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Why St. Cloud's Mayor Keeps Cooking Chili

Elected three times, Minnesota's Dave Kleis takes community engagement seriously — very seriously

Mayor Dave Kleis of St. Cloud, Minnesota, speaks with dinner guests on his backyard deck

Photo by Jerry Holt, Starr Tribune via Zuma Wire

St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis and his guests relax on his backyard deck during a 2017 chili and apple pie dinner party. In 2018, at his 13th annual State of the City address, Kleis announced that a minibus the regional transit agency planned to scrap was becoming a Mayor’s Mobile Town Hall venue. “I’m upping this town hall meeting deal,” he joked. “I’m going to take it on the road.”

Dave Kleis, the mayor of St. Cloud, Minnesota, has held a town hall meeting every week since taking office in 2005. He records a weekly two-minute video message. (Check them out on Twitter.) He hands out Neighbor of the Month certificates. (Neighbors nominate neighbors.)

Once a month, he invites a handful of people he doesn’t know to his house for dinner. Why?

“For me, it’s invaluable to hear people’s thoughts about the city. And eating is a great way to stimulate a comfortable discussion,” he explains. The invitees come from a list of potential guests drawn from town hall meeting participants and people who have called City Hall.

Kleis cites research that finds Americans’ greatest fear is public speaking. “This shows how it’s inherently difficult for many people to participate in public meetings,” he says. “The best way to get past that is to have a conversation.”

So the mayor cooks up chili, with and without meat, and sometimes bakes an apple pie.

For his first-ever constituent supper, held in 2015, Kleis invited a barber, a nursing student, a football player from St. Cloud State University and a psychologist. “I try to reach out to people who have less influence in the city,” he explains.

"It's so critical today when less and less people are engaged and involved that we find a way to engage and involve. To me, this is the best way to get input from people. I'm going out to listen."

— St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis about his community outreach efforts, including his "Mayor's Mobile Town Hall" bus, which got rolling in April 2018

Mayor Dave Kleis and two dinner guests pose for a selfie

Photo by Jerry Holt, Starr Tribune via Zuma Wire

“Dinners like this prove this can be our home,” said a guest — an immigrant from Sudan — after attending a 2017 dinner party at the home of St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis (shown posing for a selfie with two other guests, both refugees). Later that year, the City Council rejected, by a 6 to 1 vote, a measure to end refugee resettlements.

Until as recently as 1990, St. Cloud was 97percent white. A period of strong economic growth brought ethnic diversity, and nearly three decades later almost 20 percent of the city’s 67,000 residents are people of color. More than 40 languages are spoken at home by students in the public schools.

The rapid change brought some tensions, sparking campaigns such as Create CommUNITY, which launched a citywide conversation to promote racial harmony. Other ways the city takes the pulse of the populace is through a community-wide survey. Questions concern whether the respondent feels safe, welcome and included.

In 2016, when a Somali refugee stabbed 10 people at the city’s shopping mall before being killed by police, the event made national news. Many feared that the popular shopping center would lose business.

So Kleis, who holds many of his town halls in the mall’s food court, made a  point of visiting the mall and buying a suit at the Macy’s where the man had been shot. People of all races continued shopping at the mall, and there were no anti-immigrant protests in the wake of the incident.

“We’ve been building community all that time,” Kleis later told the Star Tribune. “You never know you’re doing anything until a time of crisis.”

This article is an excerpt from the "Inspire Community Engagement" chapter of the AARP book Where We Live: Communities for All Ages — 100+ Inspiring Examples From America’s Community Leaders. Download or order your free copy.

Book published June 2018 

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