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Keni Zenner awarded Morris Human Rights Award

Keni Zenner received the award at the Morris City Council meeting Monday, Dec. 23. Morris Human Rights Commission Chair Becky Jordan and Argie Manolis were on hand to present the award. Photo provided by Ellie Musselman, KMRS/KKOK Radio.

MORRIS, Minn. - Keni Zenner, a graduate of the University of Minnesota, Morris who returned to the community last fall to help improve education and communication with the growing Latino community, is the 2013 winner of the Thomas B. McRoberts Human Rights Award.

Zenner received the award at the Morris City Council meeting on Monday night.

“It was a very big honor and not something that I was expecting,” Zenner said in an interview last week.

The award is given annually in honor of the late Tom McRoberts, longtime commission member, secretary, and regional member-at-large on the League of Minnesota Human Rights Commissions. Established in 2007, the McRoberts Human Rights Award honors Morris area residents or groups who have shown a strong commitment to human rights locally.

Zenner is a 2012 graduate of the University of Minnesota, Morris. She returned to Morris in August to take a position with AmeriCorps VISTA program.

VISTA – Volunteers in Service to America – members work with nonprofits, schools and other organizations to do “capacity building,” or creating systems that will help programs develop and continue, said Zenner.

In her project, Zenner is working on a community needs assessment of services and perceived needs for pre-kindergarten to twelfth grade students who speak English as a second language. She is also working with the TREC program to offer literacy-based childcare for ELL students.

Zenner was nominated for the award by Rev. Jennifer Amy-Dressler, interim pastor at Federated Church in Morris. In the nomination, Amy-Dressler also praised Zenner’s work with the ELL community while she was a student at UMM.

“Keni served as an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher one very full evening a week,” Amy-Dressler wrote. “When the need become apparent for early Saturday morning classes for those who worked evening or night shifts, Keni volunteered in child care services.”

Zenner, who has degrees in psychology and liberal arts for the human services, started taking Spanish classes as a junior. To help boost her Spanish skills, she joined the Jane Addams Project, a student-led group that organizes bilingual group meetings and activities, and started teaching ESL classes. Those experiences got her “hooked” on this type of work, she said.

Zenner said her time building relationships with the Spanish-speaking community as a student have helped with her VISTA project and made the experience more meaningful.

“Everything about this project is based on relationships,” said Zenner. “It’s been really helpful to know people coming into it – knowing people who know other people.”

“Spanish wouldn’t mean anything to me either if I didn’t get to use it with people I cared about,” she added.  

During the first phase of the needs assessment project, which concluded just this month, Zenner worked with students in an anthropology class at UMM to conduct interviews, focus groups and classroom observations at Morris Area.

“They were amazing research assistants, basically, who facilitated the interviews and focus groups then transcribed all the data and analyzed it – they really worked their butts off this semester,” said Zenner.

Last week, the group presented their findings to educators and administrators at Morris Area.

Zenner said one of the common issues raised by parents is that they want their children to be both bilingual and bicultural. Teachers said one of their biggest challenges – and an area they most want to improve in – is communicating with Latino families.

“It goes both ways – parents want to really understand the American school system and teachers really want to understand Mexican culture and their students home lives and all of these things that really affect their work in the classroom,” said Zenner.

Although it’s early in the second phase of the project – what can be done to try and address these issues – Zenner said she is already brainstorming some options and preparing to work with another UMM class on exploring potential solutions.

“I think people are starting to realize it’s a slow process and one that has to be really intentional,” said Zenner.

One option they are exploring is a “cultural liaison” to help teachers and families communicate better. Another is creating a Latino parent advisory board to help increase communication.

In addition to the community needs assessment, Zenner is also working to develop a literacy-based childcare program for ELL students.

For several years, UMM students have worked as literacy tutors for various programs at Morris Area Elementary School and provided child care during ELL classes offered to adults. As part of her VISTA project, Zenner will be working with an education professor at UMM with a new literacy curriculum for that program.

After her year of service is complete, Zenner will hand off the results of her work to another VISTA participant who will be charged with making process on some of the goals and projects that Zenner’s research has helped identify.

“I think there are a lot of huge assets in the community, especially involving incorporating the Latino community into the broader, existing Morris community,” Zenner said. “I see a lot happening in Morris that I don’t see in other small communities.”

Previous recipients of the Morris Human Rights award have included Patty Kill (2006), Nancy Huot (2007), Bill Eckersen (2008), Sal Monteagudo (2009), Argie Manolis (2011), Eugene and Darlene Pasche (2011), and Bill Rickmeyer (2012).