Thomas Friedman: Small town, big lesson for America

Thomas Friedman. (AP Photo/Stephen Chernin)
Thomas Friedman. (AP Photo/Stephen Chernin)STEPHEN CHERNIN

Willmar, Minn.

In 1949 my aunt and uncle moved from Minneapolis to this town in west-central Minnesota, where they started a small steel distribution company. I visited them regularly for 50 years. About 40 years ago, my aunt whispered to me one day that she had been in her local grocery store and had heard someone ... "speaking Spanish."

It was said with wonderment not malice. It was surely my aunt's first encounter with new immigrants in her largely white, Lutheran, Scandinavian town, where she and her husband — two Minnesota Jews — had been about the most exotic things going.

Since I've been visiting towns around America for two years, I decided to go back to Willmar to see how it had changed. At Willmar High School, the principal, Paul Schmitz, showed me a big world map in the lobby, with pins representing all the different places the students hail from.

That map has pins from 30 countries across Latin America, the Middle East, Asia and the rest of the world. Willmar, population 21,000, is now nearly half Latino, Somali and a Noah's ark of other East African and Asian immigrants. The languages spoken in the high school include English, Arabic, Somali, Spanish and Karen (spoken by an ethnic group from Myanmar).

The cliché about America today is that we're divided between two coasts that are liberalizing, pluralizing, globalizing and modernizing, and in between is "flyover America," where everyone voted for Donald Trump, is suffering from addictions and is waiting for the 1950s to return.

That's not what I've found. America is a checkerboard of towns and cities — some rising from the bottom up and others collapsing from the top down, ravaged by opioids, high unemployment among less-educated white males and a soaring suicide rate. I've been trying to understand why some rise and others fall — and so many of the answers can be found in Willmar.

The answers to three questions in particular make all the difference: 1) Is your town hungry for workers to fill open jobs? 2) Can your town embrace the new immigrants ready to do those jobs, immigrants who may come not just from Latin America, but also from nonwhite and non-Christian nations of Africa or Asia? And 3) Does your town have a critical mass of "leaders without authority"?

These are business leaders, educators, philanthropists and social entrepreneurs ready to lead their community toward inclusion and problem-solving — even if formal leaders won't. These leaders without authority check their party politics at the door and focus only on what works. They also network together into complex adaptive coalitions to spearhead both economic and societal change.

Willmar has the right answers to all three questions. It has almost zero unemployment. The math is simple: There just aren't enough white Lutheran Scandinavians to fill those jobs.

Many of the people coming here for work are people who practice faiths not previously common in these parts, like Islam, Baha'i and Buddhism; whose skin is much darker than the locals'; and whose women often wear head coverings. Have no doubt, the battle for inclusion is a daily struggle in Willmar and across Minnesota. The towns that are rising are places "that have said we need a trained workforce with a good work ethic and we'll embrace a redefined sense of community to get that," explained Dana Mortenson, CEO of World Savvy, a global education organization. The ones that are struggling — and losing both jobs and population — "are often the ones who can't manage this new inclusion challenge."

Social networks, globalization, climate change, economic opportunity, demographics and war are throwing more people together with more "other" people in more remote places than ever before. What's happening in Willmar tells you just how deep this is going and why every town in America needs to get caught trying to make diversity work — or it will whither.

Willmar's mayor, Marv Calvin, is Exhibit A of why leadership from positions of authority also matters — because so many people take their cues from mayors, principals and agency heads. He comes across as a big good ol' boy, but underneath is a steely resolve to do whatever it takes to transform Willmar for the 21st century.

" have a town of 21,000 that had been virtually all white and Christian its entire existence become nearly half new immigrants in the blink of two decades." And it is pretty clear where this is going. In the public early childhood program, the mayor said, 45 percent of students are of East African descent, 35 percent Latino and 16 percent Caucasian (although a lot of whites send their kids to private schools).

"If that doesn't wake you up about the community we have to build, you have to be sleeping pretty hard," Calvin said.