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Tuleah Palmer, 2023 Distinguished Minnesotan, delivers college commencement

Tuleah Palmer speaks into a microphone at a podium with three women seated next to her. All are wearing commencement gowns. A banner reading "Northwest Technical College" is hanging from the podium. Palmer is wearing a sash with embroidered flowers on it.
Tuleah Palmer, Blandin Foundation president/CEO, delivers the commencement address for students of Northwest Technical College on May 5, 2023. Palmer was named the 2023 Distinguished Minnesotan by Bemidji State University.

Tuleah Palmer was named 2023 Distinguished Minnesotan by Bemidji State University. In 2020, she became president and CEO of the Blandin Foundation, founded in 1941 to aid and promote Grand Rapids and the surrounding area.

Editor’s Note: The Blandin Foundation is the primary organization funding KAXE’s local news initiative.

BEMIDJI — “I get to travel like a bird, back and forth across ecosystems, swirling from one community to the other. I get to see who we are. I get to see tender spaces.”

These words were spoken to over 1,000 graduates by Blandin Foundation President/CEO Tuleah Palmer during the May 5 commencement address of the graduation ceremony for Bemidji State University and Northwest Technical College. As the 2023 Distinguished Minnesotan recipient, Palmer was invited to speak, much like past recipients Sen. Paul Wellstone and Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page.

Tuleah Palmer stands by the Mississippi River in Ball Club, Minn.
Tuleah Palmer
Tuleah Palmer, president and CEO of the Blandin Foundation in Grand Rapids, poses by the Mississippi River in Ball Club, Minnesota.

In a news release, BSU and NTC president John L. Hoffman described Palmer as "a highly respected leader who has committed her professional career to serving others. At her core is an authentic commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in all of its forms, especially in rural spaces, and this has benefited Minnesotans in meaningful ways.”

Palmer’s biography describes her as a first-generation college graduate born in Deer River from a diverse family of hard-working laborers, educators, artists and entrepreneurs. Her career path has included economic development in Native communities, director of the Boys and Girls Club of the Leech Lake area and victim services for the Beltrami County Attorney’s Office, and now, leader of the Blandin Foundation.

The largest rural-based private foundation in Minnesota, according to their website, Blandin Foundation is “all about Minnesotans imagining, leading, and growing resourceful, inclusive communities.”

In a conversation on the KAXE Morning Show

During a recent KAXE Morning Show, Palmer talked about the state of rural communities in Northern Minnesota. She became president and CEO of Blandin Foundation during the pivotal early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Three years later, she’s emerging in the public eye in a number of ways, calling attention to the realities rural people face.

“We’ve had this attritional economic deterioration since the early ‘80s that continues today,” she said. “It’s hard to name, it’s hard to call out. It’s not the same thing as a massive crisis or the uprising in cities where you see the buildings on fire in downtown St. Paul or Minneapolis,” she said. “We know the quality of life has shifted.”

On March 8, an opinion column she wrote was published in the Star Tribune with the headline, “Don’t Let Greater Minnesota Become Lesser Minnesota.”

Palmer writes of the connection of rural work to statewide prosperity. Rural jobs in manufacturing, energy, agriculture and tourism sectors help drive the state's economy and rural workers will play a critical role in energy transition and job growth in the future, according to Palmer.

Foundation founder Charles Blandin believed in focusing on the needs of the worker, Palmer said, and she described his legacy of worker’s prosperity and dignity as leading to the creation of the rich culture of the state of Minnesota.

In the Star Tribune column, Palmer is forthright in her belief in the state’s legal imperative to engage the partnership of sovereign tribal nations as well.

In recent months, the Blandin Foundation announced a new equitable strategy with a focus on disparities where “rural people have to do more with less.” News releases from the foundation have reflected investments in job training through Minnesota North colleges, Anishinaabe education and Native resiliency programs in schools, assisting local agencies to secure federal funding for housing solutions and more.

Their focus to support communities by adding rural perspectives to public dialog also led to investment in local media, including here at KAXE. The funding provided to the station is supporting a digital news expansion for the next three years, now in the building and hiring phase.

"We’ve had this attritional economic deterioration since the early '80s that continues today."
Tuleah Palmer

When asked about what lies ahead, Palmer shared her excitement for recalibration of the foundation’s longtime leadership program, based on listening sessions with community leaders.

During the pandemic when group gatherings weren’t happening, the Blandin Foundation transitioned from in-person training to grants intended to boost communities for rural engagement. Palmer said she was thrilled by the response — the foundation received over 300 grant applications from 80 of Minnesota’s 87 counties. They are now working with grantees to listen to what rural leaders need.

“I love that because it’s community-informed decision-making and community-informed program design and development,” she said.

In 2024, the foundation will offer new types of training for rural leaders based on public input.

Along with being named the 2023 Distinguished Minnesotan by Bemidji State University, Palmer was recently appointed to the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Community Advisory Board.

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Heidi Holtan is KAXE's Director of Content and Public Affairs where she manages producers and is the local host of Morning Edition from NPR. Heidi is a regional correspondent for WDSE/WRPT's Duluth Public Television’s Almanac North.