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The Rights Stuff Forum: Backlash

Change & Backlash in the Suburbs

Peg Kennedy, Cultural Services Manager, Roseville Area Schools

It would probably surprise some residents of Roseville that more that one-third of the students in its public schools are now categorized as "diverse" or non-white. "A lot of this change is hidden from the community," explains Peg Kennedy, cultural service manager for the Roseville Area Schools. The largest group of newcomers to this inner-ring suburb are Hispanics, many of whom are undocumented and keep a low profile, according to Kennedy. But Roseville is also home to Somalis, Hmong, and increasingly, to a new immigrant group of Karen refugees from Myanmar (formerly Burma).

As Roseville's traditional white, European population notices that its schools — and increasingly, its neighborhoods — are becoming more diverse, how is the community responding? Quite positively, says Kennedy. But there have been what she calls some "speedbumps" along the way, and the school district has experienced some backlash from parents who worry that educating refugee kids from Asia or Africa may mean fewer resources available for their children. That concern is unwarranted, says Kennedy, whose school district includes Roseville as well as the surrounding communities of Arden Hills, Falcon Heights, Lauderdale, Little Canada, Maplewood, and Shoreview. Kennedy talked about Roseville's increasing diversity and the community's reaction in an interview.

Comments from Peg Kennedy

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Question: Could you talk about the demographic changes that Roseville has seen in the past few years, and how those changes have affected the community?

Peg Kennedy: Our ethnic diversity had been going up one to two percent every year for the past 20 years. Five years ago it started going up faster, and in the past three years it has accelerated more. I've done a lot of presentations with churches and senior citizen groups and explained the diversity — who these new immigrants are, where they come from, why are they here. Our community has been very accepting — if they know who they are. It's the unknown that creates fear.

What has caused this trend to accelerate and made Roseville so much more diverse?

For our community, it is directly proportional to the refugee resettlement. Until about two or three years ago, refugees normally landed in St. Paul and Minneapolis. They would spend five years in Minneapolis or St. Paul getting on their feet, and as soon as they did — just like the Italians, the Irish and the Germans — they moved to the suburbs for safety, better education and lower-cost housing. Now they are getting off the plane and moving right into Roseville — this is something that has never happened to us before.

Where are these immigrants and refugees who are suddenly arriving in Roseville coming from?

The largest group of immigrants that have been coming in are the undocumented Latinos. They're very invisible in communities — they fear run-ins with the law — so even though that is our largest group, it really hasn't caused friction. It's one of those very hidden, don't ask, don't tell situations.

The latest group are the Karen refugees from Burma-Myanmar. There is a very oppressive military regime in control, and the Karen were the minority tribe that supported the democracy. The previous group were the East Africans — the Somali. The group before that were the Hmong, and until three years ago, Hmong were our largest group. These are second or third generation Hmong — the parents speak English, the kids speak English; they move out of St. Paul and buy homes in Roseville. So we have a very large Hmong home owner population — we have St. Paul's successes. We also had a one-time influx of Somalis. They were families who had been in Minneapolis for a long time, ten or 15 years, and they came into Roseville, and now their students are some of our top students.

That's what we were used to — Hmong and Somalis. You land in Minneapolis and St. Paul and when you get enough English and enough income, you move to Roseville. That had always been our story until the last two or three years.

So this is a very new phenomenon — having refugees settle in directly, straight off the plane, into a suburban community. It caused us angst because we did not have a lot of those community services like food shelves, clothing banks, transportation. The suburbs typically have not had those. So in the past two years we've been working with the churches and the city and community organizations to create some of these safety nets.

Why so many of these new refugees moving to Roseville, instead of the inner cities or somewhere else?

We have the largest refugee resettlement agencies in the country, in Minneapolis and St. Paul — Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services. But the thing is, there is no housing left in Minneapolis or St. Paul when you already have two huge groups of refugees (Hmong and Somali) settled in. The availability and cost of housing is a huge reason for this influx to a first-ring suburb.

Where are these newcomers living — is there enough available housing in Roseville?

We don't have public housing in Roseville, but what we have are some really dilapidated apartment complexes. We would call them substandard — market rate is the term. The Karen live in two apartment complexes. They pay full price rent, they get no subsidies. The Latinos live in manufactured housing — you and I call them trailer parks.

The city housing department has worked with the schools saying okay, we're all in this together — how can we make sure that residents are provided safe, livable homes. But I think that new, just-off-the-plane refugee has caught Roseville by surprise.

What affect has the arrival of these immigrants and refugees had on Roseville's schools?

Our Hispanic population has gone from just over 300 in the 2004-05 school year, to over 500. That was the fastest growing group until the fall of 2007. Then on the first day of school in 2007, 156 kids from Myanmar got off our school buses and walked into our Roseville school buildings. And we looked at them and said, who are you? The refugee agencies had signed them up for St. Paul schools, but they lived on the north (Roseville) side of Larpenteur, so St. Paul was staffed for 156 Karen kids who didn't arrive. Now this year, we're up over 200 students from Karen, but we now know who they are, and we're ready for them.

What is your role as cultural services manager for Roseville schools?

These kids have nothing. These new immigrant refugees come and they land, and they don't have a bed, they don't have appropriate clothing, they don't have a backpack, and they're coming into school. So I went to the pastors in Roseville and I said, help. We can teach them English, but there is no way we can handle all these family basic needs. And 26 of the 33 churches stepped up and mentored at least one family — some churches have gone on to mentor several more. The refugees do qualify for MFIP (the Minnesota Family Investment Program, a welfare program that replaced AFDC). It is minimal life support, but it is more than the undocumented get.

How does the school population break down demographically in Roseville area schools?

The Caucasians are 64 percent. Of those 36 percent categorized as ethnic diversity, 16 percent are Asian, and 11.5 percent are black — about half of those are African immigrants, and the other half are African American. Hispanics are about 8 percent, and we have a 1 percent American Indian population.

How has the Roseville community reacted to this influx of families and students from so many other places?

When we were starting to experience this huge transition, we were thinking, oh my God, is this the white exodus? Are white families leaving the community, or sending their kids to private schools? We researched the last five years, and we did not find any evidence of a white exodus. It's just that white families are having fewer kids. And the number of students who live in Roseville, but go to private schools, that hasn't changed — other than this year, when we've seen a lot of students who had been in private schools come back to public, because of the economy.

There is also what's called "aging in place" — retired couples in Roseville are staying in their ramblers, because they are all one level. But as the cities of Roseville, Little Canada and Maplewood have put up a lot of senior assisted-living and apartment complexes, some seniors, who were living in three to five bedroom ramblers, have vacated these ramblers and were able to stay in the community. That is one piece of the influx of diversity: a lot of Hmong and other Asian groups are coming in and buying these larger ramblers, which works great, because they have larger families. So in Roseville, our school enrollment is going up — that's unheard of in the Twin Cities.

My experience with the community is that if you take the unknown out — if they know who is here, why are they here, and what are their customs — people are very open. But if they don't know who the strangers are who are moving in next door, that's where you get a lot of fear.

How has this fear shown up in Roseville?

We have a significant open enrollment contingent — I think it's about 10 percent. One factor is St. Paul families crossing Larpenteur and open enrolling in Roseville schools. We are so close to St. Paul, there is the perception that there are gangs here — no, there really aren't. There are St. Paul gangs that may come up to Roseville and do icky stuff, but they are not our kids.
When we got the first group of Somali who came in, we did have a few speed bumps — 9/11 had just happened. That first year we did have some comments in public places from parents, which we reacted to with community forums and education, to dispel a lot of the fear and the myths.

What was the fear about?

There was the fear of bringing religion into school. We don't bring religion into school — we do have to offer prayer space and accommodate that, but nothing is taken away from anyone else's child to provide a culturally appropriate prayer space. We had to just help other parents understand that we actually get additional funding to provide these services — we don't take away from other students when we provide additional services to some students.

There was a little backlash — parents thought there would be less resources for their child. But we don't see that as a white versus a non-white issue. With the generation of parents now, it's more about white versus white — it's about "my kid — I don't care about the rest of the kids, I don't care about the greater good, I just care about my kid." That's just a transition in parent ideology. It's amazing.

Is there anything you'd like to add?

A lot of this change is hidden from the community. As a school district, this is where the diversity is seen the most. When we go out into the community and talk about our new refugees and immigrants, the first question we are asked is, where do they live? How can we be this diverse, because my neighbors are all white? They don't see this diversity in their neighborhoods. It's very hidden — that's the sad part.

Where is diversity headed in Roseville? Has someone said to you, get ready for the next wave of immigrants from this place or that place?

Supposedly this is the beginning of the Karen influx. When I meet with the resettlement agencies, they say the Karen is supposed to be the largest group yet — larger than the Hmong, larger than the Somali. That's shocking to me. So we are preparing — I don't know how much more you can prepare. But Karen have been very welcomed in Roseville — if they can find places in Roseville, they come, and we love it. We get a new Karen family every day.

The Bhutanese (refugees from Bhutan) are the next group, and we've only seen a couple of those families. The Latino population has stabilized — and I think overall in the state and the country, immigration has slowed down because of the economy. Our African American population has always kind of remained the same. The white population is declining, but that's just because there are less white kids.

The suburbs that do not have this influx of ethnic diversity have declining enrollments. So from our standpoint as a school district, this is a wonderful thing. I would hope other communities are as welcoming. I know Roseville is welcoming.

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