Thomas Harris

Thomas Harris hopes for more inclusivity in Red Wing's future and offers recommendations for improvement in his recent study. Photo by UW-La Crosse.

Red Wing needs help becoming more inclusive, a University of La Crosse consulting professor has concluded.

Thomas Harris has worked for over 30 years at the UW-La Crosse and is currently the assistant director of multicultural student services. His work has only grown his passion for social justice issues within local communities, he said.

After speaking with the Red Wing Human Rights Commission and other diversity leaders in the area, Harris said he realized the community needs help becoming more inclusive.

During August 2020 to February 2021, Harris held interviews with 41 Red Wing residents from different backgrounds that focused on equity, access, inclusion and/or social justice.

“My goal is for the community to be more equitable, provide more inclusion and have somewhat of a system or a knowledge about social justice, because the area is so straight minded and so white dominated,” Harris said.

Harris created five pillars for conversation -- community, schools, police, housing and childcare -- areas he thinks the city needs to improve. 

He documented shared observations that were discussed to create a basic understanding of how the community currently operates.

Shared observations on schools

  • The area has a number of unengaged youth of color and Indigenous youth with little to do that interests them.

  • Red Wing area youth need and want the truth.  

  • Classroom instruction and learning within the community is most authentic when certain topics have been presented/performed by someone from the particular background/culture of the originator or ancestors of the lived cultural experience. 

  • Red Wing area youth need and want learning experiences that focus on their own cultural and ancestral histories.  

  • Students learn the truth about history external to school.

  • Local youth need and want opportunities to maximize intellectual growth, personal and leadership development, and to flush out their own personal uniqueness and individual ability to create.  

  • Youth need and want to be prepared for the immediate and long-term future to interact, survive and strive in a cross-cultural multicultural society in Red Wing, Goodhue County and beyond.

  • Red Wing area youth also need and want a local space to hang out, be themselves, and have fun after school, weekends and during school breaks. 

After each interview, he asked the interviewee to share one or two actionable recommendations for each pillar that the leaders and community members of Red Wing could work on.

He compiled the recommendations and created his own based on the conversations.

“I am an outsider, so I will not force anything to happen,” Harris said. “I am offering my recommendations to help and hope that the community takes action.”

Over the course of the past several months, Harris conducted separate presentations on each of the five pillars. His final presentation, which will be with the police, is on hold due to the climate surrounding the firing of Red Wing Police Chief Roger Pohlman.

On May 1, 2021, Harris gave his first community presentation focused on school and youth agencies.

Harris’ recommendations for schools

  • Create an indoor youth activity facility in a vacant building to build a sense of community and offer possible child care opportunities.

  • Implement circles of community groups for elementary, middle and high schools to allow the youth to voice their concerns and needs.

  • Train social justice facilitators -- Red Wing teachers, parents, alumni, etc. -- for the Goodhue County area.

  • Hire someone to lead, guide and collaborate efforts on equity, access, inclusion and social justice.

  • Participate in UW-La Crosse’s social justice certification program to establish a cultural foundation at the school administration level.

  • Establish relationships with regional colleges and universities.

  • Implement intentional background reviews for future administrators and teachers with demonstrated values of cultural diversity.

  • Expand hiring approaches for future athletic coaches to increase opportunities of hiring coaches of color.

  • Offer Red Wing High School students the opportunity to participate in the UW-La Crosse Youth Action Project.

  • Organize two or three educational presentations on “The N Word” to establish a public protocol and consequences for students who express oppressive language.

Starting point

“I think there's a lot more that could be done in the future and this is the start,” Harris said. “We need to work together to work on some of those recommendations and the people in the community get to be the ones who decide what's gonna happen later.”

Harris stressed that school and youth agencies are also a part of the larger Red Wing community and to allow the recommendations to succeed, things need to become more inclusive within all of the five pillars.

“Everything works together,” Harris said. “A single mom of color needs daycare, but struggles to find a place -- that youth is going to suffer too. Community and schools should go hand in hand.”

Although Harris’ work is not school sponsored, Red Wing Superintendent Kartsen Anderson said that he appreciates Harris’ perspectives and recommendations.

Harris’ study is in the initial phase, which means no actions have taken place yet, but he is hopeful that the community will consider his recommendations for more inclusivity in the future.


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