November 20, 2004

Diversity is Great, Unity is Better

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report


ROCHESTER, MN -- Geri Critchley moved to Rochester a few years after having spent a year in Senegal for the Peace Corps, and she found the two experiences strangely similar. Actually, she found life in Rochester even stranger than in Senegal.

“I found myself as a doctor’s wife,” she wrote. “I felt more out of place in Rochester at first than I had felt in a small village in West Africa. In Africa I looked different and the villagers looked different. We expected differences and it was easy to deal with. In Rochester I looked like everyone else, but I didn’t feel like everyone else. There was something missing.”

The recollections are part of an amazing document, Critchley’s memoir of experiencing “reverse culture shock” after arriving in Rochester in 1979, and starting the Rochester International Association as a result. The group exists to this day, sponsoring World Festival Day, the multicultural extravaganza at Century High School, as well as a monthly international lecture series and occasional internationally-themed dances and musical shows in town.

Written for her master’s thesis, the memoir records a whirlwind of interviews, organizational activities, and research Critchley did to get the RIA off the ground. She spoke with 75 people in three months gathering statistics, listening to people’s thoughts and experiences of Rochester as a cosmopolitan town, and creating her own mental picture of the place.

Sensitivity Seminars

“Rochester was an incredibly international community but hadn’t been consciously and publicly acknowledged as such,” wrote Critchley, who lives today in Washington, D.C. “There were students studying different countries in Social Studies classes yet not aware of the local human capital from these countries in their home town.

“There were Mayo Clinic physicians who were going to developing countries on projects yet did not know there were returned Peace Corps Volunteers living nearby who had lived in these countries, knew the language and culture, who could inform and orient them.

“There were patients from around the world visiting the Mayo Clinic, staying for lonely weeks at a time in hotels. And Rochester residents from other countries had no mechanism through which to share their culture with the community. Their cultural groups were almost invisible.” Rochester has come a long way towards developing a greater international sense since 1979, in large part thanks to Critchley. The hospitality of the RIA, through the World Festival and other programs, certainly has made Rochester a more welcoming place.

Our elementary and high schools have special classes for language and acculturation skills; the Diversity Council does great work with its sensitivity seminars; and no one could say that that the city’s largest immigrant and ethnic groups are invisible.

New Members

And yet, I am constantly amazed at the intensity of foreign cultures that I experience visiting private homes in Rochester, compared to the absence of authentic foreign culture in most public settings.

I have shared sambusa pastries with Somali friends in Rochester; admired the giant golden Buddha statue at the local Cambodian temple; lit candles for the Diwali festival with Indian friends; and seen tables laid out with fresh-cut grass, rosewater, and mirrors for the Iranian New Year.

Yet the Rochester Fest, our biggest annual celebration of local identity, is still 100% corn dogs, mini-doughnuts, and cheese-on-a-stick. No matter how many times I’ve been in the downtown mosque, I have never seen another American-born American there, to the best of my knowledge. I see Indians shopping at Rice-‘n-Spice, and Cambodians at the many Asian food stores.

This is neither surprising nor in any way a criticism. Culture takes a long time to change, adapt, accept, and mix to accommodate new members and new points of view. As previous waves of immigrants attest, it takes generations. And yet Critchley’s carefully-observed memoir of Rochester in 1979 does give us a chance to ask “How much have we really changed?”

Are we knitting together in Rochester as much as we could? Are the vast international resources of this city – not the medical or computer resources but the human experience of foreign cultures embedded here -- benefiting Rochester and indeed Minnesota as much as they could?

Unity of Purpose

Are we addressing in Rochester not only the need to accept diversity, but also the need to foster unity of purpose and understanding in such a diverse community? Are we learning the lessons we need to learn from places like China and India and the Middle East, about the dangers of failing to unify?

Her work in Rochester allowed Geri Critchely “to discover society on a human scale,” she said. Twenty-five years later, are we doing all that we can to ensure that everyone in our community shares a taste of that?

Copyright @ 2004 The McGill Report