Success is hard to measure in this business. Things are better. Compared to the last 30 years that I’ve known Central Minnesota, we have made more progress in the last 5-10 years than in the past. It’s still a tough thing, though, and the more you learn, the more you learn you don’t know.
Steve Pederson is a lifelong central Minnesotan who lives and works on his farm, 20 miles southwest of Alexandria, across the street from where he has lived all but one of his 43 years.
With his wife and two children, Pederson raises cattle and grows soybeans and corn. In town, however, Pederson raises the community consciousness through his devotion to social justice and his efforts to make central Minnesota a more welcoming and racially equitable place.
When he is not on the farm, Pederson facilitates and organizes trainings and workshops with various regional advocacy groups, primarily the Diversity Resource Action Alliance in Alexandria. He also works with the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Community Action Diversity Council to address issues of recruitment and retention of students of color, first-generation students and low-income students. Pederson is also a founding member of Alexandria’s Cultural Inclusiveness Committee, advising the Alexandria City Council on matters of diversity and inclusion.
Pederson, who is white, is clearly a busy man with a mission. He increased his commitment to anti-racism work about seven years ago after he and his wife adopted the first of their two children, who are both African American.
Pederson says his four-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter are his inspiration. Parenting them motivates him to do everything in his power to make sure they grow up in a town that accepts and nurtures them.
A few key life experiences molded Pederson’s racial sensitivity and have made him uniquely qualified to educate and transform his community. Pederson says he first witnessed racism while in elementary school. In his overwhelmingly white rural school, Pederson witnessed the mistreatment of a small group of students of color. Pederson knew these children and was alarmed to see them bullied and treated as the “other,” or “less than” because of the color of their skin.
“It’s not uncommon for kids to struggle to find their identity,” says Pederson. “But when racism is involved, it can be devastating. Not everyone realizes that the day-in and day-out, never ending onslaught of being treated as “less than,” for any reason, can be as harmful as all-out physical assault.”
For Pederson, the injustice he witnessed and the harmful toll it took on his classmates were devastating and cruel lessons about how high the stakes can be if diversity and inclusiveness are not a shared community value. Still, Pederson explains that he never truly understood the feelings his boyhood friends must have experienced until he lived briefly in a predominantly black neighborhood in Atlanta, Georgia.
“I learned a little bit about the perspective of being the “other” and how isolating that is,” says Pederson. “If you’ve never experienced that, it’s something that’s hard to explain. Most people I’ve grown up with have never experienced that.”
Pederson says while many people in his community are open, too many others are fearful of change and the unknown. “For some people, their stereotypical way of thinking has never been challenged before. They’ve never been made aware that what they think is not based on facts. My challenge is to get them to want to open their eyes, to start the awareness process and to realize what they’re thinking is not based in reality.”