Melissa Wray graduated from the master’s in Arts and Cultural Leadership program, and her studies have bloomed into a series of passion projects that have changed her life completely. This essay from Melissa is an exploration of the value in storytelling and the need to pursue meaningful work.
I grew up surrounded by the bluffs of southeast Minnesota, a flock of sheep, a close-knit family, and lots of storytelling. My mother collected family histories passed through generations. My dad told ghost stories around campfires. At family gatherings, my uncles would trade stories back and forth, until they (and everyone else) were wheezing with laughter.
Now, as founder of MinneStory—a podcast about Minnesota’s rural and urban communities—I am honored to gather personal narratives from around the state. Stories are both universal and specific, and thus hold the power to connect us. Terry Lauden, a woman I interviewed for season one of MinneStory, reiterated this desire for connection when she told me, “This is what people need, to feel a part of something.
I created MinneStory after the 2016 election and the intensifying national dialogue about the rural-urban divide. This dialogue often lacked the nuance of my personal experience living in both rural and urban communities. I was in a creative entrepreneurship class in the U of M’s Arts and Cultural Leadership graduate program at the time, and this class was the push I needed to create MinneStory. The first season featured my hometown county of Houston County, thanks to the Crystal Creek Citizen Artist Residency. Season two will feature Fergus Falls, thanks to the Hinge Arts Residency; and Powderhorn Neighborhood in Minneapolis will be season three, thanks to the help of Powderhorn Park Neighborhood Association.
Through these interviews, my biases have been both challenged and reiterated. People often react strongly to stereotypes: defensively
or with pride. I’m most interested in breaking stereotypes down to examine where these tendencies come from, how they may be true or not, and how they play out in positive or negative ways.
For example, insider mentality (a stereotype of many small towns) can negatively shut out new people or perspectives. Yet that same mentality can foster shared cultural identity that binds a community together. If we harness that tendency for good, we can rely on that very bond to hold us together while talking honestly about our community’s shortcomings or challenges. As another MinneStory interviewee, Dayna Burtness, said, “Of course [differences are] going to come up eventually, but in a smaller community like this, maybe you’ve had a couple months, or a couple years, or a couple decades of friendship first, so your humanity is known to the other person.”
This is, of course, much harder work in practice than in theory, but it's necessary work for growth.
In my graduate program, we talked about the importance of acknowledging who we are in relation to communities we work with. I am aware that as white, cisgender woman who grew up in a small town culture, I can more safely enter rural spaces in a way that many others can’t. I also suspect that I might sometimes take up too much space in my various roles in the Twin Cities. Where I belong is where I
can best contribute to growth in my various communities. More than ever, I feel that place for me is in rural Minnesota.
This realization fueled my decision to move “home” to Caledonia. I’ve secured two buildings: a long-vacant church on Main Street and the accompanying old manse. Along with some talented collaborators, we are going to convert the church building into Mainspring, a nonprofit community space that celebrates and explores local culture through classes, events, and creative services.
The manse (which I’ve now lovingly renamed the Womanse) will be my home. This move symbolizes many things to me, but mostly, it symbolizes hope. I’m not moving home solely for comfort (although I can’t wait to live in bluff country again!). I’m moving home because I have finally realized how I can best give back to the community that raised me: by working collectively towards a future with complex conversations, community celebration, and, of course, storytelling.
Melissa is a 2022 recipient of the Rural Regenerator Fellowship by Springboard for the Arts.