‘Understand, and accept and learn’

New Iowans the focus of ‘Changing Iowa’ panel discussion

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“How can we welcome new Iowans to our communities?”

That was the topic of focus during the Des Moines Register “Changing Iowa” panel discussion Thursday evening at the Midnight Ballroom, and the Register’s Iowa columnist Kyle Munson led the proceedings.

“For a lot of reasons, Marshalltown is a great place to talk about this,” Munson said.

Marshalltown is a highly diverse community compared to many others in Central Iowa, and the evening’s panel included local Latina/o leaders. Marshalltown Regional Partnership CEO David Barajas, Marshalltown YMCA-YWCA Business Manager Wendy Soltero and Marshalltown School Board member and Mid-Iowa Community Action (MICA) Every Child Ready coordinator Karina Hernández were all featured.

Munson and Iowa Center for Immigrant Leadership and Integration Director and University of Northern Iowa anthropology professor Mark Grey rounded out the panel.

“The nice thing about having folks like Wendy and Karina, and many others … that are really getting involved is, it’s providing opportunities for us to also be able to serve as mentors for younger kids,” Barajas said of leaders with ethnic backgrounds in Marshalltown, adding it’s important that children from those backgrounds see adult role models in the community.

One major topic discussed Thursday concerned getting new Iowans involved in their new communities.

Growing up the grandson of a Mexican immigrant, Barajas said his father taught him that many people may judge or stereotype him for being a Latino. Now, he said diversity is growing in Iowa.

“This year, of our (Marshalltown Schools) kindergarten class … seven out of every 10 of those kindergartners are classified and identified themselves as an ethnic minority,” Barajas said. “When I saw this, it amazed me.”

Soltero said it’s important that communities in the state continue to work to be welcoming to new Iowans, whether they are Latin American or from other parts of the world. She said many immigrants choose to stay in their new communities for the long-term, helping them grow.

“What Marshalltown has done, and I know Des Moines too … we know it’s a positive thing, let’s embrace it, they’re going to come in,” Soltero said, speaking about the increasing Southeast Asian refugee population in Marshalltown. “The schools were ready; they knew what to do, they knew they needed interpreters … the town was ready for a different group.”

Upon moving to Marshalltown from her native Los Angeles, Hernández said she felt welcomed as she worked in the school system.

“I got to see a lot of our Hispanic kids coming in to Marshalltown, as they were coming in from Mexico, not knowing any English,” she said, adding the influx allowed her the opportunity to become a leader among the staff. “I was able to work in the office and provide that assistance to families that needed it.”

While she said she didn’t run for school board because she’s Latina, Hernández said she’s proud to be an involved parent and a role model for young children.

“I want to be the person they see and say ‘I could be that person one day,'” she said. “That makes me proud, that I can be that person that they can look up to.”

Grey said he was working in communities across the state before the “tremendous influx” of Latina/o immigrants in the 1990s. He witnessed the resulting changes unfold.

“Those communities that, early on, recognized the challenges, and you had key people in key leadership positions … those communities, by and large, are very, very glad that they took that route,” he said. “Key leadership in some of those communities chose to look the other way.”

Marshalltown and Storm Lake, Grey said, worked to meet the challenges brought by welcoming an immigrant population early on. He added that Latin American immigrants have been around long enough to see their children grow up as Iowans, and that he was happy to see a panel of local Latina/o leaders Thursday.

Another activity at the event centered around the challenges in building welcoming communities, and strategies for improvement. The audience of several dozen broke into small groups and wrote their ideas on large sheets of paper as they talked.

Several ideas came out of the brainstorming session. One common idea, arrived at in many different groups, was to hold potluck-style events to help different parts of the community bond over food.

Some challenges identified by the group included stereotyping and unconscious bias, challenges with communication and language, the formation of cliques within communities and generational divides, among others.

Strategies for success included encouraging entrepreneurship and mentoring opportunities,

embracing differences, explicitly inviting people from different backgrounds to participate in city events and decisions, holding cultural fair events and more.

Soltero said she didn’t see the discussion about changing Iowa; she said Iowa is changing, and it’s important for communities to keep up.

“We want to change with Iowa, and that means if Iowa’s changing, we want to change with the community,” she said. “Understand, and accept and learn.”

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Contact Adam Sodders at (641) 753-6611 or asodders@timesrepublican.com