Steve Pederson has a mission: to make Central Minnesota a more welcoming and inclusive place to raise his children. He is a long-time advocate for racial sensitivity and racial equity but these goals were heightened when he and his wife adopted their first child, an African American girl. Now the proud parents of two children, their mission is ever more important.

“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” (2012 Facing Race Ambassador Award).

“Seeing people being treated as the “other” or “less than” has always bothered me. Having a transracial adoptive family puts me in the role of “one of them” in many peoples eyes. Our circle of friends looks totally different than it did 10 years ago. Some people distance themselves out of a fear of saying something wrong or offensive and some people distance themselves because they do not approve of the family we have become. Racism and discrimination have shown up in some expected and some unexpected ways. It is frustrating but not really surprising to have someone make rude or racist comments or ask very inappropriate questions in a store. It was terrifying to be surrounded by a group of white supremacists in a restaurant. It was also terrifying to encounter a person with black separatist thoughts and ideas, who approached us screaming at us and literally/physically tried to take our kids from us. When we began the adoption process, we were committed to providing a safe healthy environment for our kids. These kinds of experiences has been motivating to take that commitment very seriously.” (personal communication)

“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.”

His efforts were recently recognized by the St. Paul Foundation through receiving the 2012 Facing Race Ambassador Award. The honor includes a $10,000 contribution to the organization of his choice. He chose the DRAA to increase the Diversity & Inclusion program offerings to the residents of West Central Minnesota.

The Diversity Resource Action Alliance (DRAA) is an all-volunteer community organization based in Alexandria, Minnesota. Inaugurated in 2003, its mission is to provide “a platform for building and strengthening community understanding of diversity and cultural differences.” The membership respects the myriad characteristics that make individuals unique and in turn works toward creating a secure, welcoming environment in which diversity and inclusion is an expected, ubiquitous and welcome component of the community ethos.

The ever-expanding program offerings provided by DRAA include monthly Cultural Awareness meetings, timely Community Conversations, facilitated Diversity and Inclusion Films/Discussions, hosted Special Events [i.e. Mixed Blood Theater, Black Storytellers Alliance, 10,000 Things Theater, et al.], New Conversations about Race and Racism presentations, Everyone Has a Story retrospectives; and Inclusion Network (IN) services [customized diversity and inclusion training seminars.]

Originally named the Imagine Alexandria Project, the Inclusion Network started by training business and community leaders. Steve explains: “After a few years of working on monthly and quarterly events (sometimes just helping and sometimes taking the lead), we (Steve and two others) were given the chance to hold a “business roundtable” on diversity in the fall of 2009. We got 30 of the top CEO’s, administrators, directors and plant managers to attend. We came out of that meeting with a ton of support and momentum to take our workshops and trainings to the next level, the business and community leaders. We decided we not only wanted to give the communities leaders, or their representative, and in-depth understanding of the issues of diversity and inclusion, but, give them a chance to go beyond the round of training and give them more intercultural leadership skills. It was also important to myself and the others that we added a sustainability piece to this project. Through the “train the trainer” phase, we now have people who are willing to do trainings and facilitate discussions about diversity and inclusion right here in the area. I believe the development of the Inclusion Network gives businesses and organizations in this region access to trainings and services that they wouldn’t necessarily have on their own.”

DRAA is an all volunteer organization, most decisions and work is done in teams. Steve’s role has been as a key person on in nearly every team for this project. “We decided the goals and objectives, the planning, the logistics, the scheduling, the follow-ups and the next steps.” Similarly, Steve serves in a similar role for the Inclusion Network training team that operates today. “We have worked with corporate managers, supervisors, marketing and law enforcement, college students, civic and church groups.” All told, sixty-six people representing twenty-nine businesses and three school districts attended those first sixteen hours of training back in 2009. From that experience, 18 people chose to attend a forty- hour training in Intercultural Leadership. Out of those participants, twelve attended an additional twenty hours of training for “Train the Trainer,” which they completed last year, nine of whom are still active today and willing to move forward.

Since inception, DRAA has relied on many volunteers and has gained the monetary and programmatic support of a great variety of individuals and organizations. The financial boost from Steve’s Facing Race Award will help the DRAA to continue to take action.

Things to Consider if you want to Take Action:

1. Educate yourself. Read books and articles on the issue. Watch a film. Order them for your public library.

2. Identify allies. What organizations currently exist in your area? Volunteer, join, and support them.

3. Identify a goal. Join forces to make it happen.

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