City of St. Cloud, Minnesota is changing and changing for the betterment of its citizens. The city is leaving behind an image of racial intolerance and usher into era of diversity and economic progress. Somalis are the center of that positive change.
The 2010 census estimated 66,000 as the population of St. Cloud. This figure makes St. Cloud 8th most populated city in Minnesota. St. Cloud is projected to be top 5 populace cities in the state by the next census.
One reason for the rapid population growth is influx of Somalis. Community leaders estimate 8,000 to 10,000 with significant arrivals since 2010. This estimate puts Somalis around 10 percent of overall city population. Another way of looking at this is that 1 in 10 people in St. Cloud is a Somali.
This is significant change for a city with limited experience in population diversity. It's enormous change considering the city was characterized by some as ‘white cloud’ after spate of racial intolerances little over decade ago.
In 2002, St. Cloud State University, one of the largest attractions to the city settled a law suit to the tune of $1.1 million for discrimination against Jews and other minorities. The settlement included establishing Jewish study center and other diversity trainings. This piece for the Associated Press re-posted by the Post Bulletin establishes in-depth time track for this story.
In 2011, St. Cloud Area School District settled federal discrimination law suit alleging that it created hostile learning environment for Somali students based on race, skin color and national origin, all of which are prohibited by federal laws. Investigation by the district confirmed the allegations. The case concluded with a letter of resolution from the U.S. Department of Education to the St. Cloud Area School District.
In 2013, St. Cloud City Council refused to approve Plan Unit Development (PUD) to build new mosque on a lot located residentially zoned area. PUD’s are common practice in local municipalities. Developers use it frequently despite objections from residents. Motives are hard to prove but the fervor and the level of organization of the project opponents certainly influenced council member’s thinking on the matter.
In 2014, a mosque was vandalized four times in one month. The damage to the Islamic Center of St. Cloud was minor but the act invoked great amount of fear in the Somali community.
Despite all of these events, progress is visible in St. Cloud. The growing size of the Somali community is apparent in both politics and the economic life of the city.
Three Somali-American candidates appeared on the ballot in 2014 elections, two for city council seats and one for school board. All three lost their bid for office but each added value to community conversation. State house and senate candidates from both DFL and GOP parties engaged the Somali community in 2014 midterm elections, a clear recognition of voting clout.
Comparatively, economic changes due to the growing size of the Somali community are more visible. For example, small Somali businesses fill an entire strip mall between 3rd Street N and 35th Ave N. Most of these spaces were vacant. Prior businesses were wiped out by the 2008-2009 Great Recession. Somali small business resurrected the strip mall with restaurants, coffee shops, clothing stores and consumer electronics shops. Even small mosque has been perched between a clothing store and new restaurant under construction.
When I visited on Christmas Eve 2014, the parking lot was packed. Every parking spot had a car on it.
In the picture above, Banadir Restuarant serves traditional Somali dishes. Men played cards while others wait for food. Woman shopped at clothing store and group of men shoot pool in one of the coffee shops.
Another way Somalis are contributing to St. Cloud local economy is by working in manufacturing industries. One community leader told me thousands of Somalis work at Golden Plump turkey processing and Electrolux Home Products. Somali own small businesses re-enforce large businesses by ensuring workers stay in St. Cloud on permanent bases. Prior to the establishment of Somali small businesses that provide customized services, workers viewed Golden Plump and Electrolux Home Products as a transitional employment and moved back to the Twin Cities to live among larger Somali community. Golden Plump and Electrolux Product Services faced chronicle labor shortage.
St. Cloud is on a change trajectory. Drivers of that change are diverse population and the diverse economy that usually follows. Somalis are among the most prominent groups in that change. With these strengths, St. Cloud is well positioned for bright future.