Column: League of Women Voters come to Minnesota

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 22, 2006

Sara Aeikens, Guest Column

The last time the League of Women Voters selected Minnesota for their national convention was more than four decades ago, about the time I graduated from Macalester College. When I heard the Minnesota League of Women Voters was hosting this year’s national convention, I decided it was a great opportunity to find out what issues are top priorities now that national and state elections are looming.

At our June Freeborn County meeting, past LWV President Grace Skaar was selected as a delegate to the June 10-13 four-day Minneapolis convention. I volunteered to go the only day she was not able to be there.

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More than 1,000 diverse participants from 800 individual organizations in the United States produced a melting pot of diverse ideas on hot issues.

The main lobby for activities was edged with issues tables hosted by individual leagues from throughout the nation. Some of their topics were health care, direct presidential elections, death penalty, pro-life, pro-choice, and Washington, D.C., voter franchise. I allowed myself to take advantage of the opportunity to easily gather information and resources from people I would not normally connect with, because their interests and values differ significantly from mine.

I visited a resource table sponsored by the National Parks Conservation Association from Washington, D.C. I support the values of environmental programs, but do not like it when a dozen organizations exchange names and send me repeated mailings, which I consider a waste of resources. Actually meeting people working for the organizations and being able to exchange questions and comments gave me hope for sorting my priorities out when issues are complex and overwhelming.

The big surprise for me was the three-hour long pre-convention workshop entitled &8220;Meeting in the Middle &045; Cross Cultural Conversations and Community Transformation.&8221; I assumed it would be geared to big city racial and minority issues and didn’t expect a Minnesota presenter. I was beginning to note my own biases.

I learned that Vivian Jenkins-Nelson was very involved in LWV diversity research studies and publications in the Twin Cities area. She is a collaborator with Jean I. Clark, Minnesota author of parenting books, who recently presented a workshop in Albert Lea. With that connection, I realized that Jenkins-Nelson embraces a broader view of what diversity is. She defines diversity as &8220;any significant and meaningful difference.&8221;

I became excited about the possibilities of sharing my short day’s experience with the Freeborn County LWV and our local community. Since the current Minnesota LWV is focusing on studying the environment, the related agencies and their effectiveness, the Freeborn County LWV decided to research and study water issues in Freeborn County, including the agencies governing them. I could relate the workshop information to the diverse opinions surrounding water issues.

As I looked around at the several hundred attendees at Jenkins-Nelson workshop, I wondered why this group of people, consisting mainly of middle-aged and older women of all races and nationalities, but also a number of men and younger women,

would join the League of Women Voters. More than that, I was curious as to what their values are, what characteristics define them as a group, and how they address their diversities. As the speaker unfolded her presentation in her dynamic but humorous way, I found some of the answers.

She talked about the importance of the usual ground rules of respecting others (which includes not blaming or shaming), listening actively, taking risks, being open, not taking things personally and being accountable. The last one got my attention because I saw new information that I thought could be helpful at some of our city council meetings. Jenkins- Nelson states in her worksheets, &8220;You are accountable for what you do and say, and for the use of information,

You are accountable to owning your part of the problem or issue and for your own learning.&8221;

Jenkins-Nelson summarized what she called a competency list, which is a skills list. That’s when I realized why I joined the LWV. It is because I see the members as generally embracing these characteristics. They value differences and similarities. They balance home and work. They take risks, are flexible and are nurturers. They behave ethically and are peacemakers. They are thoughtful change managers and what Jenkins-Nelson calls diversity change agents. They look at their own personal issues, which sometimes gets in the way of communicating in diversity. The LWV mission is research, study, consensus, and action. They do their homework.

(Sara Aeikens is a freelance writer who lives in Albert Lea.)