Newcomers say it's 'nice,' but not warm

Women gathering
League of Extraordinary Women founder Cathy Schaefer of Minneapolis, left, chats with Rayane Alamuddin of Minneapolis during a gathering in Minneapolis, Minn. March 6, 2012. Schaefer said she started the group, which now gathers once a month, as a way to meet people in Minnesota after she moved here more than two years ago.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

When Cathy Schaefer moved to Minneapolis more than two years ago, she didn't feel welcomed.

"People would say, 'Oh, we should get together some time,'" said Schaefer, a native New Yorker. "And I'd be like, 'Yes! That would be great because I have no friends!'"

Then she would never hear from them.

Shaefer's experience is a common one. Minnesotans may take pride in their reputation for friendliness, but many others consider "Minnesota Nice" a backhanded compliment and a social critique. The locals are loyal and neighborly, yet they tend to keep outsiders at a comfortable distance.

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Many young transplants — whether from South Dakota or South America — say making friends and finding a sense of community is daunting.

Although the problem is hard to measure, business leaders and others who track economic growth are concerned. They say Minnesotans are not doing enough to welcome newcomers into their fold, and that can have consequences for the state's economic future.


To meet interesting and outspoken women, Schaefer, who manages a lab at the University of Minnesota, started the "League of Extraordinary Women." The monthly gatherings of self-described "cool ladies" are open to all, especially women who are new to town.

Dozens of professional females in their 20s and 30s squeeze their way into Schaefer's one-bedroom Uptown apartment. A tight-knit tribe of girlfriends formed not through lifelong connections, but out of necessity, they drink wine, decorate cupcakes, and share tales about love, work and life.

Funny photo
Mariah Macham of Minneapolis jokes about a photo at a League of Extraordinary Women gathering in Minneapolis, Minn. March 6, 2012. The photo depicted some of the group's members who dressed up for a faux fashion session at a local photo studio.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Schaefer bonded with one of her first friends, Laura Hovi, through a kickball league. Hovi, it turns out, was in a similar boat.

"When I first moved here, they said, 'Minnesotans are so nice — they'll give you directions to anywhere except their own house,'" Hovi recalled.

But Hovi is not from some faraway coast. She's from Fargo, N.D., just a few hours away. That gave her some precious insight into the social landscape in Minnesota.

Hovi said her hometown has a similar keep-to-ourselves culture. Friendships from junior high seem to last forever, leaving little room for outsiders.

"The difference is when I moved here, I was on the outside," she said. "I really got to see both sides of the coin."

It's not that Minnesotans are intentionally cliquish. Schaefer said it's just that they seem comfortable with their lives.

"They've never been alone before," she said. "It's not necessarily their fault, but they don't know what it's like to be in a new place and completely alone, and not have anybody to even go to lunch with, because you just got off the plane and it's just you, and your cat, and your suitcase."


Are Minnesotans really that insular? By some measures, yes. Census figures show Minnesota has a higher share of homegrown residents than many other states. About seven of every 10 people in Minnesota were born in-state. The national average is closer to about six in 10. But some states, among them Michigan, Louisiana and Ohio, have higher percentages of homegrown residents.

"Minnesotans are friendly. They just don't want any more friends."

And the percentage of Minnesota homegrown residents is shrinking, said Tom Gillaspy, the recently retired state demographer.

"They still exist, and it's still most of the people, but it was overwhelming 30 years ago," he said. "Now it's a smaller proportion than it was."

To study the area's climate for newcomers, Gillaspy also monitors the movement of residents across state lines. Minnesota loses slightly more people to out-of-state migration than it receives.

Using individual tax returns, the Internal Revenue Service can track when a person moves to a different state. People who follow mobility trends rely on the data to study how many people move into an area, and how many people move out, in a given year.

The most recent numbers show the state's most-populated counties of Hennepin and Ramsey, home to Minneapolis and St. Paul, are seeing net losses in population as people move away to other states.

Other mid-size metro areas that the Twin Cites compete with to attract young professionals, such as Portland, Seattle and Denver, are experiencing just the opposite. Their counties experienced net gains last year.

But the migration data don't assess how warm or inviting the state is. Still, business leaders and others say there's some truth to the perception that Minnesotans can be standoffish to newcomers.


Dozens of people who responded to an MPR News query about their experiences since relocating to Minnesota expressed frustration with trying to penetrate the rigid local social circles. Some said the only friendships they could form were with other transplants.

Making friends in any market after college or the first time away from home can be challenging, and provinciality is hardly unique to Minnesota. Even in hipster-friendly Seattle, transplants gripe about a similar social malaise known as the Seattle Chill.

The difference, of course, is that Minnesotans hold themselves to a higher standard in just about everything, including their sense of neighborliness.

Civic boosters in the Twin Cities have done their own studies that yielded similar complaints from out-of-towners. Feelings of isolation were even more common among professionals of color, according to the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce.

"It was a rude awakening for me, when we had a focus group several years ago and brought in several people who were new to the market who told stories I was horrified at, frankly," chamber president Todd Klingel said.

A lifelong Minnesotan of German heritage, Klingel said most locals probably don't know they have a welcoming problem.

"I think there are many people who are where I was a few years ago, thinking what a great place we are, and we're all so friendly," Klingel said. "And we are friendly. But we need to take that next step of really welcoming."

Among the observations of newcomers Klingel has heard:

"Minnesotans are friendly. They just don't want any more friends."

"I've been here four years, and I've yet to be in someone's home."

Such perceptions were sobering to Klingel. "Those of us, if we think about that, 'In the last year, who have I invited into my house that I didn't know five years ago?' I think we go, 'Ooh, that's a small number,'" he said. " 'Who cares?' Well, the people who aren't getting invited care."


It's not just a matter of being nice, Klingel said. It's about fiscal vitality. With so many baby boomers retiring, the state needs to look outward to fill the gaps in the aging work force.

"Where are those employees going to come from?" he asked. "They are not homegrown. There aren't enough in Minneapolis-St. Paul or in the state to provide the needs of these growing companies."

Retaining professionals of color in the Twin Cities has been especially tricky.

General Mills recruits
Aaron Seabron, left, and Alexander Lewis, photographed at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Holiday Breakfast on Monday, Jan., 16, 2012, both recently accepted jobs at General Mills. The company is trying to recruit more people of color.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Executives complain of a revolving door for minority employees who come to enhance their resumes but soon leave.

A 2003 report commissioned by Meet Minneapolis, the convention and visitors association, concluded most transplants of color were leaving the Twin Cities within two years.

One employer trying to keep them here is General Mills. Every year, the company hosts a community breakfast at the Minneapolis Convention Center on Martin Luther King Day. Two thousand people arrive in their suits and wool winter coats to honor King's legacy. It's probably the most diverse crowd you will ever see in the Twin Cities all in one room.

General Mills' so-called Black Champions Network makes a point of inviting recent out-of-state hires to the breakfast, in part to showcase the African-American community in the Twin Cities. The idea is to show that even though the weather is cold, the people are warm.

Aaron Seabron, who's finishing his MBA at Cornell University, is one of the recent hires. He'll start work this summer. Seabron spent the summer in Minneapolis for an internship at General Mills, and his experience in the Twin Cities exceeded his expectations.

"Minneapolis and the Twin Cities are a lot like other major cities; it's just not branded that way," he said. "But once I got here, every amenity that I ever had in New York City was here. I had cabs, I had nightlife, I had restaurants, I had sports games. It's not New York City, but every experience I was able to have socially and personally in New York, I was able to have here as well."

Most job candidates see why taking a job at General Mills is a good career move, said Ken Charles, the company's vice president for diversity and inclusion.

"That gets you the 9 to 5," he said. "The harder part is the 5 to 9. Now that you go home, what's your life look like?"

Charles was lured to Minnesota 12 years ago from his wife's hometown of Atlanta. For an African-American like himself, he said, Atlanta is like a black mecca.

"Candidly, Atlanta, Minneapolis? I took the interview out of courtesy," he said. "But when I got here, I saw the opportunity."

"We're good at accepting refugees. But I don't know how good we are at making those refugees really feel Minnesotan."

Charles said General Mills has doubled its racial and ethnic diversity over the past 15 years. The company doesn't disclose exact numbers, but Charles said turnover of those hires has decreased by half.

The company has learned to play matchmaker, connecting new hires with people who have shared experiences. If you're from Chicago, they'll find another Chicagoan who is thriving at the company. If you're looking for a church to attend, or a nonprofit to volunteer for, they'll help steer the way.

Much of that work is done through the company's specialized employee networks representing African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and other communities.

As a former recruiter, Charles said he learned that the company doesn't need to win everyone. He looked for job candidates who were honest with themselves about whether they would dive into a new environment. Ultimately, he said, it's up to the individual to find a social life.

"You could do things that are proactive, or you can sit at home, watch Netflix, and have Domino's pizza," he said. "We hope people will choose to take command of their lives and create the life they want."

But it's not hard to see how an outsider can harbor misconceptions about the real Lake Wobegon. The state's biggest cultural export is a radio show that playfully measures diversity in terms of Catholics and Lutherans. "A Prairie Home Companion" may be a work of fiction, but it has powerfully defined Minnesota culture to the outside world.

Many professionals of color who have relocated to the Twin Cities speak of an environment in which the locals accept them, but lack a genuine understanding of other cultures.

Ana Gomez, an immigration attorney who moved to Minnesota 12 years ago, said it's not malice but unfamiliarity that causes strangers to make the wrong assumptions about her. A U.S. citizen born in Louisiana, Gomez grew up in Venezuela and speaks English with an accent.

In and around her adopted home of Anoka, she has been mistaken for someone on welfare, or the nanny to her fair-skinned children.

"In this environment, they believe everyone from somewhere else is coming to take advantage," said Gomez. "The assumptions hurt."

Many of her good friends — all transplants — have left the state because of the chilly climate for newcomers, she said.


Gomez has tried to come to terms with a place that on one hand is so generous, yet so detached on the other. When she worked for a nonprofit that provided legal services for the poor, she witnessed Minnesota's collective good will toward the less fortunate.

"I know someone will write the check and support them," she said. "I know we're good at accepting refugees. But I don't know how good we are at making those refugees really feel Minnesotan."

Compared to the rest of the country, Minnesota is a largely homogenous state. Its most diverse county, Ramsey County, is still whiter than the national average.

But Minnesota is changing, and more rapidly than the rest of the country. The state's foreign-born population grew by 235 percent over the past two decades. That's the 12th-fastest growth rate in the nation.

There also is strong evidence that the state is generous and accepting to newcomers and people of different cultures and faiths. Consider the Vietnamese, Mexicans, Ethiopians, Liberians, Russians, Indians, Tibetans and others have come to Minnesota from every corner of the world. It's the first state to send a Muslim to Congress, a Hmong person to the state Legislature, and elect a Somali to public office. Minnesota also is a leader in refugee resettlement.

For a sign of Minnesota's openness, one need look no further than Abdi Mohamed, whose Lincoln Town Car cruises through downtown Minneapolis on a Friday night. Minnesota is a place where Mohamed, after fleeing civil war, found peace, a safe home for his family, and an honest day's work. As a professional limo driver, he chauffeurs everyone from athletes to exotic dancers.

Mohamed's business card identifies him as Abdi, "Mr. Nice Guy." He intentionally leaves off the "Mohamed." He said everyone knows Mohamed is a Muslim name, and he doesn't want to invite hostility from passengers who may be fearful or angry toward Islam.

Mohamed moved to Minnesota in 1998 after spending two months in San Diego. Somali friends told him of this faraway place where it was easy to find work on assembly lines or in other low-skilled jobs.

"They say, 'Come to Minneapolis, there's a lot of jobs. It's cold! But it's fun. It's a nice city,'" he recalled. "Later I find out it's fun and a nice city."

To Mohamed, Minnesota is an accepting place.

"You come to Minnesota, you don't know the language, you have never been in this weather, you don't know the culture, you don't know the people, and people welcome you," he said. "You apply for a job, and they may not understand half of what you're saying, but they give you a job. I think I can say that's nice."