Welcome to Nobles County: Minnesota's most rapidly diversifying county

A series of portraits border a photo of a woman holding the U.S. flag.
Pictured here are Aisha Kimbrough (top left), Cheniqua Johnson (top right), Tah So Collah (bottom left), Leticia Rodriguez (center) and Worthington Mayor Mike Kuhle. Nobles County is the most quickly diversifying county in the state.
MPR News photo illustration | Photos by Hannah Yang, MPR News and courtesy of Leticia Rodriguez

Updated: Oct. 26

Over the past decade, Minnesota has become less white and more diverse. According to the 2020 Census, about 76 percent of Minnesotans identified as white and non-Hispanic in 2020, compared to 83 percent in the last census from 2010. 

Every county in the state became more diverse over the past decade. Nowhere is that more true than in Nobles County, which is the fastest diversifying county in Minnesota.

In 2010, people of color made up one-third of the county’s population. Ten years later, people of color made up nearly half the county’s population. And in Worthington, the county seat, nearly two-thirds of residents identify as people of color. 

In September, MPR News host Angela Davis and producer Samantha Matsumoto took Angela’s show on the road to visit Nobles County. They spoke with people there about the changes they have seen, the challenges the county is experiencing and what gives them hope for the future.

Angela Davis brings you those conversations in the first of a two-part series on Nobles County. She talks with two women who live and work in the county. And she talks with a researcher about how the story of Nobles County fits into the changing demographics of Minnesota.

Guests:

  • Allison Liuzzi is a research manager at Wilder Research and the project director for Minnesota Compass.

  • Aisha Kimbrough is the communications manager for Seeds of Justice, a group of Worthington leaders who are pushing for more equal representation in local decision making.

  • Leticia Rodriguez is a community engagement coordinator for Seeds of Justice and a SNAP-Ed coordinator for the University of Minnesota Extension. She also ran for Nobles County Commission District 3 commissioner in 2020.

Here are some of the highlights of Angela’s interviews with Kimbrough and Rodriguez.

Editor’s note: The quotes below have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Leticia Rodriguez

On why she decided to run for Nobles County Commissioner in 2020

A woman holds an American flag.
Leticia Rodriguez is a community organizer in Nobles County, Minnesota. She ran for Nobles County Commission in 2020 and lost the election. She would have been the first person of color on the commission.
Courtesy of Leticia Rodriguez

At the time, I decided to just have my voice be heard. I really didn’t want to run as a person of color. I just wanted to run as a person. … I would (have been) the first female on the board. (It’s) all white males. … A lot of our commissioners, city council and school board members don’t engage with the community. … When is the last time they attended a festival, a quinceañera, any event that would include communities of color? And I mean really engaged. … That is how you become inclusive. You stick around, you find out about your neighbors. You literally attend festivals and things that include people of color.

On the difference between saying Worthington is welcoming and truly being inclusive

Our minority community has brought a lot to Worthington. I believe that all the small businesses in the community have brought together revenue. Downtown is a lot of minority-owned businesses. … And for the most part, all those businesses started up on their own. They didn’t ask the city. They weren’t aware that there are all these grants and all this money available to start your business. They started it on their own. … So if you are so welcoming, then why aren’t you going to the businesses and saying, “How can we help you?” … I hate it when (people say), “Oh yeah, we are welcoming. We don’t see color.” But I can’t take off my color. How can you not see my color? I can’t take it out.

A person smiles for the camera.
Aisha Kimbrough is a resident of Worthington, Minn.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

Aisha Kimbrough

On going to school in Worthington and having white teachers growing up

It wasn’t until I got to high school where I felt like it was affecting me. … I was always an ambitious student, but especially in high school, very ambitious. I wanted to apply to these good schools, these good colleges, and do all these amazing things, be in National Honors Society. But what I noticed is that it seemed that people didn’t want me to be in those spaces sometimes. A lot of the times, I was the only student of color or one of the very few in my advanced classes. … And when I maybe wanted to push back on the status quo or talk about something important like racism, I was told, “you are exaggerating.” Or “you need to be grateful for everything we have given you as teachers and as mentors.”

On returning to Worthington after going away to college

It’s been a very humbling experience being back home and a grounding experience at the same time. … I left Worthington going to college really angry and feeling a sense of resentment against a lot of the people I grew up with and people that were supposed to be supporting me. That’s also the age that I realized racism is a really big issue in our community and a lot of things aren’t changing. And so I left feeling angry.

And so now coming back, and of course seeing a lot of the same issues, but seeing a lot of changes as well, made me feel and continues to make me feel hopeful. So now being back and seeing, for example, a woman of color running for city council. That’s huge. I never saw that growing up. Seeing women of color becoming teachers. I am coming back feeling a lot more hopeful because I see a lot of potential in our community.

On what makes her hopeful

I put a lot of my faith in the youth in our community… Because I definitely do see the potential and I see in these youth the drive to make change and to question the system. … So I think the important part is continuing to create spaces for youth to empower themselves to then go and make that change that they want to see. I put all my faith in the youth in our community to grow up and to run for office, to get those higher-paying jobs and the education that they need to do what they want, to be lawyers and be county commissioner, or whatever it is. That is what keeps me hopeful.

Welcome to Nobles County, Part 2: Political representation

Welcome to Nobles County, Part 2: Representation matters

In part two, host Angela Davis talks about political representation with Worthington’s mayor, a young activist and a Catholic priest who has helped to guide the community for over a decade.

Guests:

  • Mike Kuhle has been the mayor of Worthington since 2014. He is not seeking another term.

  • Cheniqua Johnson is the lead outreach officer for the Minnesota DFL. She was born and raised in Worthington and is part of a growing community of citizens of color and immigrants in Nobles County.

  • Father Jim Callahan has been the pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Worthington since 2010. 

Editor’s note: The quotes below have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

A person smiles for the camera.
Worthington Mayor Mike Kuhle.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

Worthington Mayor Mike Kuhle

On how to help people feel welcome in Nobles County

I have to depend on allies within the community. Those are people that may be in the faith-based community, may be in the medical communities or in law enforcement… It’s a concern. It’s a constant concern. But a mayor just can’t do that by himself. He’s got to have good people around him within the community, the cornerstones of the community. It’s got to be the whole community behind him, not just one person.

On why he’s not running for another term

I figure it’s time for some new blood, some new thinking. And there’s a lot of people in this community that could do a great job. And that’s including all the different cultures. But they have to step forward.  

On what the next mayor of Worthington will inherit

They’re going to inherit a Worthington that has great staff and we are well on our way to economic development utopia. It’s an elusive target, but it just keeps driving forward. … It’s all the same challenges, but it boils down to quality people with commitment and drive and a desire to make their community better. And I just believe Worthington’s got it.

A person smiles for a photo.
Cheniqua Johnson
Hannah Yang | MPR News

Cheniqua Johnson

On the importance of having people of color represented in political office

I think it’s super important for (our elected officials) to understand that they will not be able to be successful until they change. It’s not a matter of if and how, it’s like you have to. As a Black woman, I can speak to my experience as a Black woman living in Worthington, Minn. I can listen to and incorporate Latino voices, East African voices, the Karen and Hmong voices that are here. But I cannot represent them. And sometimes as a leader, you have to step down or you have to encourage other people to be the leader. … For acknowledging so much diversity… and yet you don’t see that change in our elected officials. And you don’t see that change in our school administrators. You don’t see that change in people who have held their positions in the city for over 10, 15, 20, 30 years.

On why she decided to run for the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2018

I personally think that some of the fundamental flaws and one of the biggest issues in Worthington is that we do not have representation of people of color at any level of government here. Whether that be at the state level, the local level or your school board. We don’t have that. We just don’t. … And so that was the primary reason. I thought it was really important to have people know that a Black woman who was 22, 23 at the time of the campaign could run for state rep. …. It forced a larger conversation. Which I think was ultimately the goal of running, was to force conversations here locally about challenging what we see when we see an elected official.

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