When is a conference not a conference?​

June 3, 2021

An aerial view of a farm field
In rural Minnesota, it can be harder for crime victims to get help. It’s one of the problems attendees of the 2021 OJP Unconference worked together to solve without ever leaving their hometowns.

When it's an unconference. For the second year in a row, the Department of Public Safety Office of Justice Programs (DPS-OJP) hosted their annual get-together, free of charge, online (after more than 30 years of gathering in person) in May. Unconference attendees included prosecutors, victim service providers, victim advocates, law enforcement personnel, judges, court personnel, probation/corrections personnel, medical/health care practitioners, social service professionals, education professionals, community leaders and others interested in crime and victim issues.

The advantage of the unconference model is that it allows convenient access on a wide range of topics, and learning opportunities for those who historically have not been able to travel to the event. As a result, it reached more attendees and resulted in higher learning session attendance than previous conferences.

The unconference gave participants an opportunity to discuss and strategize ways to address long-standing barriers to providing high quality services. Participants took multi-disciplinary approaches to explore the root causes of these issues, attending sessions about combating the cycle of violence, crime, and victimization.

One such session, titled Rural Advocacy, was presented by longtime advocate Deirdre Keys, currently providing crime victim services at Someplace Safe in West Central Minnesota. “This. Is. Hard. Work," Ms. Keys commented, stressing how isolation, transportation, and housing issues loom large for victims. A survey that captured advocates' views on victim and advocacy issues in rural communities also revealed the realities of scarce resources and the need for collaboration.

Transportation is an example of the challenges of living in a rural area. Having a reliable car in a rural area gives you access to food, healthcare, educational opportunities, and employment. This can be a barrier for so many, but help is available for victims who need assistance with affordable car repairs and giving actual vehicles – the Car Care Program. Like the Lift Garage in Minneapolis and the Drive Program in Sherburne and neighboring counties, the Car Care Program's owner wants to expand the model far and wide, extending this vital service to even more Minnesotans in need.

Doing advocacy work in Greater Minnesota also presents many challenges. There are fewer organizations serving victims, smaller offices without as many colleagues nearby, and fewer resources in general. In agricultural or tourism-based areas, the economies may be struggling. And while many rural regions of the state are primarily white, there are still small marginalized populations in those regions who face additional language and cultural barriers to accessing services. Deirdre pointed attendees to The Minnesota Compass, where people can look up demographic data about their locale. It's a concrete way for providers to learn about population, conduct targeted outreach, and learn to provide services in a culturally-sensitive and competent way.

Another challenge of rural advocacy work is that that in “small town America," everybody knows everybody's business. Advocates may be approached to provide services to persons they know or are related to, or be asked to assist a person where there is some other conflict of interest. Because of this, organizations need to develop relationships with other like-minded agencies and victim service providers in neighboring counties to ensure these individuals are referred for services and support. In addition, Deirdre pointed to the extra care she takes in explaining to victims what will happen if she runs into them in the community—which is to pretend she doesn't know them. Her goal is to never reveal to any third party that the person is a client she has helped. This is especially important in an area where the chances of running into persons you served in the community is great.

So even though the 2021 DPS-OJP Unconference was virtual for the seco​nd year in a row, that didn't stop attendees from all over the state from learning from and networking with each other—which, in turn, will result in better services for crime victims and struggling populations all over Minnesota.