A strong community and democracy depend on citizen engagement and our ability to create places where we can all thrive.
As a small-business owner, as a professional in Rochester's medical community, and as a mom, I know our community is exceptional in many ways. In fact, all of Minnesota is known for taking chances on who we elect and for contributing to national conversations in landmark moments. We've sent a message to the country that we're open-minded freethinkers, ready to blaze a Minnesota Miracle kind of trail for the rest of the country.
Yet in this moment, when everything is polarizing, we have work to do. In my community of Rochester, we're seeing that what's happening in every state and community across the country is happening here too.
It seems we're all tilting toward some extreme version of us vs. them. Politics is getting very personal, and recently it hit very close to home for me.
I'm a member of the Rochester Golf and Country Club. A group called the Center of the American Experiment (CAE) has held a few events at the club over the last year or so. Like many facilities, the club rents meeting rooms to the public — business groups and weddings included. My husband and I personally use the club as business owners to make connections, host clients, and spend time with family and friends.
Normally, the outside groups that rent space from the club don't raise eyebrows. However, the Center of the American Experiment caught my attention in the summer of 2021, when they held an event at the club about the teaching of race in schools. I and others found out about it after the fact and were concerned about the tone and the fact it did not include any Rochester Public Schools officials.
We raised concerns with our club board, and several other members shared those concerns when the same topic around race and curriculum soon became a hot-button issue at Rochester school board meetings.
In March, the Center of the American Experiment scheduled yet another hot-button event at Rochester Golf and Country Club, entitled "Crime Crisis: Rochester." I became concerned about the tone and how this group overall seemed to stand out among others.
To me, it felt the club was an inappropriate venue for continued events like this. I was concerned about the environment we were creating at the club for members and the tone we were setting in our community.
As a member, I shared my concerns with other members and our board. I looked for a practical show of hands in the form of a petition I circulated among members and the community. We brought 100 signatures, including those of 30 members, along with our concerns to the board.
The board appropriately heard these concerns and voted to not allow the event to be held at the club. The vote was held on March 13, and that afternoon the CAE was notified the event would not be held at the club.
The very next day, the CAE both tried unsuccessfully to get a court to issue a restraining order against the club, and appeared that evening on local television continuing to promote the event. (Olmsted County Sheriff Kevin Torgerson was quoted on KAAL television March 14 saying that a crime crisis has not touched Rochester, and rumors of increased crime are exaggerated.) Ticket holders were not notified of an alternative venue or of the cancellation.
The group then continued to escalate on the day of the event, March 15, by holding a news conference in the club parking lot attacking our leadership, our members and me personally. I was also called out by the group and its president as a "leftist activist" among other choice names in subsequent media interviews and blog posts. The group has also since sued me personally for circulating the petition.
In short, all of my concerns about this group as both a community member and as a private club member were realized in full view and exceeded my expectations.
When politics hits home, it feels deeply personal. I was initially angry and upset that an outside political group could repeatedly come into my community, sow discord and use their power to attack citizens. What kind of uncivil world are we living in? As I look to the future, I'm reminded of words of the late Hubert H. Humphrey: "This, then, is the test we must set for ourselves; not to march alone but to march in such a way that others will wish to join us."
Together, with care and respect for our communities and each other, Minnesota can be the place we all aspire for it to be.
Erin Nystrom lives in Oronoco, Minn.