Program helps reduce conflict as St. Cloud struggles with race issues

Eddah Mutua-Kombo
Professor Eddah Mutua-Kombo, who leads the program in partnership with the St. Cloud and Sauk Rapids-Rice school districts, said it gives students a comfortable space to get to know one another.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

A program at St. Cloud State University is teaching high school and college students how to better communicate with people from different backgrounds.

It's a long-term project taking place during a difficult time in St. Cloud, as the area faces challenges that stem from rapid demographic shifts.

The St. Cloud school district has come under fire for its handling of allegations of racial and religious bullying at two high schools. The high school students in this program say it's transformed how they deal with their peers when conflicts arise at school.

Fardowsa Iman, a Somali student at St. Cloud Technical High School, says she's learning how to deal with conflict through "Communicating Common Ground" program.

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Iman is one of nearly 30 high school students from the St. Cloud and Sauk Rapids-Rice school districts participating in this program at St. Cloud State University. Iman said she is learning that people with differences, from cultural to religious, share more common goals and concerns than most people think. She's learning how to ask thoughtful questions and reflect on these differences.

"You get more answers and you feel better talking it out than just fighting, because if you fight you really don't resolve anything," she said. "And talking it out usually makes you feel better and you're much happier, and (have) less consequences, too."

Recently, Iman argued with one of her friends. While her friend decided to hit another student in their circle of friends, Iman decided to walk away from the situation. Her friend was expelled from school.

Tech high school
A student at Tech high school in St. Cloud, Minn., created a Facebook.com group called "I hate the Somalians at Tech High", a tangible sign of the racial tensions growing in St. Cloud area schools.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

Iman says before this program, she probably would have fought back. Iman and Tech High assistant principal Stacie Vos shared this positive example during the program's last session of the year.

Vos says many of her seniors in the program have participated since they were freshmen.

"And as seniors this year, I'm really seeing some nice leadership skills in them," Vos said. "For instance, we've had some conflict that occurs in classrooms or in the hallways that our students have now stood up to intervene and mediate and I'm very proud of the fact that they're doing that."

Vos attributes these leadership skills to communication strategies her students are adopting during the project's sessions. She says these skills will be necessary at all levels into the future.

"We realize that we have work to do, because we are always going to have new kids coming to us that need to be educated about each other and the better I become at finding different strategies to make that happen, the more peaceful our schools are," she said.

St. Cloud State students enrolled in an intercultural communication course moderate these sessions. Professor Eddah Mutua-Kombo, who leads the program in partnership with the St. Cloud and Sauk Rapids-Rice school districts, said it gives students a comfortable space to get to know one another.

Mutua-Kombo has trained about 30 of her students each spring semester for the past four years to help high school students respond to daily challenges they encounter based on their differences. She teaches students what happens when communities, such as St. Cloud, struggle with change.

"For a very long time, St. Cloud was a racially and culturally homogeneous community," Mutua-Kombo said. "And then in the last 10-15 years, people from different cultures, with different religions, with different lifestyles come into this community that had been homogeneous for quite a while, so that in itself is going to create problems."

Mutua-Kombo says these problems aren't unique to St. Cloud -- they happen all over the world. She has done extensive research on peace and conflict in Africa, including Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda, which helps her understand how to manage conflict.

"I truly believe (through) the experiences that I've had outside of the United States and here, I am able to develop a sophisticated way of looking at conflict and being very careful in the way I analyze conflict, being very patient, and looking at multiple factors that explain that state of discomfort, that state of misunderstanding," she said.

"And not using or limiting myself to one given variable, because I recognize that there are too many of them that will cause that friction, tension, discomfort, and anger."

She teaches her students the communication styles of different cultures -- western and nonwestern -- to avoid misunderstandings.

For example, in some cultures, people are assertive, which may come off as rude, while others may become emotional when trying to communicate why they're upset.

Mutua-Kombo said that may stem from living in a country with a bitter or oppressive history. Students are learning that conflicts can arise even within groups of people.

The program started out as part of a national initiative that began in 2000 with more than 30 partnerships.

The project was co-sponsored by the National Communication Association, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Campus Compact, and American Association for Higher Education.

California State University in Northridge was among one of the first participating colleges that partnered with Ulysses S. Grant Senior High School, where tensions between Armenian-American and Latino students were long-standing.

The project's goal is to help young people respect and understand diversity, in hopes that THAT will trickle into neighborhoods across the nation and reduce prejudice and discrimination.

Now local projects, such as the one in St. Cloud, are continuing on their own. Mutua-Kombo said this isn't a quick fix to current tensions in the St. Cloud area, but rather a long-term project.

"And that is why 'Communicating Common Ground' plays that role of preparing the future community members to be more receptive, to be more understanding, to have the vocabulary, to have the language, to have the consciousness for the future people that might come," Mutua-Kombo said.

Technical High School Assistant Principal Stacie Vos says she and her students are starting their own mini-version of the project at their high school campus. They're getting together every other Friday during lunch to lead discussions on campus and reach out to students who aren't part of the St. Cloud State program. Fardowsa Iman says she's excited about that prospect.

"In our school, [some students] have a hard time dealing with the Somali community and they have a lot of misconceptions and sometimes they don't know how to come up and ask [questions]," she said. "So I'm hoping that we just kind of educate the kids in our school and in our grade."

Since 2006, about 175 college and high students have gone through this program. While tensions remain in St. Cloud, organizers say they believe this generation of students can help change the climate in the community down the road.