Updated: March 2, 4:44 p.m. | Posted: March 1, 3:07 p.m.
A few weeks ago, along a stretch of highway going to St. Cloud, drivers had to pass a billboard that asked, "Catholic Charities Resettles Islamists: Evil or Insanity?" Locals complained to the Franklin Outdoor Advertising company, and the billboard was removed.
Days later, in St. Cloud, a Somali American teenager spotted a license plate with a slur against Muslims. He shared it on social media. The Department of Public Safety later apologized and revoked the plates.
Even before those two incidents, a headline on the cover of the alternative weekly City Pages had suggested that St. Cloud is the worst place in Minnesota to be Somali.
"It's not a perfect community, by any means," said Rosemond Sarpong Owens, an eight-year resident of St. Cloud and immigrant from Ghana. She works as a community engagement specialist for CentraCare Health.
"But we are taking steps," she said. "Leaders of this community have come together to build a more cohesive community.
"It's very bad that the community that I live in, that I love and I support, that I work in, that the media is always portraying that there is something wrong. Let me tell you, we've done a lot of things across racial class, income, in a lot of amazing ways. And people don't realize that."
Owens was among more than 400 people who attended a community forum last Friday, organized by the nonprofit Central Minnesota Community Foundation and other community groups. Steve Joul, president of the foundation, has been working for 30 years to grow trust among diverse communities.
Speaker after speaker talked about the progress they've made within their circles to improve not only race relations, but also the health and economics of the region.
Professor Ann Finan, a sociologist at St. Cloud State University, discussed the results of a survey that attempted to examine the "social capital" of connections among people in the St. Cloud area.
"We see that in communities that have higher levels of social capital, that lower income people, that people of color, that women, that younger people, and the elderly are more likely to have a voice in the decision-making that their community engages in," she said. "They're more likely to find good jobs, to be taken seriously, to be nurtured as leaders."
St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis said the bonds built in the community are too often overshadowed by external perceptions or negative media coverage.
"There are a lot of positive things happening in the community," he said. "I can give you hundreds of examples of success stories where people that have arrived in the city for a short period of time are creating jobs, being entrepreneurs, being successful in school."
Kleis said he continues to challenge St. Cloud residents to get to know their neighbors better.
"No community can survive by people being isolated from each other and not having those discussions. The [social capital] survey shows that we have those connections, we're moving in the right direction."
Haji Yusuf agreed. He's with a grassroots group called UniteCloud, and led a campaign to get the anti-Muslim license plate revoked.
"People are paying so much attention to the negative stuff, instead of saying from this negative issue maybe we can start having conversations," Yusuf said.
And maybe, he said, those uncomfortable conversations might lead to better outcomes.