Hinnenkamp fighting for fairness

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 16, 2002

Ted Hinnenkamp is not a big man, physically.

Saturday, February 16, 2002

Ted Hinnenkamp is not a big man, physically. But he’s had a big impact on the lives of people in this community, especially those who have been pushed to the margins of community life.

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He is intense in his pursuit of justice and equality, say people who know him.

&uot;What he’s about is dedication to fairness and justice for all people,&uot; said Colette Turcotte, director of Community Action.

&uot;He does this work very quietly and doesn’t like to be noticed. Ted Hinnenkamp cares about the whole community in which he lives,&uot; she added.

In his daily work as a paralegal for Southern Minnesota Legal Services, Hinnenkamp has served as an advocate for many different kinds of people, from recent immigrants to veterans. But his work as a volunteer on Albert Lea’s Human Rights Commission from 1984 until 2001 may be his most public role. Originally appointed by former Mayor Marv Wangen, he served as chairman starting in 1993 until he was not reappointed to the board this year.

While no longer serving on the commission, he will still work for the marginalized in other ways.

Turcotte works with Hinnenkamp as part of the group that organizes the Martin Luther King, Jr. day breakfasts and activities. She is also among those who nominated Hinnenkamp as Freeborn County’s first Poverty Warrior back in 1990, and he was one of 30 or so people in the state to be recognized by then-governor Rudy Perpich for his work on poverty issues.

Hinnenkamp works as a paralegal in the legal services office in downtown Albert Lea. It’s the kind of work he feels called to do. Already as a student at St. Cloud State University he felt the need to do something about poverty and inequality, and after graduating from college he and his wife Mary volunteered for the federal government’s Vista anti-poverty program. Together, they worked for two-and-a-half years in Kentucky, focusing on community organizing.

One of their successes was making food stamps more accessible to the families they worked with. According to Hinnenkamp, in Kentucky, the county judge was given responsibility for deciding whether the county would participate in the food stamp program. Concerned about the poor diet of those living in poverty in that state, the Hinnenkamps organized communities to change the system to get more food aid to the people who needed it.

&uot;We thought the best way to make changes was to get people organized, to act together towards a common goal,&uot; he said.

Hinnenkamp also worked in a group home in New York City run by the Roman Catholic church and later at the Pritzger Institute in Chicago, a psychiatric hospital for youth.

When some friends told him about a law school in Washington, D.C. that specialized in poverty law, he and his wife decided to take a chance and move again so he could attend. But with two small children in the family, he decided to leave school after earning a certificate as a paralegal, and return home to Minnesota for a couple of years before they decided what to do next. He ended up staying, moving to Albert Lea, and he has found satisfaction working as a paralegal in the years since.

When Hinnenkamp joined the city’s Human Rights Commission, it had no budget and no regulatory authority. It seemed to him that education should be the main focus of the group’s activities, so he began working with others in the community to host forums on issues and controversies that were affecting people’s lives.

Forums have covered topics ranging from youth violence to living with disabilities. The point of it all, as far as Hinnenkamp was concerned, was to get accurate information to people and to give them a chance to talk about their concerns.

&uot;I always thought the best thing about the commission were the forums and the roundtables, getting people to talk to each other,&uot; he said. It gave him satisfaction to see how members of the community would learn and change their views as they moved past stereotypes and started to really talk to each other.

Leaving the commission was not his choice, he said. Hinnenkamp received a letter from Mayor Bob Haukoos last fall, informing him that he would not be reappointed to the commission this year.

&uot;Talking to me directly would have been a nicer way to tell me,&uot; he observed, especially given the length of time he had served.

He was disappointed by the decision, because he was in the middle of planning another community forum on ethnic tensions. Hinnenkamp hopes that a strong leader emerges from the new group of commission members, one who can carry on the work of education and advocacy.

Hinnenkamp thinks that Albert Lea is a good place to live and raise a family, despite the tensions that occasionally rise to the surface. He noted the controversy that the Pickerel Lake Town Homes project and the Newcomer Center aroused among some people.

He compares life here to where he worked in Kentucky, when the difference between white and black communities could be seen in the quality of the streets and schools. Although prejudice is present, it’s not nearly so desperate here, he thinks.

&uot;We’re not a backward little community. We’re making progress,&uot; he said.

A lot of that progress is due to Ted Hinnenkamp.

&uot;I am proud to have him in this community,&uot; said Turcotte.