Flags of many colors on the Iron Range

Flags hang from the rafters of the commons at Hibbing Community College. Each flag represents a nation of origin for at least one student at the college. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

Flags hang from the rafters of the commons at Hibbing Community College. Each flag represents a nation of origin for at least one student at the college. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

Today at 11:30 a.m., Hibbing Community College will dedicate its World Flags Project at the campus commons. Like many community and technical colleges around Minnesota, HCC has seen an influx of immigrants and first generation Americans.

HCC’s diversity committee surveyed those students to determine their national origin. A flag from each nation is now displayed in the commons as a welcome to all. Come on down if you’re in the neighborhood.

To call Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range a land of immigrants is truth bordering on cliche. You can’t talk about a major news story here without a history lesson involving an immigrant laborer posing for a stilted black-and-white photograph in between double shifts at an underground iron mine.

The immigrant story is important to the Iron Range because it was the source of the region’s uniqueness, its collective “Something-American” culture. Our last names, our accent, our ethos all came from this identity. The immigrants came and quite literally sacrificed their health, happiness and very lives to provide opportunity to their children. Their children, hungry but educated, seized that opportunity with gusto.

But most of those folks are gone now. We’re in the fourth generation. Or fifth. My children are sixth-generation on the Mesabi. The Iron Range’s unique ability to raise up people in poverty, our distinguished hard-working reputation, our love of the arts and society — these things have never been more endangered than they are right now.

This has been a miserable year to love the Iron Range. Our local politics today closes itself off from the outside world, divisive and ineffectual. Our towns decay. Mines brace for a long-anticipated shutdown, made tolerable only because of predictability and routine. It would be an easy year to give up on the Iron Range.

This is why I haven’t.

As a teacher at Hibbing Community College I see the effects of economic and cultural stagnation on the Iron Range every day. Students face tremendous challenges related to child care, work, transportation, family and social problems. Many fail to overcome those challenges, but many others do. Everywhere you turn, little green shoots of humanity continue to grow. Love. Hope. Perseverance. And just like 100 years ago, immigrants often lead the way.

The last few months have seen “good ol’ boy” politics and another cyclical bust in the mining industry. I still hear racist and sexist jokes from people who should know better. It’d be tempting to say that nothing changes, which is somehow OK because “we’re used to this.”

But the truth is that the Iron Range has changed. Just as the Ojibwa lands of the 1800s become the industrial frontier for Carnegie and Rockefeller and their hired hands from around the world, the Iron Range of my ancestors is gone. Stories, remembered. We’d better. We’re next.

The Iron Range changes still. Just look at the flags and spend some time with the young families scraping by on less than you think in jobs no one else wants. These are the people I am concerned with. These are my people. These are our people. Celebrate them. They bear the fruit of future prosperity. Protect and defend them. Carry their colors, no matter their nation. These are our colors. Do you remember?

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A press release from my colleague Miriam Kero and the diversity committee at HCC:

The HCC Diversity Committee invites you to the dedication of our World Flags Project on Thursday, March 19, at the HCC Commons. The event begins at 11:30 AM, with opening remarks by Provost Mike Raich and an introduction of the project by Diversity Officer Roopa Joshi. Cultural food choices will be available for purchase in Culinary Arts thanks to Chef Cari Weatherton and the Culinary Arts Department, and cultural music and dress are encouraged.

The HCC World Flags Project was created to represent the identity, ethnicity and nationality of the college’s students, faculty and staff. The goal is to create a more welcoming and inclusive environment by showing homage to the cultural backgrounds of those attending and working at HCC. Flags representing the college populations’ identities were either purchased (thanks to a generous gift from the Hibbing Community College Foundation) or donated by Minnesota Tribes (Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, Red Lake Nation Band of Chippewa, and the Upper Sioux Community). The flags have been suspended from the Commons ceiling thanks to Jimmer Hodge and the maintenance department.

“The whole world is our family,” said Roopa Joshi, HCC Diversity Officer. “We are so happy to be able to show this by hanging these beautiful flags and celebrating together. We hope that everyone can come and celebrate with us.”

The project was led by the HCC Diversity Committee and Multicultural Club. The HCC Diversity Committee works to create an inclusive, friendly and supportive environment for all by eliminating barriers and celebrating our differences.

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This piece is cross-posted with my Up North Report blog at the Star Tribune.


  1. This is a good piece. Thanks.

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