The Transformative Circle of Coon Rapids, Minnesota

Lori Anderson manages the Civic Center in the City of Coon Rapids. Even in this central role, she still felt the need for a deeper engagement with the people in her community. Seeing the divide between white people and people of color widening, she started the initiative Transformative Circle to foster more conversations between neighbors who usually wouldn’t get to talk to each other. What started as a project to transform Coon Rapids turned out to be a lesson in transforming herself. We thought you might enjoy this interview we recently did with her.

What is the Transformative Circle?

The Transformative Circle is a diverse group of people coming together to foster greater understanding and appreciation for our community and cultural differences. We facilitate what we call intentional social interactions. The model is based on lessons learned from Marnitas Table.

We first have discussions at round tables about a set topic, using pre-written questions to get folks talking. Then there is usually a speaker. We had an Imam give a talk on Islam 101, a woman talk about what it’s like to be a Muslim woman in Minnesota today, a discussion on transgender issues, a couple of police/community facilitated discussions, and a lesson on interrupting racism. The topic of our last meetup was, “What do you call home?“ Our next gathering will be all about bias, then religion. People really like it. We meet every month in the Civic Center at the City Hall.

But you don’t just share thoughts, you also share food during these gatherings. Why is that important?

Introducing food brings a sense of joy and comfort to almost any discussion. It’s important that people feel welcome and wanted, and I think that food does that. The meals are planned in such a way that they are pleasing to everyone from vegan to carnivore. They are also planned so that guests assemble their own meals and no one goes away hungry because of a food allergy or issue.
Conversations takes place during the meal. Plates are intentionally small and the room is short-seated so that when someone gets up to refill their plate, it’s possible that someone will take their seat and so they have to now sit with a new group of people.
We try to keep people moving around the room, forcing them to meet new people and make new friends. One of the core roots is “fun”, and we try to make meeting new people fun. The phrase “organized chaos” comes to mind!

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What made you start this initiative?

The Civic Center where I work is a banquet and meeting facility that is used by people from all over the metro area for everything ranging from girl scout and home owner association meetings to weddings, quinceaneras, and other celebrations. This is where I started to meet people from all over the world who have come to call Coon Rapids and surrounding communities “home”. I was so excited! I wanted to host a big party where we could all get together to meet and learn about each other.

Then the Michael Brown Shooting happened and all the riots that followed and that’s what really got us going. Between me and my co-worker and friend, Vince Vu, we decided we wanted to do something positive. We set up the Transformative Circle as a grass-roots effort.

Our community is meanwhile growing more and more diverse. People are moving here from all over the world. We, unfortunately, had a few racially-related incidents. That attracts more people to join our efforts. More and more people want to get to know their neighbors.

Is it easy to bring people from all different backgrounds together?

I could fill a room with just white people easily. It takes more effort to bring a diverse group of people together every month. We have people from different countries in Africa, the Middle-East, and Asia.

People who come are people who would normally not make friends with people who are immigrants or Muslims. Coon Rapids is pretty conservative. We are good at self- segregation with single-family residential neighborhoods that are rather white. People who move here also tend to socialize with other people from their country.

I leverage my position as manager of the civic center. It allows me to create a relationship with people from the moment they come here. I let them know about opportunities like the Transformative Circle.

Can you share a few insights into the methods you use to facilitate the round tables?

There are lots of single things we do to prompt conversations. Question Cards are on the tables to facilitate conversation (we also have pretty centerpieces). We intentionally have fewer tables out than the number of guests we are expecting. We can roll out more tables and chairs as needed – and it’s really exciting when we do! When we have a large crowd (30+) we’ll gain their attention and ask that they change tables. Most do, but we count on about 25% not wanting to move.
About 1.5 hours after the start we have an activity – once we played a game of Black Women in Bold History Jeopardy, another time we played Civic Rights Bingo. About 10 minutes before the end of the evening we have a Circle Share – everyone stands shoulder-to-shoulder and perhaps gives a word or sentence of their take-away for the evening. Or perhaps they turn to the person next to them and, one at a time, says something that they wished that someone would say to them. That can be a powerful experience. Then we’ll have someone read a poem or writing that has something to do with the topic of the evening.

How did getting involved with a community project change you or your life?

(Laughs) I did the ENTJ personality test before I started the project and after. And it turned out I’ve gone from introvert to slightly extrovert.

About twice a year I host a pot-luck dinner at my home with a similar purpose to the Transformative Circle, but it’s more casual. Wine and beer are served. I’ve had perhaps 40 people in my home at one time, all engaged in conversation, laughing, and having a good time.
I tried to start a book club, to read both fiction and non-fiction books by and about people of color, but found that I didn’t have time. It’s something that will happen, but just not now. Perhaps someone else will step up to move that initiative forward.

I meet so many people from different cultures and background and learn so many new things. Having more contact with people with different challenges than myself, like women who raise children without husbands and have no money to pay for rent. These conversations changed me personally a lot.

I read books that I would have never read. I’m going to events that are put on by people from different cultures, that I wouldn’t have gone to before.

Some people get excited about movie stars and musicians. I now get excited about meeting people who are organizers. I love meeting and talking to people who are movers and shakers.

Where would you like to take this initiative?

One of my end goals is to change the name of the city. Drop the first bit. It’s really off-putting to some people that we have such a derogatory term as “coon” in our city’s name.

But to get there, more importantly, I want to create a community of people who are engaged with each other regardless of color, religion, sexuality, age, and ability. I would like to see a council filled with people who reflect the constituents that they represent. Same with City Hall, which is currently 92% white. Coon Rapids is a city of 62,000 people and a population that is about 30% diverse and growing. I believe that we make better decisions for our community when all perspectives are included in the discussion. We have a ways to go, but I think we are on the right track

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