Neighborhood Leadership Program Helps Minnesota Newcomer Xiomara Bell Connect with Diverse Communities
Neighborhood Leadership Program graduate Xiomara Bell was working in mental health care in her native Louisiana when she felt called to use her degrees in history. Last year she applied for, interviewed and accepted a job at the Minnesota Historical Society without ever having visited the state. “I didn’t think anything of it until I got to my apartment that had no furniture but a blow up mattress waiting for me,” Xiomara says. “I broke down, like, ‘I can’t believe I just did this.’”
As Xiomara settled into her role as African American Community Liaison at the Minnesota Historical Society in fall 2018, her supervisor suggested that she join the Neighborhood Leadership Program, a Wilder community leadership program for people who want to improve their ability to act on important issues faced by local neighborhoods and communities.
Xiomara jumped at the chance, and she met a cohort of leaders and facilitators who she says provided the space and nurturing she needed to grow into her life in Minnesota. “That was my first community,” Xiomara says. “I was able to be my authentic self, my vulnerable self.”
Exploring self-awareness through culture, community and history are part of the Neighborhood Leadership Program
During the six-month program, Xiomara and her cohort met regularly to explore opportunities for neighborhood involvement and personal growth, connect with people and understand the history of local communities.
“It is this gathering of people – intergenerational – that transcends race and economic backgrounds,” Xiomara says. “It provides a sense of cultural sensitivity, to empathize with people in their own lived experiences in order to become familiar with what other people actually grapple with. You’re not alone, despite all the differences that you may have. It gives you the extra push that you need to be effective.”
Among her most memorable experiences was a privilege walk, a session in which program participants started together and took a step forward or backward depending on their answers to questions such as if they were born in the U.S. or if they had access to health care growing up. At the end, Xiomara was one of two other Black women who remained behind the starting line. “It made people realize and recognize their privilege,” Xiomara says. “It made us come face to face with things that could have potentially held us back and still has staggering effects on our progression through life. Although we’re triumphant people, we have to jump over hurdles and move around boulders, which just slows us down, but doesn’t stop the strides.”
Increased effectiveness in leading and engaging diverse communities are a result of the Neighborhood Leadership Program
Xiomara says the program's lessons about leadership through understanding others and community have helped her to be more effective in community and in her work. As the African American community liaison, she works with the African American community to create a sustainable, symbiotic, supportive relationship, in which the African American communities’ voices are amplified and they feel free and entitled to use the Minnesota Historical Society as a community resource. Her goal is for community members to see themselves reflected in the Historical Society’s work and become aware of ways in which they may already be reflected in the organization. Members of Xiomara’s Neighborhood Leadership Program cohort and previous cohorts even took part in one of the focus groups she conducted.
On a recent afternoon at Golden Thyme Coffee & Cafe in Saint Paul, she chats with other customers and makes plans to attend an event with a respected elder and historian who stops to greet her. “I really, really love my job,” Xiomara says. “I feel like I’m fulfilling my purpose, not just my purpose, but fulfilling ancestral purpose. These are concerns and these are things that we’ve been doing since we arrived to this continent.”