Culture 'N motion

P.G. Narayanan and Sana Elassar shared stories and traditions from their Indian heritages at the Oct. 4 Culture ‘N Motion event, which aimed to educate Eden Prairie residents about the diversity of the community.

On a cool Friday evening in October, around 50 people mingled in the East Commons of Eden Prairie High School for the city's first round of cultural speed dating.

The event, called Culture 'N Motion, was the brainchild of Mark Weber, executive director of the Eden Prairie Community Foundation (EPCF). He and his co-sponsors − the city's Human Rights and Diversity Commission and Eden Prairie Schools Community Education − saw the event as a way to build understanding between the city's many residents.

"I think the stereotype of Eden Prairie is that it's not terribly diverse," Weber said, but in his 20 years as a resident, he's met many neighbors from a wealth of different backgrounds and cultures.

Culture 'N Motion's foundations were the hosts of six tables, each sharing their personal stories and heritages. While they knew they weren't representing every culture in Eden Prairie, the sponsors saw the six tables − Sana Elassar and P.G. Narayanan discussing their Indian heritages and clothing, Jeff Jiang of the Eden Prairie Chinese Association with Chinese textbooks and toys, Alfonso Chicre and Hernan Moncada sharing their Latino and Hispanic origins, Nanette Missaghi discussing her Cherokee roots, Asad Aliweyd talking about his Somali community and Kathie Case and Paul Thorp of the Eden Prairie Historical Society presenting European settlers' stories −as a good start for the event's first year, Weber said.

Eden Prairie is the 30th most diverse of 98 major cities in Minnesota, with 23.4% of its 63,660 residents being persons of color, according to Minnesota Compass, a data project by Wilder Research. (That may well be an under-count: Communities typically missed by the U.S. Census include racial and ethnic minorities, native and indigenous peoples, and non-English speakers, according to the U.S. Census website.) Its white population is far from a monolith, too: 29% of residents claim German ancestry, 12% place their roots in Norway, and 10.8% have Irish ancestry, according to data from the 2017 American Community Survey — and that's just the three largest categories of 27.

"From what I've observed or collected, I think our residents know our community is culturally diverse," Jiang said, but events like Culture 'N Motion and the annual PeopleFest! present opportunities to break through assumptions and educate neighbors about traditions and values — for example, Jiang said, sharing his culture's emphasis on hard work and education to correct the stereotype that Chinese people are inherently better at math.

Chicre, who's also on the board of the EPCF, appreciated attendees' appetite to learn.

"You go to this event to learn something new. You're not forcing people," he explained. Chicre, who moved to Minnesota from Colombia, has lived in Eden Prairie since 2005 and sees himself as "a hybrid of two cultures." He sees room in Eden Prairie for more cross-cultural connection on a daily basis, outside of yearly events like PeopleFest! and Culture 'N Motion.

"It would be nice to see more restaurants" with different cuisines, Chicre said. "What helps to break the barrier for people to learn about other cultures is food and music."

"Sometimes, when you cross cultures, there's a tendency for awkwardness," acknowledged Greg Leeper, chair of the Human Rights and Diversity Commission (HRDC). "Sometimes one-on-one can feel a little high-pressure."

Leeper pointed to the group aspect of Culture 'N Motion, with five or six people moving from table to table together, as a way to ease that tension.

"The goal was really to give our community a window into the various cultural and ethnic heritages that are in Eden Prairie," he said. "Often Eden Prairie is perceived as place lacking diversity," but it's "a real outlier in the southwest suburbs," and the HRDC's goal is to highlight, celebrate and connect residents across cultural differences, he added.

While Weber noted that attendance was lower than anticipated — around 25 people showed up — he plans on holding Culture 'N Motion again next year. Molly Patil, director of adult and community engagement programs for Eden Prairie Schools Community Education, which co-sponsored the event, said planners have received positive feedback from visitors about how "energizing" the evening was.

"These types of events are also addictive," Patil wrote in an email to Eden Prairie News. "The more you learn about other cultures, the more you want to learn more about other cultures.

"As the demographics of Eden Prairie change, we think it’s important for residents to have opportunities to get to know their neighbors, while keeping in mind, that we’ve always had immigrants and people of varying cultures moving into the city and enhancing our community," Patil wrote.

Eden Teller is the multimedia reporter for Eden Prairie News. She's passionate about fostering productive conversations and empowering communities. When she's not reporting, she can be found reading a book, on a hike or tackling home improvement projects.

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