The local grassroots group that came together in support of the Black Lives Matter movement is continuing to press forward with its mission to dismantle racism in Becker County.

Over the past few weeks, the group has voted to become one of Minnesota’s newest SURJ chapters (Showing Up for Racial Justice), and is now mobilizing to take on racism and racial equity at the local level.

Karen Pifher, who’s been a spearheading figure of the group, said its members are moving into the "doing" phase, after several weeks of planning, self-educating and getting the group organized.

One of the things Pifher's learned during that process, through conversations with residents of color, is that there are two local families considering moving out of the community this fall, she said, “because they do not feel welcome or accepted” here.

She said one woman she talked to, a mother of children of color, “said that, growing up here, she thought it was the best place ever to raise kids. But now, with biracial children, she realizes it’s a great place to raise kids if they’re white, but having children that are biracial ... it’s very different.”

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“Part of what we (the new SURJ group) are going to be tackling is, ‘How do we change that?’ Because it’s important to recognize diversity, and we want to keep talented people,” Pifher said. “So how do we make this a priority?”

Pifher is the West Community Health manager for Essentia Health-St. Mary’s and the coordinator of Becker County Energize, an initiative to improve county residents’ health and quality of life that has been at the forefront of the local racial justice movement. Pifher is serving as the new SURJ chapter’s public voice, at least until the group gets more established.

And they're almost there.

Formed shortly after the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis -- an event that sparked outrage and protests across the country -- the local group has grown from a small handful of Detroit Lakes area residents into a 32-member SURJ chapter involving community leaders from across Becker County.

SURJ is a diverse national network that combats white supremacy by encouraging racial justice education and advocacy among Caucasians. New chapters are popping up all over in the wake of Floyd’s death, a SURJ media rep said. SURJ provides resources to help white people get organized and mobilize, with chapter members working under the guidance of local and regional BIPOC partners (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) who provide advice and support behind the scenes.

A formal name for the new Becker County SURJ chapter “will be established very soon,” said Pifher, but hasn’t been determined quite yet.

Up until now, the group’s members have been focused on getting themselves educated and their chapter organized. With the help of their BIPOC partners, they’ve identified two key priorities to address in the community right away, and they’ve developed subgroups to start taking action on those.

The priorities are: strengthening traditional Indigenous cultural practices and ceremony; and improving organizational/business/government policy and practices around diversity, equity and inclusion.

That first priority listed is about “recognizing we have a very strong Native population, and finding out how we can better serve those youth and that community, better celebrate those traditions, and get kids more actively learning and experiencing that,” explained Pifher.

The latter priority, she said, “is primarily about the need for culture change from government organizations, service clubs and other entities, to be able to improve inclusion, equity and diversity practice.”

Tackling these priorities will require multifaceted approaches. The group’s efforts will likely consist of a mix of educational components, policy reviews and change requests, community meetings and events, and more. The goal is for long-term, sustainable change.

“In the meantime,” Pifher said of the group’s shorter-term goals, “we’ve had some ‘quick wins,’ where we were able to help and share opportunities, raising funds to support local families of color in different ways.”

The group recently raised money to help two local children of color in need after their mother died, for example, and group members are helping to raise funds for the family of the man who drowned in Little Detroit Lake on Aug. 8. In July, the group handed out educational flyers at an outdoor movie screening of ‘Remember the Titans.'" They've also developed a new section on Becker County Energize’s website devoted to health equity and race, and they’ve raised funds for yard signs in support of people of color in the community.

“I think so far it’s going well,” Pifher said of the group’s progress. “We’re on the right track. This wouldn’t happen without all the great partners and organizations committed to inclusivity and diversity, and we look forward to building more relationships. I’m looking forward to what we can accomplish together.”

Join the movement

For more information or to get involved, visit Becker County Energize’s website at beckercountyenergize.com/health-equity-and-race/ or contact Karen Pifher at 218-255-3919 or karen.pifher@essentiahealth.org.