Guest column: Creating a sense of belonging in southern Minnesota

Published 8:45 pm Friday, September 22, 2023

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Guest column by Tim Penny

Creating a sense of belonging in rural Minnesota can enhance the overall quality of life for everyone who lives there. By embracing different perspectives, cultures and ideas, rural Minnesota can build stronger, more thriving communities. At Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, we offer several grant opportunities to support inclusive initiatives in the communities of our 20-county region to help make everyone feel welcome.

Tim Penny

Several years ago, SMIF became a member of Welcoming America, joining many other organizations and communities in our region which are dedicated to making southern Minnesota a welcoming place for all. We were excited to see many of our partners in our region celebrating the nationwide Welcoming Week in early September. One of the organizations that was very active during this time was B.E. Welcoming based out of Blue Earth. SMIF has supported the organization with two Small Town Grants. They organized a number of programs throughout the week, including a community bonfire, a story walk and inclusive yard signs to celebrate the people who make Blue Earth what it is.

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Many of the inclusive programs that SMIF supports are focused on children in our region. SMIF’s Early Care and Education Grant, which is currently open, helps fund early care and education services for children birth to age 5, including initiatives which support underserved and diverse populations. During the previous grant round, Healthy Community Initiatives in Northfield used their grant for community outreach to promote local programming that helps low-income and BIPOC families prepare young children for kindergarten. The Rochester Montessori School used their grant to design weekly lessons for small groups using culturally relevant stories and activities for diverse classrooms. To learn more about this grant, visit and apply by Oct. 2.

We are also excited to open up a special round of SMIF’s Inclusive and Equitable Communities Grant in late October. This grant supports initiatives which will build inclusive, welcoming entrepreneurial environments and opportunities, especially for BIPOC individuals and/or immigrants or refugees. Earlier this year, the Council of Churches Refugee Services in Mankato was awarded an IEC Grant to support small business leadership skills and engage in cross-cultural learning. The Owatonna Public Schools is using their IEC Grant to provide immigrants and BIPOC adults the opportunity to learn more about how to successfully launch a small business. Look for details about this grant on our website in a few weeks at

Belonging begins with us. We can all help make southern Minnesota a welcoming place for all.

Tim Penny is the president and CEO of Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation. He represented Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1982 to 1994.