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Dancing, authentic foods to highlight Alexandria's first Diversity Festival

The event is organized by the Inclusion Network, a group of volunteers that strives to welcome people of all backgrounds to the area.

DiversityFest Beatriz 4366.jpg
Beatriz Hadler of Alexandria shows off the dress she'll dance in at the Thursday, Sept. 15 Diversity Festival at Alexandria Technical and Community College. (Lowell Anderson / Echo Press)
Lowell Anderson
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ALEXANDRIA — For the first time, Alexandria Technical and Community College will be the site of a Diversity Festival, complete with cultural food made with authentic ingredients, Native American drumming, and dances from south of the border.

The event is organized by the Inclusion Network, a group of volunteers that strives to welcome people of all backgrounds to the area. It is scheduled for 4-7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 15, at the college's Tactical Warehouse.

"We're hoping an event like this will help people interact and get to know people different from themselves," said Cindy Haarstad, director of student activities for the college who is helping to organize the event.

They were inspired by the Friendship Festival held annually in Pelican Rapids and thought it would be nice to do something similar in Alexandria, said Catherine Scholer Kliewer, another organizer who also teaches English to second-language learners.

Alexandria is far less diverse than Pelican Rapids, where non-white or not-entirely-white people make up more than half the population.

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Still, the number of people who say they are not white or not entirely white has more than doubled during the last two U.S. Census counts, from about 500 during the 2010 count to about 1,300 during the 2022 count. The Census counted fewer non-U.S. citizens, only 109 in 2020 compared to 226 in 2010.

Many students at the college were born to immigrants from East or West Africa and learned English as a second language once they started school, learning their parents language at home first. Others are trying to learn English as adults, and Kliewer said the ones she knows have thrown themselves into it. Those who speak English with an accent may feel embarrassed, especially if someone comments on it, or they are made to feel unwelcome, said Deb LeDoux, a volunteer tutor.

Talking about race and ethnicity in America is often fraught with peril.

"We're all so afraid of making a mistake right now," said Eli Dotts, who coordinates equity, diversity and inclusion at the college.

That's why the organizers are focusing on the twin ambassadors of diversity: food and entertainment. On the menu: Bananas foster, chicken taquitos, chicken teriyaki, egg rolls, empanadas, lefse, Mexican botanas, pilaf, sambusas, sesame balls, spring rolls and taco carnitas.

The food is being prepared by local restaurants with authentic ingredients and recipes. They had to obtain a special orange flavoring for Lebanese baklava, and a certain kind of rice for the rice pilaf. The Colombian foods needed a special type of flour, and the coffee served will be pure, Colombian coffee.

"The restaurants have gone above and beyond in helping us to make this successful," said LeDoux, who is in charge of the festival.

The list of restaurants involved are: Casa Jalisco, DJ's Tap House & Grill, El Loro, Elden's Fresh Foods, Great Hunan, La Ferme, Lure Lakebar, The Depot Smokehouse and Tavern, and The Taste of Colombia from Wadena.

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Planning for the festival began a year ago, giving restaurants time to obtain ingredients and practice making the foods.

Samples of each food will be sold for $1, and some items such as the coffee and Colombian lemonade, and tres leches cake will be free as long as they last. There will also be balloon art, and kettle korn (originally from Germany) will be free with a non-perishable food item.

Cultural demonstrations will include dances like the salsa, cumbia de Colombia and Mexican folk dance, drumming by Native Americans, Kumdo/Art of the Sword, lacrosse, music, and soccer.

The festival was made possible by a $10,000 bequest to support English learners.

Reporter Karen Tolkkinen grew up in Plymouth, Minnesota, graduated from the University of Minnesota with a journalism degree in 1994, and was driven by curiosity to work her way around the United States.
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