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Edmonds continues looking beyond numbers to address racial disparities

Olmsted County's first black social worker set to start phased retirement this year.

John Edmonds
John Edmonds on Thursday, May 12, 2022, in Rochester, Minnesota.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER – John Edmonds has spent the last 25 years addressing poverty and racial disparities in an effort to help Olmsted County families.

The program manager for Olmsted County family support programs will start a phased retirement at the end of the year, so we asked him to reflect on what brought him to Rochester and the work he has done since moving here.

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Here’s some of what he had to say:

Since arriving in Rochester in 1997, much of your work with Olmsted County has addressed disparities and disproportionalities in services for African-American families and children. Why was there a need when you arrived? 

In Rochester in the late 90s, it was unusual to see a person of color, no matter where you went. …

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I came from an environment that was very diverse to here where it was almost totally white, but I also had coping skills. …

I could deal with this, but if you are coming out of poverty and a marginalized environment, and you come here and you are clearly part of the minority in every sense of the word, this has to be very disorienting. Nobody looks like you, and nobody in any place you go for assistance or help looks like you, and you are distrustful of the system due to racism and systemic oppression, why would you expect people to be able to assimilate and not have difficulties adjusting.

You’ve noted the issue is a matter of generational poverty, rather than situational poverty. What do you mean?

To me the key difference is that in generational poverty there is a lack of hope and an inability to see the future as anything different from the present. To overcome that, you need to work with people around their ability to perceive the possibilities. …

You need to give them the sense that if they are willing to take the risk of imaging a different reality. … There are things you can do to make change happen, but you first need to take a risk.

You’ve started programs, including Project Hope and PACE, through Olmsted County, as well as co-founded Project Legacy with your wife, Karen Light Edmonds, to address some of the related issues. What’s the force behind such efforts?

The concept of Project Legacy is recognizing the kind of challenges that youth of color experience and then building support around an individual to overcome those challenges … with the idea that it's about changing a mindset or changing a worldview. It’s not sufficient to say "believe that you can do certain things." It’s important to put real supports into place so people can develop hope and a belief system that things can be different.

That’s what we do.

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That’s what PACE was about. It’s about recognizing the challenges, but it’s also about changing people’s self perceptions. That hopelessness becomes a trap. Poverty is a trap.

There are certainly objective, concrete things that keep people locked in a certain place, but the most effective block is the belief that nothing can change.

You initially launched Olmsted County’s Project HOPE program as a parent education effort for African-American families, but it transformed to include a broader approach. What was that? 

When it was resurrected, it was about providing education, advocacy and support to African-American families. The presumption was that these were mostly folks newly arrived in Rochester … from Chicago, Gary and Milwaukee. That was the population we started to work with, and that was more on point with starting to work with families in a way that met the need.

PACE – Parents and Children Excel – had a similar focus, specifically for young students and their families. At the time, other counties in the state had a focus on graduation rates and other numbers, but you saw a different approach. What was that? 

What I started talking about is the metaphor of a thermometer. The numbers tell you that you have a fever. You can do certain things to address the fever, but you haven’t addressed the underlying disease process. If you just focus on the numbers, you miss the larger implications of the systemic issues that are leading to the numbers. …

If you look at the number of African-American students that don’t graduate, rather than just try to change that, what you need to do is try to work with the whole family and that’s where the advocacy comes in. Where you need to provide support for families, you also need to understand the impact of poverty and oppression. You need to help people develop tools and skills to overcome those factors, and you need time. Time is a critical element, so you are not just putting a Band-aid on a symptom.

You’ve referred to Black residents that have relocated to Rochester from other American cities as "invisible immigrants." What does that mean? 

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It really was a recognition that the issues confronting African-Americans in this town were very similar to any other immigrant group coming here. … These new immigrants were people fleeing from somewhere, which is a different mode to be in if you are traveling to something.

All of those things that are wrapped up in fleeing – the fear and dislocation and disorientation and all of that – were the things that these African-Americans were facing.

Today, there seem to be more voices supporting diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in local government. As someone who has been pushing that vision for decades, what do you see as key to making a difference?

How you make it real and sustainable is first you need to have leadership that is committed to it. That is absolutely critical. The top of the food chain has to be committed to seeing this happen. If you don’t have that, it’s a crap shoot.

The other thing you need to have in place, which is why DIG (Olmsted County's Disproportionality Integration Group) has been successful and has led the way for that, is building in quality assurance. … If you don’t measure whether you are making progress, it just becomes a conversation. …

You have to build in accountability.

It’s been 25 years since you arrived in Olmsted County, but you started in New York City, where you grew up, attended college and spent nearly five decades of your life. What led you to leave? 

“I was 49 years old, and I wasn’t happy doing what I was doing. There were other things going on in my life.

“I think a thing that was a major life-changing thing for me is that the person I was working for was someone who I really admired in the state office of mental health. This was a woman who I really admired and was close to, and she developed breast cancer and went though this whole thing and ultimately passed.

“That really kind of shook me, because she was about my age at the time.

“It really made me look at what’s important in life, and what I was doing wasn’t satisfying on a personal level, so I left and took a job in upstate New York out of the mental health arena and more in the social services arena. That wasn’t exciting either, but it took me to an environment that was perfect. … It was where I needed to go to feed my soul.”

Upstate New York is still a long way from Rochester. What was next?

“I was there for about four years and then I met my wife. We met online before that was a thing, and she lived out here (in Rochester), and my best friend since adolescence lived out here. … “In the 70s and 80s I came out here quite often. I wasn’t familiar with Rochester, but I was familiar with the Twin Cities and the environment out here, and I had always wanted to come out here. …

“At first, I didn’t want to take a risk of moving someplace without a job. That was too much of a leap for me. … But by the time I was 50, I knew what I was capable of doing, and I was at a place where I wanted to get back to working directly with people. …

“It was sort of meant to be, so I packed up and drove out here. I didn’t have a job, but I thought I’d find something. I would have been fine working at McDonalds to do whatever it took to survive. That wasn't the important piece. What was important was how I feed my soul.”

So did you end up selling burgers at some point?

“About two weeks later, I got hired by Olmsted County in child protection. ...
"It was perfect. It pulled together social justice stuff, diversity stuff, as well as giving me the opportunity to work with people. … It was the right job, at the right time, at the right place.”

Asked & Answered is a weekly question-and-answer column featuring people of southeastern Minnesota. Is there somebody you'd like to see featured? Send suggestions to news@postbulletin.com .

Randy Petersen joined the Post Bulletin in 2014 and became the local government reporter in 2017. An Elkton native, he's worked for a variety of Midwest papers as reporter, photographer and editor since graduating from Winona State University in 1996. Readers can reach Randy at 507-285-7709 or rpetersen@postbulletin.com.
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