Victoria McWane-Creek, an African-American college administrator in Fergus Falls, Minn., recalled one of the more blatant acts of racism she encountered in the past year.

Her family was preparing a Labor Day picnic when a group of white men shouted “hey n — — -” before speeding off in an SUV.

“It’s not so much overt acts of racism, some folks face just an atmosphere and culture of society that reduces the humanity of the other,” she said. “Being whatever while black here is more difficult.”

This month, in a classroom at the Minnesota State Community and Technical College, where she is the housing director, McWane-Creek had a literal seat at the table as Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison asked for ideas on how he could leverage his office to address incidents like hers.

Facing a rising number of episodes of intolerance against immigrants and minorities, rural Minnesota is emerging as a key part of state officials’ search for solutions to hate and bias-motivated crime.

Ellison gathered educators, health workers and civic leaders in Fergus Falls as he begins laying the foundation for a working group aimed at improving police responses to crimes that appear motivated by racism or other forms of prejudice, which increased 22% from 2016 to 2017, the most recent year for which state data are available.

While gatherings that address intolerance are familiar fare for public officials in the more diverse Twin Cities, Ellison found himself in the town of 13,000 about 170 miles northwest of Minneapolis at the invitation of Mayor Ben Schierer, who described curbing a rising tide of hate crime as “one of the most important issues of our time.”

“Along with climate this is one of the important issues: how we deal with hate,” Schierer told a room of about two dozen members of an informal “inclusivity council” on the college campus.

The visit reflects a growing recognition by Ellison and other state and federal law enforcement officials of the need for rural participation in combating bias in Minnesota.

Ellison’s stop, one of nearly 20 community visits since taking office, came a week after a newspaper editor in Pelican Rapids — about 20 miles north of Fergus Falls — felt it necessary to respond publicly to a racist comment that had been left on the newspapers’ Facebook page featuring a photo from the local high school graduation of several Somali students in hijabs beneath their graduation caps.

The managing editor, Louis Hoglund, wrote a tongue-in-cheek column mocking the commenter’s assertion that the paper was “anti-American” for running the photo of the Somali graduates.

Just before Ellison’s road trip, St. Cloud drew unwanted national attention in a New York Times report on unwelcoming sentiment cast toward Somali immigrants in that city.

But Ellison was careful not to paint all of rural Minnesota with the same brush.

“I think there is as much tolerance and intolerance in Greater Minnesota as there is anywhere else,” Ellison said in an interview. “There are people working on tolerance in Greater Minnesota every day and all the time. It’s just that they don’t really get known for it.”

‘It’s a linchpin’

McWane-Creek leads Fergus Falls’ inclusivity council and said she is also organizing a rural equity summit next year, planned on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to try to bring more people from across the state in on the conversation.

“It’s a linchpin,” McWane-Creek said of Ellison’s visit. “That is where we can actually move the needle on the experience of people who are being ‘othered.’ ”

Schierer is also promoting the importance of rural communities in welcoming new Americans, who will be vital to sustaining small-town economies. The turkey plant in nearby Pelican Rapids, for example, has drawn waves of migrant workers from Hispanic, Asian, Bosnian and Somali communities that have boosted the town for decades.

Joan Ellison, a founding member of the Pelican Rapids Multicultural Committee, traveled to Fergus Falls for the attorney general’s visit this month, one day ahead of her town’s annual Friendship Festival. The multicultural celebration had been a regular event for two decades until going dormant in 2011. But Joan Ellison, no relation to the attorney general, explained that the community revived the event after the 2017 white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville, Va., as a way to “make sure what happened there does not happen here.”

The attorney general also heard concerns over a lack of diversity among teachers at local schools with 40% students of color. And McWane-Creek described how less-than-overt examples of racism can still erode the fabric of a community. Taken together, the conversation represented a local approach to problem-solving that Schierer is counting on to address hatred.

“I see it every day, I see that it’s real and I see that it is something we have to deal with at the local level,” Schierer said.

New role for Ellison

Ellison told the group in Fergus Falls that while their work felt urgent, “bear in mind we’ve been fighting this fight a long time.”

Taking the lead on talks around hatred and racism has been a more natural fit for Ellison than his experience as the country’s first Muslim congressman.

“I was put in this role of having to speak for an entire community,” Ellison said. “And now, I’m still who I am but now I just get to be the A.G. And here’s the thing: Talking about hate crimes, talking about Islamophobia and anti-Semitism is not anything that another A.G. would not do.”

Still, Ellison is taking a more active and public stance than his predecessors on the issue, meeting with state and federal law enforcement officials and gearing up for a working group to examine possible changes to the law and codifying standards for police when they respond to reports of bias crimes.

Ellison’s introduction to white-power extremist movements came when he was a defense attorney in the 1990s, representing two men who were acquitted after being charged in separate cases involving altercations with local white-power and neo-Nazi sympathizers.

As a congressman, Ellison also wrote letters to the military to express concerns over white-power followers being enlisted in the armed forces. He also wrote to former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to express concerns about armed anti-Muslim demonstrations outside an Arizona mosque.

“What’s clear is these people are organizing,” Ellison said. “They’re here in Minnesota and they are violent and they’re willing to stab and hurt people while hiding behind the First Amendment.”

Ellison frequently cites examples of hateful extremism turning to violence, most notably a series of deadly shootings at U.S. synagogues and the New Zealand massacre of 51 Muslims that was livestreamed online.

In Fergus Falls, Ellison described his talks with law enforcement across the state as a necessary response to such attacks — part of what he called “an international movement.”

“In the age of the internet, don’t think it’s just over there,” Ellison said. “It can be anywhere.”