She's this year's recipient of the Spirit of MLK, Jr. Award.

First off, could you tell us a little bit about yourself? Your family, education, background/previous stops, career, etc.?
    Victoria Ramirez.  I’m married and have 4 children; Desiree (19) freshman at North Dakota State University, Joseph (16) sophomore at Crookston High School, Isaac (11) a sixth grader and Dukessa (10) a fifth grader, both at Highland School.  I moved to Crookston, MN in 1993 as a migrant worker.  I graduated from the University of Minnesota with an Associate Degree in Marketing and Bachelor’s degree in Business Management in 2001.  I’ve also taken several graduate level courses from the University of North Dakota in Public Administration.  My work history encompasses working for the Crookston Public School District as a paraprofessional and with REM and Lutheran Social Services in providing residential services to at-risk youth and adults with developmental disabilities. The last sixteen years I have been working for Polk County Social Services helping individuals with disabilities and connecting them with available resources.  I currently supervise social workers that deliver services in this area.

You’re seen in some circles as kind of a go-to voice for the Hispanic community in Crookston. Do you embrace that label, or do you think it kind of sells you short?
    Interesting question.  I have always been compelled to “be involved.” Ever since, grade school, I can recall volunteering for projects, facilitating, leading, being part of something, coming up with ideas and starting new things and this was when I was going to school in a predominately Hispanic community in southwest Texas.  I naturally would slip into leadership roles, probably due to my personality traits.  One of those being, I have never been afraid to voice my ideas, concerns, and thoughts.  I think this comes from my mom saying things like, “use your voice, stick up for yourself and stick up for those that don’t have a voice.”  At the time, I thought it meant “speak your mind.”  Now as an adult, I think it means so much more.
    When people in my community ask me to be part of a committee, board or discussion, I think to myself, “yes,” here is an opportunity for me to “serve” my community, as it truly is volunteering your time and effort.  Anyone that is involved in different groups, organizations, committees, etc. will say to you they do it because they want to “serve.”  To volunteer your time is a selfless act of kindness, sometimes difficult to do when you are already volunteering in so many other projects or committees, but people may still say “yes” because there is a common goal that is desired by all.  This is where “passion to serve” comes from, the strong desire to make a situation better.  This community is very fortunate to have so many people with the “passion to serve” and make this community a better place.  In my situation, when people come and ask me, “Victoria, could you be part of this discussion or committee?”  My first thought is not because I think they want me to be a “voice” for the Hispanic community, but because they want to hear my “own” thoughts and ideas.  Because they value my input as a parent, community member and stakeholder.  I will not deny my perspective may be different because I am a minority in this community but I would also hope people would be asking me to participate because they value my input as a contributing community member and not try to have me at the table as a “token.”  I embrace the fact that I have strong connections with my Hispanic community members.  I love to see our Hispanic children’s names in the newspaper making the A and B Honor Roll, graduating from high school, going on to higher education, just as I love to see all my other friends’ children.  I love to see our Hispanic families finding gainful employment and securing financial stability, just like I love to see all others succeed. I celebrate with our Hispanic community members for each new business endeavors that flourishes, just like I love to see any new business owner in Crookston flourish, regardless of ethnicity.  As should any other Crookston community member, with anyone that is having success, we should celebrate everyone’s successes.  As a community we should be working together to make Crookston a great place to live, “the community of choice!”  In summary, I do embrace my connections with the Hispanic community but I would not say “I am a go-to voice” for the Hispanic community.  I would say dig a little deeper.

You ran for a seat on the Crookston School Board previously but came up just short of being elected. Do you see yourself running for local elected office in the future, or was that your lone attempt? How important do you think it is for Crookston to have more diversity in its leadership?
    I did run for Crookston School Board in 2010 and unfortunately didn’t make the cut.  Yes, I would consider running again in the future if all the variables were present.  Yes, it is very important to have a more diverse leadership in all aspects of any organization or system structure, whether in the private or public sectors.  I think a diverse leadership team provides an organization an opportunity for growth and awareness and better delivery of service to the diverse populations we serve.  When I think of diverse leadership, it includes but not limited to ethnicity and race, but inclusive of other perspectives that are different than the norm or predominate; it may include gender, gender identity, rural vs. urban, social/economical, generational, forward-thinkers, young adults. Young adults have great new ideas, energy and refreshing attitudes!  I also think having a “strong” leadership team is important to address systematic issues.  People in position of authority have a huge responsibility to lead their organizations in way that is inclusive, fair and equitable.

Kind of piggybacking on the previous question, do you think Crookston lacks diversity in its leadership?
    I would love to see Crookston, all its businesses, organizations, and government entities have a more diverse leadership team.  Again diversity to me, particularly on how it relates to leadership, is do you have a team of people with different perspectives, different backgrounds, different talents and skill sets, are they a good representative to address the issues at hand.  You must have the right people, at the right time, doing the right task.  Ask yourself in whatever groups or organizations you sit on, look around the table, do you have a diverse group of individuals?  Do you have the perspectives and voices of people you serve, at the table and making decisions?

What does it mean to you to be the latest recipient of the Spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Award?
    I am truly honored to have been the latest recipient of the Spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Award.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been a great inspiration to me. It is my joy and passion to use my voice to provide advocacy for others.  I am truly grateful to have received such an awesome acknowledgement.

What are three things that you think the Crookston community really has going for it?
    • What I love about Crookston….hands down, the people!  There are so many great people in Crookston.  When my son was gravely ill about three years ago, there was a huge outpour of support from so many Crookston residents.  It was truly amazing!  I see it every time there is a time of crisis for a family, the community really comes together to support each other.
    • University of Minnesota Crookston.  We are so fortunate to have such a great campus in our city.  Having the University of Minnesota, Crookston so geographically close, makes it very affordable to our Crookston community members to attend a top-notch school and receive a quality college education; earn a “big degree” from a small campus.  The University of Minnesota, Crookston also has so many different events and activities going on all year around that Crookston community members can take advantage of.
    • The desire and passion to make Crookston better.  There are so many committees going on right now, all exploring ways to make Crookston better.  Whether to beautify our streets, bring in new businesses, build new trails, maintain current parks, support our young adults with developing their leaderships skills, supporting our new business owners, tax incentives, supporting new housing endeavors, finding funding for all these projects, collaborating organizations to make the best out of limited resources.  I think Crookston is very fortunate to have so many people with the desire and passion to make Crookston a better place to live and that are willing to volunteer their time and efforts.

On the flip side, what are three challenges facing the Crookston community that you think cannot afford to be shoved under the rug any longer?
    • Social injustice- I think as a community as whole we can no longer keep running business as usual when it comes to providing opportunities and services to people of color and of low-income status.  Really digging deep to uncover social injustices and provide some creative opportunities that give people options to get better and set them up for success instead of creating a cycle of barriers and challenges for those that have no other option but to continue to fail.  These cycles perpetuate poverty, drug/alcohol use, incarceration, mental illness, academic decline, increase drop-out rates, limit housing and job opportunities and overall deteriorate our community.  Tackling social injustices is a huge and multifaceted problem. It would take community members with passion to serve and make this community a better place to continue to advocate for creative options, outside-the-box thinking and an open-mind to deal with these social problems.  It would take community members that are comfortable with identifying their own biases and acknowledging that they have a choice to be part of the solution or part of the problem by not doing anything and by acknowledging that it is their problem too because it is a society problem, (get away from “us” vs. “them” thinking). It would also take strong leadership to follow-through with making systematic changes and making these options available.
    • Another area of challenge that I think affects some members of our community is lack of inclusivity.  I often ask families “why are they moving from Crookston or why are their children not attending Crookston Schools?”  The majority of answers I get after they share their scenario or incident, vary in description but most often come back to, “I don’t feel like I belong.” Some of the individuals that are leaving and not wanting to stay and make Crookston their home are not feeling inclusive, not feeling they are worth it, not being valued for who they are and what they can contribute.  In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, right after food, shelter, water and safety, is “sense of belonging.”  It is essential for a person to have that sense of belonging if they are going to flourish and be the best person they can be.  I think this is an area that most definitely can be improved upon in all levels of our community, it can be easy to do and quite effective if it’s genuine and consistent. Sharing a smile, listening to a story, asking questions, being kind and neighborly, giving a helping hand to someone that is struggling, asking someone to join you for lunch or coffee, engaging young people, make them feel welcomed, sometimes it takes going out of your way but it’s well worth it, if our new comers feel welcomed they may make Crookston their home. The returns can be substantial; increased enrollment in our public schools, increased enrollment at our local university, increased workforce, increased commerce, increased home ownership, increased engagement from our young people, increased volunteerism… the effects can be limitless.  Even though I list this is as a challenge, I will also acknowledge that there are some great strides taking place right now in our community trying to share a message that Crookston is a great place to live and highlight that residents do share a sense of belonging.  Many people do feel this way, including myself, I’ve been very fortunate to make great connections with many people in Crookston and I’m very proud to call Crookston my home, but I still think it can be an area we can improve upon so that everyone feels comfortable to call Crookston their home too.
    • The third challenge I think Crookston is facing, “change.”  It appears to me, generally speaking, our community is a very conservative community.  I don’t think we are comfortable with taking risk, we may take small steps forward and stumble back a step.  We may express we want positive change, but it’s much harder for us to actually allow change to happen to us or our community.  I think we get too comfortable with the status quo and not enough passion or resources to create the change. We may also have barriers in our leadership team that don’t support the change, or not enough “buy-in” from stakeholders, possibly due to fear of the unknown or lack of resources.  Again, I think this is where a diverse and strong leadership team can help implement positive change.  I’ll acknowledge that even though I list this as a challenge, that there are so many members in our community that are forces of change and have accomplished great projects either through individual efforts and/or as combined group/organizational efforts.
    I see challenges as opportunity for growth and strength.  The challenges I listed are not listed because we have neglected to address these issues, but in fact, the opposite, these areas I have seen identified in various discussions personally and professionally and are areas that individuals or groups of individuals work towards to make better every day, either through awareness, education, practice, or service delivery.

The state of Crookston youth…how do you think they’re doing? Does it depend a great deal on who they are? Where they come from? Or what their skin color or last name is?
    Mike, your questions are getting hard!  As I would encourage people to have these “difficult” conversations, I will try my best to answer as tactfully as I can.  
    On the surface and generally speaking, I think our Crookston youth are doing amazing.  For those that are visible, we are seeing them in the newspapers being acknowledged for their great achievements academically, athletically and artistically.  As they should be! I’m a proud parent myself and I am so proud of our Crookston youth for their many accomplishments and for many organizations that recognize our youth.  I do not want to take anything away from that.  I’d like to add to this; for those youth that are not visible, it may be a different story.  There are so many of our youth that live in poverty and are struggling with basic needs, some with single parents working two jobs.  Some youth cannot afford to participate in sports and/or other extra-curricular activities.  Some youth do not have parental involvement with academics and struggle with grades and attendance.  Some youth struggle with not feeling accepted among their peers and lack motivation to engage or excel.  Some youth struggle from mental illness and there’s a lack of services to help support them. Does it depend a great deal in who they are?  Some variables do not discriminate; such as mental illness, grief/loss, chemical use, divorce and sometimes even financial stability. These variables can strike anyone and have devastating effects for our youth.  Some variables; such as race, ethnicity, social/economic status, gender, and gender identity most definitely create barriers and impact the success of our youth and with each variable that is added, the more complicated and difficult it is for our youth to have a “fair” chance.  Yes, each child’s circumstances matter and each child’s journey through adversity may make it harder to accomplish what our society thinks of as “success” or the child may build resilience, “grit,” the ability to bounce back and be stronger and accomplish “success.”  I think as parents, community members, caregivers, it is everyone’s job to help evaluate what our youth (all youth) need to succeed and develop plans and build resources to fill-in the gaps the best we can.  It is to our benefit to support, nourish and promote healthy youth into well-rounded functioning adults that can contribute back to society.

Do you think the average white/Caucasian person who has called Crookston home for a long time realizes just how diverse this community is?
    I have no idea what the average Caucasian person who has called Crookston home thinks. Maybe you have some thoughts Mike?  If I had to guess, I would imagine it varies.  Some might think our community is rich in diversity and either celebrate it or want to have nothing to do with it.  Some might think our community lacks diversity and are okay with that or want to advocate for more diversity.  I would imagine it would depend on each person, what kind of exposure they have had to diversity, what kind of life journey they have experienced, have they lived in Crookston all their life, have they lived in other areas more diverse?  I do know that the world is shrinking, we are becoming a more global community with technology; on-line buying, social media, networking with people around the world, that embracing diversity will only help a person acclimate and thrive in this new global world.

Do you possess any quirky or unique talents, skills or habits that people outside of your inner circle are most likely unaware of? Care to share any?
    For this question, I had to ask my inner circle.  My son says “mindful thoughts,” my youngest daughter says “gives good advice” and is “a great mom.”  My oldest daughter says “great organizer” and “good cook.” My oldest son says “I don’t know” (typical). My husband says “you pick up objects with your feet.” I guess that falls into the “quirky” talents?!

Describe where you think/hope you'll be in 10 years, or what you think/hope you'll be doing, personal life-wise and career-wise.
    Well, I’m nowhere near retirement age, so I suppose in 10 years, I’ll still be working to “help” people.  I really do find a lot of joy and satisfaction in helping others.  I’d like to spend more quality time with my family. I suppose in 10 years, they’ll all be out of school, so maybe having some family vacations, enjoy the young adults my children will turn out to be.  Personally, I’d like to just spend more time in the “present” and it seems the older I get the faster time is moving.

Please describe yourself in ten words or less…
    “I used everything you gave me.” Erma Bombeck