One may wonder how Dolores (Starling) Fridge ’66, ‘04, the first African American female to graduate from Winona State, ever ended up at a school in small town Minnesota. Her family lived in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio, alongside a handful of African American families; her parents were both schoolteachers who received their college degrees from a historically black college in West Virginia.
But as she and a friend were looking through college brochures, Winona State’s stood out as the only one to include a picture of an African American within its pages. And with that, they both decided to apply and were admitted.
In the spring before their freshman year, they traveled to Winona via Greyhound bus for a pre-college weekend. “When we got to campus,” Fridge said, “there was nobody else black there, period. Nobody. Nowhere – in the town, around the town, nothing.” Growing up in a biracial neighborhood, it was a stark contrast to what they were accustomed to – but ultimately, she said that their first experience on campus was mostly positive.
During the course of her four years at Winona, Fridge estimated that there were perhaps a total of 15-20 black students on campus. But in that first year, she and her friend, and the football player from the brochure, were the only ones, and her friend decided to leave after that year. Fridge then had to decide whether she would return alone. Her decision ultimately came down to the fact that she had one goal: to graduate. Her parents had made her a deal before her freshman year: “If you go, you don’t flunk any classes, you don’t get anything less than a C, you don’t get married, you don’t get pregnant, you get done in four years, and we’ll pay for everything.”
It was lonely at times on campus, and as Cleveland was so far away, she didn’t often have the option of returning home. She made some friends, and was welcomed at many establishments off-campus, but there were moments of discrimination, such as a little girl on her tricycle and a customer at the pizza place calling her a racially offensive term.
The Lutheran church across the street from campus had brought in a young pastor to work with the college kids, and she would often go talk with him when feeling emotionally drained and isolated on campus. He would give her advice on how to survive, how to thrive, and helped her decide whether to come back and continue when she was wavering. Looking back, Fridge said that the worst of her experiences helped her learn how to manage a variety of situations, including verbally abusive situations and isolation situations. But she remained focused on her goal – graduating – and on what she could do to control the outcome of that goal.
When she graduated in 1966, public schools in the state were recruiting African American teachers so that they could fill the federal government quota, as with that came their federal aid dollars. Through that effort, she was hired as the first African American female teacher at Bancroft Elementary School in South Minneapolis, where she taught for the next 14 years.
At the end of her 14th year, the federal government had passed a new law saying businesses had to start hiring women. She attended a hiring fair in downtown Minneapolis, completed a couple interviews, and was hired in consumer affairs at Prudential’s regional headquarters, where she worked for a few years.
She went on to work for a number of other companies in consumer affairs/customer service and operations capacities. Each time she received a better opportunity with different or more responsibilities – she took it. “I learned very quickly that when you get a better offer, and the money’s better, and it’s a different experience – you go.”
In 1990, she spent a year as an independent contractor, developing strategic plans for creating multicultural environments for corporate clients. She would evaluate their diversity and harassment training needs, conduct focus groups to assess the corporate culture, help them customize training materials, and facilitate workshops for their employees.
After another brief stint in consumer relations, she joined the Minnesota Department of Human Rights as director in 1992. She moved up to deputy commissioner in 1994, and in 1996, was appointed commissioner by Governor Arne Carlson.
Tasked with resolving conflict under the human rights laws of the country and state, Fridge said that before her time as commissioner, there were no timelines in place for case investigations – and it wasn’t uncommon for cases to sit for years. When the Minnesota State Supreme Court mandated that all investigations be completed within 12 months, she was in charge of re-engineering the agency’s operations to meet that mandate. She lobbied for and received additional funding to hire more staff and increase community outreach and education (among other things). She also developed human rights policy, programs, and made recommendations to the governor and legislature for consideration and implementation.
Fridge said that one of the big issues to arise during her tenure was that there was no protection in the State of Minnesota for LGBTQ individuals, as there was none at the federal level at that time. “When the federal government finally got their act together and provided protection,” Fridge said, “of course Minnesota immediately got their act together.”
When she left the department in 1998, Governor Carlson proclaimed November 13, 1998 to be “Dolores Fridge Appreciation Day” in honor of her years of dedicated service. She was also later given the honor of speaking at his retirement party in 1999. “If someone would have told me when I was a freshman at Winona that I would have a sitting governor ask me to come speak at his retirement party, I would have fallen on the floor laughing!” she said.
She left the Department of Human Rights to tackle an Associate Vice Chancellor position at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, where she led the operations of the Equal Opportunity and Diversity Division. She was charged with creating and implementing plans to assist campuses in recruiting faculty, leadership and students from diverse backgrounds to state college and university campuses. Among her many accomplishments, she directed the creation of the MnSCU system’s strategic plan for diversity and co-chaired its implementation. She also collaborated with Minnesota Public Radio to conduct the first rural diversity conference in the State of Minnesota, and directed the evaluation and redesign of training offerings in areas of civil and human rights, campus violence, sexual harassment, affirmative action, diversity, and workplace violence.
In 2004, she moved on to become Medtronic’s very first Chief Resolution Officer. As an internal but independent entity, she had the authority to confidentially resolve conflict amongst employees within the organization.
During her fulltime jobs, she continued to do independent consulting on the side, which she carried on with after retiring from Medtronic in 2012. As a consultant, she provided expertise in areas of sexual harassment, conflict resolution, cultural competency, and diversity and inclusion for clients such as Hennepin County, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Xcel Energy, and more. She also served as keynote speaker on similar topics at various events.
In 2017, she retired fully from her consultant work. When asked about how she hopes her work has impacted others, she said, “Every place that I’ve ever been and whatever I’ve done is to provide a way in which people understand that those people who are not like us – it does not mean that they are ‘less than’ as a human being. No matter what the differences are in the people we’re around or we meet – that they are as human as we are.”
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