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Speakers call for new attitude toward local poverty

Julia Dinsmore

A one-day event on Monday aimed to go beyond talk about homelessness and poverty — it hoped to start building a plan of action.

The event, "Addressing Privilege, Poverty and Possibility in Olmsted County," brought together more than 70 people and highlighted how fixing the problem of poverty and associated issues will be the work not merely of social programs and nonprofits but also of changing attitudes and perspectives.

The event featuring poet and storyteller Julia Dinsmore, of Minneapolis.

"We need allies. We need to work together because, historically, no human liberation movement on the face of the planet has gotten anywhere without allies," said Dinsmore , who sang, rapped and spoke throughout the event.

Advocates for the homeless predicted Rochester's problems would become worse as the city doubles in size and leaders focus on creating a destination that draws well-heeled patients to Rochester.


Mike McMillen, who works for Migrant Health Service in Rochester, said one thing he's forced himself to learn over time is "how marginalized low-income people are" in Rochester.

"It's going to get worse as the downtown gets filled with fancy hotels and restaurants," McMillen said. And as the poor and low-income people get pushed to the periphery, it will create and compound other problems as the poor find themselves further removed from transportation to get to work.

"It's a huge piece we're not addressing," he said. "And if you don't see them, you don't know that. And that's fine with a lot of people."

Sandy Ramage, a Rochester volunteer, also spoke about how the denigrating attitudes toward poverty need to change. She described a take-home backpack program she co-organizes that offers middle school students the opportunity to take food home to their families for the weekend. But only a small number of kids participate because those who do are "picked on on the bus if they are known to be taking home food."

"There is something about the climate that is allowed to develop about poverty," Ramage said. "We're not supposed to say things about race, gender identity, religion and so on, but poverty is still one of those things that we're allowed to pick on, and it's evil."

Dinsmore was the highlight for many who showed up for the one-day event at the Rochester Public Library . Dinsmore, who's also a freelance writer and songwriter, has used her own art to describe a childhood marked by poverty; her mother struggled with mental illness, her father with alcoholism.

Dinsmore also alluded to the mental illness that one of her sons continues to struggle with. Throughout the discussion, she talked about how the alchemy of art and the power it has in bringing people together can make a difference in a community.

At one point, she described her unwillingness to serve on a nonprofit board unless the organization was willing to provide a therapist after every meeting.


"Ending poverty is something you do because you are committed. You want to do it. It's too real for me. It's not a hobby. It's not charity. It's life and death in my community," she said.

But the event, moderated by Post-Bulletin Publisher Randy Chapman, strived to be something more than a talk seminar. Participants also were encouraged to work together to find solutions. One urged attendance at the Rochester School Board meeting today, where a vote is expected on selling the former Gage East school and property to a developer of homeless housing.

The meeting is at 5:30 p.m. at the board room at the Edison building,615 Seventh St. S.W.

April Sutor, senior vice-president of the United Way of Olmsted County , encouraged the audience to lend its support to affordable housing projects "that will continue to be available" similar to the Gage East project.

"It's our opportunity to share our support and voice to have these developments take place," she said.

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