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Join local Inclusion Learning Cohorts and help create a welcoming and inclusive Cook County and Grand Portage for all

Aug 18, 2022 01:59PM ● By Laura Durenberger
Photo: Hudson Hintze

By Laura Durenberger-Grunow - Boreal Community Media - August 18, 2022

What do communities in southern Minnesota have to do with communities in northern Minnesota? A lot, actually. 

A few years ago, communities in southern Minnesota got together to create an assessment to measure how welcoming and inclusive they were. This baseline measurement tool caught the eye of University of Minnesota (U of M) researchers, who wondered if a similar project could be successful in northern Minnesota. 

To do this, they partnered with an organization called Northspan, which is a non-profit consulting firm based out of Duluth. The partnership would allow the two organizations to come up with an assessment tool, identify where to launch the program, get local community members on board, and help facilitate community-led change through different avenues.

The assessment

Looking at the program in southern Minnesota, as well as an already existing tool called the ‘Community Readiness Assessment’, Northspan and the U of M came up with their own tool called the ‘Inclusion Readiness Assessment’, which falls under an overarching project named the ‘Welcoming Communities Project MN’.

The main purpose of the Inclusion Readiness Assessment is to learn about the successes and challenges of organizational and community efforts to be inclusive of all residents. But what does the word “inclusion” mean in this context? Northspan and the U of M identifiy it as:

“Creating spaces to grow as individuals, sectors, and community through sharing, learning, collaboration, and action to unite people and remove barriers to equal opportunity and responsibility in community and life. Our focus is on several types of inclusion: race or immigrant status, socioeconomic status, location of residence, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability status, and religion.”

To measure inclusion in an area, it was determined that once a specific community is identified, it would be split up into seven different social sectors to learn about the level of inclusion in each one. Taking measurements from each sector, they could then issue the community an overarching score to identify it’s level of inclusion. 

To find this answer, data would be collected from residents who opt-in to participate in the assessment. 

Graph: University of Minnesota

Once the main purpose of the project and the assessment tool were identified and created, Northspan and the U of M needed to select an area to launch the program. 

Determining where to host the Welcoming Communities Project

In October 2021, Northspan hosted a NE Minnesota Equity Summit (held virtually) with over 300 registrants in attendance. The summit allowed Northspan and the U of M to learn what exactly “being welcoming” means to local communities in the area. In addition to getting an answer to that question, they also asked attendees about potential future projects through a questionnaire. One of the questions asked if they’d be interested in participating in a future DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) program. Northspan and the U of M noticed that there was lots of interest from attendees in the Cook County and Grand Portage area (specifically those involved in some way with Cook County School District 166).

Around the same time, the NE Minnesota Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) conference was being held. During that conference, a number of focus groups were surveyed about DEI topics and how they relate to economic development and building strong relationships. In those surveys, it was discovered that there was a significant number of comments and interest from the Cook County and Grand Portage areas in doing future DEI work.

 The Welcoming Community Advisory Committee

One important component of the Welcoming Communities project is that it is community-led, with Northspan and the U of M acting as facilitators (where appropriate). In order for the project to be successful and promote actual change, it’s important that they are not leading the efforts being made. To do this, both organizations recognized the need for local representation - people who would become familiar with the project and ultimately advise. Maybe most importantly, however, these locals would need to select an area to launch the project within NE Minnesota. This led to the creation of the Welcoming Community Advisory Committee.

The Welcoming Community Advisory Committee is made up of BIPOC and underrepresented community members which represent all of NE Minnesota. Currently, there are 30 members (most of whom are Duluth based) with some members from the Iron Range and Carlton, Minnesota. (The Committee is open via invitation only, but they are currently looking for people who could represent Cook County and Grand Portage.) 

The purpose of the committee is to advise all work being done as part of the Welcoming Community Project. They also had an important role in selecting the area of NE Minnesota that would be home to the project itself. 

The committee looked at data from the October 2021 Equity Summit, the CEDS Conference, and demographic data from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). Based on this information, the Committee voted and ultimately decided that Cook County and Grand Portage would be the best fit for the project. 

Finding local representatives

Once it was determined that Cook County and Grand Portage would be home to the Welcoming Communities Project, Northspan began looking for locals who may be interested in getting the word out about the assessment and future work. 

To do so, the organization put out advertisements for a paid position in the area looking for potential candidates. Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of responses, and it proved to be a difficult ask. However, eventually, two Cook County locals stepped up to the task. (Northspan was hoping to get at least one representative from Grand Portage, however, they were not able to get a response.)

Filling out the assessment

In early 2022, the first task the two representatives assisted with was to help get the word out about the Inclusion Readiness Assessment, and invite local residents to take it (which many did). They also had assistance from others in the area.

In April of 2022, Northspan hosted an online meeting that was open to anyone who was interested in learning about the Welcoming Communities Project. It was also an opportunity to learn about the assessment and get any questions answered. After the online meeting, more completed assessments came in. 

Overall, 120 assessments were completed over a two-month period.

From here, the data from the assessments were sent to the U of M for analysis, which included quantified data from multiple choice and qualitative data from open-ended questions. 

Sharing the assessment data

On June 22, 2022, Northspan and the U of M hosted another online meeting for local residents, where they presented the assessment results to attendees. In that meeting, the results were shared showing what sectors of the community rated in terms of inclusivity. Specifically, it was shared what sectors residents thought were doing well (moderate to high levels of inclusion), and sectors that needed improvement (low levels), and those in between. 

By identifying and sharing these areas of improvement, Northspan hoped these gaps could be starting points for the community to address during future monthly meetings (which are planned for the fall of 2022).

You can find the recording of this meeting here

Identifying the gaps as a whole, with specific examples

The assessment data showed a few common themes that came up from the responses, which were ranked starting at low levels of inclusion to moderate to high levels, which is shown in the table below. 


Graph: University of Minnesota 

During the June 22, 2022 virtual meeting, attendees were able to break out into small groups based on the seven community sectors (these were not recorded for privacy). During this time, they were encouraged to talk about the assessment results and share personal experiences relating to the data. Most of these fell in line with what the data showed, in terms of what areas need improvement (according to responses from the assessment).

One specific scenario that came up was a division between wealthy community members and those that are “getting by” - especially in social interactions. Many participants agreed that parts of the community don’t even know each other are there, because they are interacting with their own social groups (this is even true of people who have lived in the area their whole lives). 

A second issue that was brought up was that Grand Portage community members are discriminated against regularly (a specific example is that they get followed around in stores). It was discussed that from a business policy perspective, there needs to be changed.

A third topic that was identified is issues between local law enforcement and community members. There is a strong push to identify and address division in the Cook County and Grand Portage area - especially with underrepresented community members. Additionally, concerns were shared that police officers were only going to certain parts (and ultimately the same parts) of the community, and therefore, not interacting with all community members equally.

Next steps

Taking all the information, comments, stories, and data collected thus far, Northspan and the U of M came up with some general themes and questions that the community could address. This work will be done in future community-led meetings (facilitated by Northspan). 

Some themes and questions that can help bridge these gaps are (and maybe some topics covered in the cohorts):

  • Why is Inclusion Important to Our Community? 

  • Understanding Local History & Storytelling  

  • Constructive Dialogue and Problem Analysis  

  • Engaging the Community  

  • Creating Belonging  

  • Understanding Bias, Race, and Cultural Competency 

  • Leading in Equity and Inclusion 

  • Moving Towards Inclusive Policies and Practices 

The cohorts

It is crucial to the success of the Welcoming Communities project that the work comes from the people who live and work in the area, with Northspan acting as a neutral guiding entity. 

Therefore, while there are general topics Northspan and the U of M identified from the assessment data, it is crucial that the community identify specifically what they want to address, based on the data. 

This will be done through regular meetings, known as “Inclusion Learning Cohorts”, and will focus on a different topic and gap each month.

Specifically, these cohorts will:

  • build relationships

  • learn inclusive community practices 

  • discuss areas of need in the community

  • identify a community venture project to help continue the work moving forward 


The format of each meeting will consist of an educational portion led by local educators and people in the community who have expertise in the specific areas. This will be followed by an interactive portion where community members can come together, discuss what was learned, and identify ways to move forward. Dinner will be included. 

At the end of the meetings, a community action team will be identified. This team will receive a pool of money from Northspan and other partners to put towards a community venture project. The community venture project will have an overall goal to help create a more inclusive community. 

If you'd like to get involved, the first cohort is scheduled for Oct 6, 2022, at the Cook County Higher Ed building. The cohorts are free and open to anyone interested in attending. Registration is required. For more information about the cohorts, or to register, visit the Inclusion Learning Cohort link here

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