The pandemic makes it harder for newcomers to make friends in clannish Minnesota

Born and raised in the Carolinas, Stephanie Rerych thought it would be “an adventure” to follow her boyfriend when he accepted a job in Minneapolis.

When they arrived in January, they were busy unpacking and settling into their jobs; Rerych as a corporate trainer, her boyfriend in a medical device company. They only ventured out sporadically, but were looking forward to meeting people and exploring the Twin Cities in spring.

“Before we had the chance to experience the city, COVID shut it down,” said Rerych, 30. “It feels like we’re waiting in the wings. I know there are like-minded people we could hang out with, but how do you meet them in a safe way?”

Minnesota has long had the rap of being tough on newcomers. With a high percentage of natives, many locals are too busy with their families and old friends to have time for — or interest in — making new relationships. Add the Scandinavian reserve and the many months when winter keeps people indoors and you’ve got a challenging environment for newbies.

“My boyfriend and I joke that we need a friend app,” said Rerych. “We don’t blame Minneapolis — we’re charmed by the city, but we don’t know how to break in and connect.”

Clubs and meetups where they might have made overtures have canceled their meetings and activities. Nightclubs, bars and other public gathering spots where people circulate are shuttered.

Many businesses have sent their workers home, eliminating the possibility for newcomers to chat at the office coffee pot or snag an invitation to after-work happy hours. With many youth activities canceled, even those with children can’t tag along to their practices or lessons in hopes of meeting other parents.

Jo Meyer still considers herself a Twin Cities newcomer even though she and her husband left their small Iowa hometown when they retired five years ago, moving to Bloomington to be closer to their daughter.

“We’re in a condo and people were friendly, but we wanted a life outside that,” said Meyer, 67.

Looking online, she found the Newcomers of the Southwest Suburbs, which she calls “a lifesaver.” Now membership chair of the 90-member group, Meyer has used the club to find friends and other couples to socialize with.

“We have maybe 20 small activity groups for people interested in bridge, Mahjong, knitting, gardening. You can go to chick flicks at the movies with a group or do charity work. Anyone can find something they’re interested in,” she said.

The pandemic put everything on hold but the book club, which now meets online. The monthly coffee to introduce new members and the annual Halloween and holiday parties have been scratched.

“It’s hard on everyone, but especially the newest people,” said Meyer. “I feel bad for them.”

Welcome to work

Welcoming new residents is more than just neighborly; it’s good business.

According to Census Bureau data, between 80,000 and 90,000 people relocate to the Twin Cities metro area every year. Those new residents are critical to growing the local economy.

“Going into this [the pandemic], we had tens of thousands of job openings. We have a labor force gap and we need more workers just to stay flat,” said Matt Lewis, vice president of strategic initiatives for Greater MSP, the regional economic development engine. “Even organizations that have frozen their hiring for now are going to need people as we come out of this.”

The organization previously sponsored monthly networking events, volunteer activities and nights out at the theater or in the stands of the professional sports teams. The casual activities and professional mixers are meant to introduce and possibly spark friendships between newcomers and locals. But for months the calendar has been cleared; even the event-jammed Welcome Week, scheduled every year in September, had to cancel.

Lewis said his organization puts an emphasis on gatherings because it recognizes what newcomers need.

“Our research shows that new arrivals seek two things: economic opportunity and a feeling of belonging. If either of those things are out of balance, they’re not going to stick.”

That’s especially true for people of color.

Attracting a diverse workforce is regarded as crucial for the region’s healthy bottom line, and there’s plenty of work to do on that score.

Research from the University of Minnesota found that among the top 25 metro areas, the Twin Cities is No. 1 in overall retention of professional talent but ranks just 14th in retaining professionals of color.

“Everyone here is considerate and I felt comfortable from Day 1,” said Abe Minter, president of the Twin Cities chapter of the National Black MBA Association. “You connect to get things done at work, but building the deeper connections is the harder part.”

An Ohio native who earned an MBA at Duke University, Minter’s business career took him to Atlanta, Chicago and Milwaukee before he and his wife, who works for a Minnesota Fortune 500 company, arrived in the Twin Cities three years ago. They are raising their daughter in Edina.

“The professional organizations and Greater MSP offer resources and put them on a platter for you. It helps you with the basic block and tackling: where’s the barber shop, where’s the church, where are the places to go to meet people you’re comfortable with,” he said.

But now the groups that have fostered friendships for Minter and other newcomers of color have gone online.

“Zoom is a great tool, but I don’t love it. It’s not fun,” said Minter. “In the past we were hosted by corporations or went to a cool space and you’d have the energy of being face-to-face. You could make those spontaneous, random connections.”

Minter made a few of those organic connections in the aftermath of the traumatic death of George Floyd.

“Strangely enough, I met people at demonstrations and expressions of grief who have a spirit that I am in tune with,” he said. “We shared the wide gamut of emotions — pain, sadness, anger. During this tough year, if someone rises up, you value them and you don’t wait to leverage that relationship.”

Wonderful when?

As the weather warmed, Stephanie Rerych made a few tentative connections. Alerted by the Nextdoor app, she joined a group bike ride and participated in a volunteer cleanup day in her new neighborhood.

She’s taken a few socially distanced walks with new acquaintances and joined her boyfriend to hike and bike on city trails, swim in local lakes and explore parks and landmarks like the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and Minnehaha Falls.

“I love how active everyone is and we learned to seize the day. The weather here is so perfect, not miserably hot like summers in the South,” she said. “Everyone talks about their new normal, but we never got to live the old normal here. We wonder what it would be like to go to a Twins game or a music festival.”

In her previous community, Rerych served on the board of a wildlife organization and played in an adult kickball league and assumed that she would find such activities in Minneapolis. Instead, she’s trying to be patient as winter nears and she hasn’t yet launched her life as a Minnesotan.

“I see the potential. I know there can be more for me here,” she said. “I think life could be wonderful, but when?”

 

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.

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