As Black Lives Matter protests continue coast to coast and the nation grapples with racial unrest in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a local movement is underway to address racism and racial equity in Becker County.

Still in the very early stages of development, the movement is being driven by a grassroots group of about 20 community leaders from around the county who are working together under the guidance of regional BIPOC advisory partners (Black, Indigenous and People of Color).

The group began to form shortly after the first protests after Floyd's May 25 death. Within the next week, its members will be voting on whether to become a local chapter of SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice), a diverse national network that provides resources to help people -- specifically, white people -- get organized and mobilize in support of racial justice.

“We are doing something,” said Karen Pifher, a key person behind the movement. “We’re moving together.”

Pifher is the West Community Health Manager for Essentia Health-St. Mary’s and a coordinator for Becker County Energize (an Essentia-supported initiative to improve county residents’ health and quality of life).

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Becker County Energize has been at the forefront of the local racial justice movement, and Pifher is serving as the movement’s public voice, at least in this early stage.

It makes sense for Becker County Energize to get behind issues of race, Pifher said, as data clearly shows that “racism is a root cause of health inequities.”

And it makes sense to make a concerted effort now, she added, “because there has to be some momentum to change things,” and that momentum is here today.

The killing of Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, by a Minneapolis police officer turned the country’s attention to racial injustice. The incident was captured on video and sparked a nationwide outcry, leading to hundreds of protests against police violence toward Black people and a call for an end to racism in all its forms.

“With all the actions coming out of the death of George Floyd, people seem kind of primed,” Pifher said. “It’s a good time to have the conversation, to talk about, ‘Why does it matter locally?’”

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Conversations like that have already been taking place among leaders of the local movement, who are working to become more informed about the issues. They’re also learning how to talk to the community about divisive topics -- like systemic racism or "All Lives Matter" -- in a productive way.

“Change happens at the seat of trust,” said Pifher. “Right now, there’s a whole lot of divisiveness, so (we’re looking at), ‘How do we start building trust, so that we can learn and grow together?’ That’s the key: Building relationships with people of color and people who are different from us. It’s long, hard change. It’s not happening overnight, and we’re going to make mistakes along the way.”

Almost all the members of the local group are white, which fits in with SURJ's strategy to undermine white supremacy by encouraging racial justice education and advocacy among Caucasians. The group's BIPOC advisers work mostly behind the scenes as “accountability partners,” Pifher said, guiding the movement’s messaging and goals.

“As Caucasian people, it’s important that we help share their message, and that we’re organizing to help elevate their voices and concerns,” she said of the BIPOC community. “We want to make sure that whatever we’re doing is respectful and meaningful.”

SURJ chapters in other parts of Minnesota have hosted educational events on topics such as "Understanding Racism 101,” or have created local Human Rights Commissions or toolkits for their local businesses. The work done by these groups is locally driven, so it varies from community to community.

Here in Becker County, Pifher said, the movement is still taking shape, and “might look different than in other localities, because of the Indigenous population here. We want to address what’s important here.”

Currently, the group is seeking out funding and reaching out to additional people, businesses and organizations that may want to get involved. They’ve just started getting information and resources out into the public eye: Becker County Energize’s website now has a section devoted to health equity and race, and things are being added to it all the time.

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.