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Community event will tackle diversity and inclusion discussion

The faces of Hastings are changing. Mayor Paul Hicks talked about a changing community in his State of the City address in February.

"It is time we begin a community dialog on how we can become a more welcoming and inclusive community," he said.

A kickoff event to start that conversation will be held Sunday, April 29 from 6-7:30 p.m. at Hastings High School. The event is a collaborative effort hosted by the Hastings Public School District and City of Hastings. Information will be provided about diversity within the community, a community discussion will take place and upcoming opportunities for citizens to participate will be announced. There will also be a free ice cream social.

"The goal of the initiative over the course of the last two years are to accurately understand the diversity in the Hastings community and to increase the community's capacity to serve the needs of each community member," said Mark Zuzek, Hastings Middle School principal.


About two years ago, a series of training programs for educators about unconscious bias was conducted in Hastings. Bill Spinelli was invited to one of the sessions and he wanted to continue to be involved. A series of brainstorming sessions evolved into community conversations with questions about diversity, equity and discrimination.

In November 2016, a group of community leaders and citizens began to engage in dialog to understand the state of diversity, equity and inclusion in Hastings. The discussions presented growing and changing statistics and a broadening understanding of diversity. Conversations with a variety of residents led to an understanding of personal experiences, concerns, needs and aspirations for the Hastings community.

The group hopes to expand the conversation community-wide as an opportunity to embrace cultural differences and commonalities throughout the city.

"The vision here isn't that we have a problem in Hastings," Spinelli said. "The vision is we know the community is changing."

One perspective

Lisa Leifeld, City Council member, has been involved with the initiative since the first meeting before she was elected to the council. She grew up in the Hastings community and has had a mostly positive experience throughout the years even when she came out as lesbian about 15 years ago.

"I was met with the most amazing love and support from people," she said.

That's why, when she attended the first community conversation about diversity she was surprised to hear from the speaker that some people may have had negative experiences, felt excluded or simply not good enough.

Leifeld wanted to take an active role in the initiative. She said Hastings is already a vibrant healthy community of amazing people but there's room to step up, learn more and show more love.

"There's always work to be done," she said.

Leifeld said she has benefitted from having a diverse groups of friends allowing her to become more compassionate and understanding of what other people's lives are like. When diversity is not prevalent in schools, she said she thinks the community could be missing out on something.

Changing community

"Historically, Hastings has been a community with relatively little racial and ethnic diversity," Zuzek said.

However, Zuzek said he has seen the non-white population within the schools steadily increasing from year to year. He said the non-white population in the district was about 8.5 percent in 2013 and in 2017, it had increased to about 11.6 percent.

"It is clear to me that ... the complexion of Hastings students is changing over time," he said.

Vy Pham is a senior at Hastings High School from Vietnam. She plans to attend Normandale College next year in order to become a dental hygienist.

Pham has lived in town for a little over a year and English is her second language. At first, it was difficult for her to communicate because her English wasn't great. She felt lonely and was shy to talk. She was eventually befriended by her best friend and her English got better.

"I love to talk," she said.

She enjoys meeting new people and has experienced a lot of friendliness from the people in Hastings already. In conversations with Pham about diversity, she has some ideas on what people can do to welcome diversity.

From her perspective, immigrants may seem quiet or shy but that is because they don't speak English well. If people initiate a conversation and befriend them, they may learn to communicate better and thrive in the community. To Pham, diversity is important.

"People can learn from each other about a new culture and it's really fun," Pham said.

Michelle Wirth

Michelle Wirth graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 2013 with a degree in journalism and web design. She worked as a web content editor for a trade association before coming to the Hastings Star Gazette in 2016.

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