg example to fuel discussion about the members’ backgrounds: What we know about someone is often only what we see on the surface, but if we really want to understand them, he says, we have to look under the water.

“The best thing for me about this course is that it’s keeping me from assuming things,” Spanier said. “We wanted our group not to have assumptions. If you ask questions about religion, their experiences, their goals — if you aren’t afraid of going below the surface of the iceberg to find out more - those are the questions that help us understand people. Once we get to know the stuff under the surface, then we have begun a friendship. That’s why I say, ‘you know, I like hanging out with Gustavo, because I learn a lot.’”

Alicia Alonso is another member who likes living in Marshall. She came here despite having no relatives in Marshall. She happened to visit on vacation once and decided to stay.

“I liked this small town, because I used to live in big cities,” she said. “I wanted to stay here. I told my mother that: I’m staying here.”
 

lonso, who spoke no English when she first moved here, enrolled at Minnesota West in Pipestone and learned English and cosmetology. She went to work for the former Schott Corp.,. and also worked as a teller and doing interpretive work at Wells Fargo. She now works for Hi Rel Systems in Marshall as inspector.

Her community involvement has often taken the form of doing interpretive work. In fact, even though her full-time job now is at Hi Rel, she still does plenty of advocacy, she said.

Last year, the community lost the Marshall Area Cultures Diversity Office, which closed because of funding issues after several years of providing services to minority populations.

Now, Alonso says she gets many calls at home — including at 2 a.m. — to provide emergency translation services or help immigrants with paperwork.

To another participant, Estella Martinez, that proves the value of the ELIP program.

“We need to be able to help people like us,” Martinez said. “There are still a lot of people out there that need help. There should be somebody to be there for them, and be able to help them.”

ELIP is essentially a three-tiered effort, Spanier and Estrada say.   One tier aims to turn the current group into more involved community leaders, although many of them already are deeply involved. Spanier and Estrada plan to introduce the current class to several city and civic boards, organizations and systems that rely on volunteer leadership. Things like city commissions, Chamber of Commerce, Western Community Action or public health.

“I would like to see what those organizations are about and if they (offer) what I’d like to be involved in,” said Elizabeth Beck, who got her education degree from Southwest State and a master’s from St. Mary’s.

Another tier of the program is to encourage the current class to go into the minority community and develop new groups of minority leaders.

“The hope is if they themselves aren’t going to be more engaged — because they’re all very busy already — they will encourage others,” Spanier said. “They are insiders in their cultures; the hope is that they will be able to encourage and support and coach others. Our hope is that in the fall, when we offer the course again, they can refer others to it, and that way the ripples can spread out.”

And a third tier is having members of the program, and residents of the community, learn to understand more about the different cultures present in Marshall.

It’s more complex than just recognizing that someone is from Somalia or Panama, Spanier said. It’s not just about seeing the culture in a person, it’s more about seeing the person for himself.

“We have to place more emphasis on the fact that everybody’s a human individual,” Spanier added. “Rather than placing so much emphasis on whether they’re Latino, or Hmong or Somali or white. We have to get to know the person.”


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