Bemidji Faces the Future: Focus on poverty
Many different voices took part in a public conversation about poverty in Bemidji.
"Bemidji Faces the Future" drew about 90 people to the American Indian Resource Center at Bemidji State University Tuesday night. The event was sponsored by Minnesota Public Radio News, Lakeland Public Television and the Bemidji Pioneer, which collaborated to focus on poverty in Bemidji.
"It's a hard story to tell," said Kate Smith, senior editor at MPR News, who led the conversation. "It's a hard story to hear."
Beltrami County is the fourth-poorest county in the state, Smith said. "One in five people live in poverty. Nearly a fourth of the kids live in families at our below the poverty line."
When considering the area Indian reservations, the numbers grow larger, she added, pointing out that with a state government poised to shut down, "that's a lot to consider."
Tuesday's event was meant to look at reality and think about what could be different.
Dennis Doeden, Pioneer publisher, and Dennis Wiemann, news director at Lakeland News, agreed that while the media do not typically collaborate on coverage, the conversation was important to have. Lakeland News ran its longest story ever (nearly seven minutes) focusing on poverty in Bemidji, and the Pioneer published a trio of stories focusing on agencies that help fight povery.
The first member of the audience to join the conversation Tuesday evening was Amanda Vojak, a 30-year resident of Bemidji and mother of three. One of her children has down syndrome, which caused Vojak to give up her full-time job, resulting in a 75 percent cut in her household income.
"I had no plan," she said. "I honestly didn't know what I was getting myself into at that point. ... Basically, I had to figure out how to do everything differently."
Vojak, who works with life coach Gary Dietrich of Northway Group, said her ultimate goal is to finish school, find a good job and "help people any way I can."
Smith, her voice breaking with emotion, told the audience that Vojak told her that until she had Dietrich as a life coach, no one had ever told her she did a good job.
"I don't know anyone who will leave this room without being touched," Smith said.
Jon Pugleasa of Bemidji, division director for economic assistance with Beltrami County Human Services, said myriad challenges face the battle against poverty in Beltrami County.
"We need to get better at recognizing that each person is an individual," he said. "How we interact with them need to be more relational."
"Until we realize we're all in this together, I think we're all going to struggle," said Jim Clark, executive director of Northwest Indian OIC, noting that if agencies can work together, they can play on their strengths and overcome their weaknesses.
Marvin Hanson, with New Beginnings, brought people to the conversation from Red Lake in a bus that will be used to help people without transportation look for and get to work in Bemidji.
"We have always seen our money go off the reservations, but we never get any jobs," Hanson said. "Without Indian people spending millions of dollars in Bemidji, people would not be as successful. ... Our money's good enough for you - our people should be good enough for you as well."
Smith noted that Red Lake has a 65 percent unemployment rate and a growing population.
Rebecca Spears has a two-year degree in industrial model making, but she also has a felony record. She did not serve time in prison, so she does not qualify for resources for those who have been incarcerated.
She estimates that she has applied for upwards of 2,000 jobs.
"People like my skills ... but that felony works against me," she said, noting that she learned too late in her education that her prospects would have been better had she gone into the electrical program.
Spears also works with a life coach, Ellen Boyd, from Northway Group. Boyd said part of her job is helping to change perception. Sometimes people believe they don't belong in school, for example, or don't know how to be a good employee.
Several people talked about different Bemidjis that separate people along economic, racial and class lines. The conversation also focused on homelessness, a new school programs with an extremely individualized approach and vulnerable people (elderly, disabled and children).
At the end of the event, a quick brainstorming exercise was held in which people stood up and briefly explained what they would do to combat poverty if they could choose.
Some of the answers were to increase funding to prevention programs, tax the wealthy in order to provide needed services, pass a livable minimum wage, ensure that people know their rights as citizens, and get more business owners into the discussion.
For those who did not attend Tuesday's event, the conversation will continue online: http://bit.ly/statewidebemidji.