By Jason Dunn
Clinton County Chatter Staff Reporter
ST. JOHNS — According to The United States Census Bureau, the town of St. Johns has one of the less diverse local populations in the state of Michigan.
The town has an overwhelming number of 94 percent that represents Caucasian presence in the area. With that number eclipsing the state’s average by just over 15 percent, St. Johns has seen little growth in both racial and socio-economic diversity.
Marie Geller, who has lived in St. Johns for more than 40 years, argues that although the representation of minorities in the area is low, diversity has progressively improved over the years.
“I have lived here my whole life. And it is changing, but it is changing very slowly. There used to be one African-American family in town. And they were the only ones for a long time. And gradually that has changed. I think it’s a good thing because I think you need diversity for change. But, I also think if they can grow up with diversity because then they’re more accepting. I work mostly with children.”
St. Johns Community Director Dave Kudwa said St. Johns has also seen little growth not just racially, but also educationally and socio-economically.
“We are not very diverse in that way here,” he said. “Interestingly enough, I have four kids. Two of my kids are my biological kids, and the other two I adopted. I adopted my daughter from Ethiopia and then I adopted my son from Kazakhstan. So he’s a combination of Asian and Russian and my daughter is African-American.
“So we adopted these kids to bring them back to a small, rural, not really diverse community and its really been a great experience how the community has wrapped their arms around them. We don’t have a really diverse community. We’re obviously close to larger urban areas that have more diverse populations. But, we would love to have a more diverse population here for our folks too.”
Kudwa goes on to suggest that the lack of diversity, might truly be centered around the fact that people of different backgrounds feel uncomfortable in places where similar representation is not present.
“As the community director [though], we’ve got to look for ways to increase not just ethnic diversity, but socioeconomic [diversity] too,” he said. “When someone comes in that may have a hard time reading our applications, maybe educationally, there’s a gap there [also].
“So how in our applications can we create it so that people that have issues and problems can still feel comfortable here? But that’s always a challenge for us. How can other groups and ethnicities come here and feel comfortable [living here]?
“It is hard though, because people don’t always feel comfortable moving to a small, rural town that doesn’t have a lot of diversity. But I grew up here and we’ve always had that problem.”
Geller, who is a librarian at Briggs Public Library, mentioned the impact that the progressive improvement in diversity has had on the children that she interacts with.
“As far as for kids though, they would heartily accept more diversity in this town,” she said. “I think that is because [people like me] I grew up very isolated, where you don’t know [everything] about what’s going on in the world. I don’t think that’s a good thing for kids because when they grow up, they leave this little nest of St. Johns and go out into the big world.
“[At that point] It’s harder for them to learn to click with people they haven’t grown up with.”
She went on more in depth, describing her experiences during her upbringing.
“I was very curious growing up and my grandfather, who grew up two eras back [before mine], had very opinionated ideas that I didn’t agree with. But, that’s the way he grew up,” she said. “So, it was me questioning [during my upbringing], what’s the big deal? I don’t understand why you’re so derogatory. So, even as a little girl, I was curious. I didn’t understand.
“As I got older, and there were more people in high school [more diverse], I was pretty much like ‘ok, this is cool’. And now I have grandsons. And they’re curious, but they’re still learning at the same time. And I didn’t really have the opportunity to have a hands-on experience, like a friendship, or a classmate, when I was their age. But, they do and I think that’s great.”
When asked about specific initiatives that have been manufactured in hopes of increasing diversity in the area, Kudwa said that it is still an ongoing process.
“I can’t think of a time where we’ve produced [a project or initiative] for a specific reason of intentionally developing diversity,” he said. “But looking forward, we should start asking, how does our Master Plan pave the way for bringing diverse groups into our town? I will be looking for ways to integrate that [diversity] into our Master Plan.”
Sandra Kemp, a secretary at First Congregational Church, says that although her church hasn’t seen tremendous growth in racial diversity, there has been more representation from the younger generation, as of late.
Kemp describes First Congregational as a church with a much older congregation, customarily.
“Since I’ve been here, there have been younger couples that have come in with small children. That’s been really encouraging, but the congregation here is older,” she said. “So to see the younger couples coming in and bringing in their families has really been encouraging.
“I think because we partner with the Basic Needs Center downtown, we see more people that fit into the needy status. We conduct a baby pantry on Tuesdays, as well. From that, people have started to come to the services [on Sundays].”
Helen Moore, who has lived in St. Johns for nearly 50 years and has attended First United Methodist Church for almost as long, mentions that racial diversity specifically, is improving.
“I’ve been here since about 1967. Diversity has improved. We have a lady who teaches English to Spanish-speaking students in the area, here at the church, once a month,” she said.
We’ve got mixed race people in the congregation, really grandchildren that are growing up and they are accepted fine, here,” she said.