Maybe the greatest thing about the work of Marnita’s Table – in particular, our model of Intentional Social Interaction – is its effectiveness. While people sometimes let us know later on about a job obtained or grades improved or collaborative relationships launched as a result of a single Table – in fact, we hear back from roughly 15% of Table attendees — that still leaves a great many positive outcomes we never hear about.
Here’s an example. Not too long ago we were in St. Cloud, Minnesota, to meet with our friends and colleagues at the Central Minnesota Community Foundation, an organization rare in the foundation world for its dedication to building social capital in its target communities. We have worked with the CMCF for several years, and they were early converts to the efficacy of our work.
The meeting was to plan a Table on May 10 that would encourage and support immigrant entrepreneurs in Central Minnesota. But first, we asked participants – local business people, foundation representatives, immigrant community leaders, and others – to relate something about their previous experience with Marnita’s Table.
One of the first to speak up was Brian Myres, head of nationwide sales at ING Direct, the international financial services firm, who is also board chair for CMCF. He talked about a Table on volunteerism that we did in St. Cloud two years ago and related how Marnita, near the close of the event, challenged participants to commit to a single action in the near future based on something they had just learned or someone they had just met.
Brian related how he had that day had a great conversation with Tohow Siyad, a Somali refugee who had settled in St. Cloud some years before, and he committed to taking Tohow out to lunch. St. Cloud, not so incidentally, has seen a major influx of refugees and immigrants from Somalia and other parts of East Africa, Mexico, Asia and elsewhere over the last 10 years. The result has been considerable stress and strain between longtime residents, who are mostly of Germanic or Scandinavian extraction and newcomers. St. Cloud is also noteworthy for being the center of Republican Congresswoman (and former presidential candidate) Michele Bachmann’s district, which tells you that it is a rock-ribbed conservative community.
So Brian and Tohow got together for lunch not long after, and Tohow told Brian about his dream of starting a medical taxi company. Because they had already established a relationship of trust (and, no doubt, Brian recognized a good idea when he heard it), he helped open some doors at CentraCare Health System, the largest medical provider in the region, and at other local financial institutions.
Now, two years later, Tohow is running a thriving company with nine cabs and employees who include immigrants and longtime St. Cloud residents.
Just think how something like this changes the tenor of the conversation about immigration. Rather than looking at immigrants as a drain on community resources – there are some incredible myths out there, such as that every refugee gets a free car from the “government” – suddenly they can be a source of badly needed jobs. And one refugee family has gotten its piece of the American dream.