Season 2 Episode 6
Hannah Shultz: Welcome to Share Public Health, the Midwestern Public Health Training Center’s podcast, connecting you to public health topics, issues, and colleagues throughout our region and the country, highlighting that we all share in public health.
Thank you for tuning into this series, which focuses on rural health in the Midwest. Over 10 episodes, we talk with people in a variety of communities about their experiences and perspectives on rural life, employment and health. Our aim is to deepen understanding of the complexity of rural life and celebrate rural areas. We’re so happy you’re listening and learning along with us.
My name is Hannah Shultz and I work at the Midwestern Public Health Training Center at the University of Iowa College of Public Health. I am your host and producer for this series, discussing rural health in the Midwest. Throughout today’s episode, and actually the full series, we’re going to talk about rural health in the Midwest. In other broad terms, we haven’t and don’t plan to define these words. Instead, we let our guests decide what is rural, what is health? And we don’t even get into what is the Midwest. It might not be very humble, nor a well-reasoned opinion. The Midwest is Iowa and any state that borders it and you would not believe the amount of debates this has started with my friends or husband from Michigan and other states that consider themselves to be Midwestern. We’re not going to poke that bear and we’ll consider the Midwest with the broadest possible interpretation. That being said, the huge majority of the people we’ll talk with over the next several weeks are from Iowa. In the first two episodes of this series, we’re going to talk pretty broadly about rural life. Later on in the series, we’ll get a bit more focused, but we thought it was really important to lay the groundwork for those later conversations by featuring some stories and perspectives that highlight the diversity of the rural experience. Okay. Enough from me. We’re going to start today’s episode talking with Himar Hernandez. Himar lives in Ottumwa, Iowa, which is a town of about 25,000 people. Ottumwa is a hub for Southeast Iowa. By Iowa standards, it’s a big town, even a small city, but it has a lot of rural qualities. Ottumwa has a lot of cool things going for it. I encourage you to check out the forthcoming podcast, Active Ottumwa: A Community on the Move. I’m a bit biased as I am the producer and host for that series as well, but it includes a lot of inspiring people and stories, including Himar. Back to today’s episode. Ottumwa is actually Iowa’s 20th largest city, which puts it in the top 3% of Iowa towns by population. But the interesting thing is that some folks consider it rural and some consider it a city. Remember a minute ago, when I said we weren’t going to define rural? I started out asking Himar how long he’s been in Ottumwa and what he likes about this town.
Himar Hernandez: Well, I’ve been living here straight for 18 years. I was here before that too, but I’ve been permanently here for 18 years. Again, I like this town. It’s always giving me opportunity. I like the size. I don’t like big cities. I grew up in a big city and I don’t like the size of big cities. I don’t mind visiting, but I don’t like living in them. I think this is a safe community, small enough where you get a little bit of small town life, but big enough where you almost feel like you’re in a big city. I like the amenities the state provides. It provides pretty much everything that I would need in terms of retail, in terms of amenities, parks. We have one of the largest park systems in the state and good healthcare, good diversity. We’re just remodeling our whole downtown, so that’s going to be very, very nice. That was the number one thing that residents and visitors complained about, was the state of the downtown and so we’ve invested multiple years of innovations and that’s coming due next week. It’s when we open our three blocks that we’d been remodeling downtown. The accessibility, I can ride my bicycle to work, I can walk to work if I wanted to, everything is within walking or biking distance in the city and just it’s a safe community, I think it’s a safe community and really like the diversity. It seems like the people who live here like the size of the city in terms of that it’s not too big and it’s not too small. Most of the people here that I know or that I work with, come from bigger communities and they just like the slower pace, maybe, of this smaller community, that you don’t have as much traffic that you can get everywhere in town in 10 minutes, but then you still have the majority of the amenities and resources that you will have in a big town. When I think of Ottumwa or a small community [inaudible], I just think the way I explained Ottumwa is just like if you would think it was the neighborhood in Des Moines or in Iowa City or Cedar Rapids. I mean, if you think about it, it’s 25,000 people with their infrastructure, with their lives, with their struggles and they’re thriving. It can just be just a copy and paste from a neighborhood in a bigger city.
Hannah Shultz: Himar and I talked a bit about employment opportunities in Ottumwa. I thought it was interesting that he didn’t mention agriculture or farming, but he does talk about some farming adjacent careers like the John Deere plant and corn syrup production, which of course spurs other industries.
Himar Hernandez: Obviously, once you drive south of Ottumwa, it’s farm land, like the rest of the state. We do have a lot of our economy here in Ottumwa that works around economies such as John Deere, they build the tractors, or Cargill, they make the corn syrup. They’re supporting industries that live from the agriculture, but they’re not necessarily the main producers. That is an issue. If you’re low and if you don’t have enough education, there’s only really one main employer, which is JBS, which is the meat plant. If you get fired from there and you don’t have high school or any other education, then it is a little tough to find a good paying job. I mean, what’s left is probably retail or food service. There’s not much diversity when it comes to jobs that do not require high school or college education, so we’ve always been aware of that. Other than that, we have John Deere, we have a community college that’s based here. The main campus is here. We have a regional hospital, that’s the biggest hospital probably in 15 counties around.Then we have an industrial airport that has some manufacturing including the Dr. Pepper plant for the state. There’s other smaller manufacturing, but a lot of services that bring being the hub in terms of social security office and workforce office, and VHS office, just the basic offices that you don’t see anywhere else in smaller communities around us. I would say between the community college, and the manufacturing, and John Deere, JBS, those are probably the main employers. Even though that has to do with agriculture, in any deal, we have the largest state plant producing corn syrup in the state and so that’s the reason why they’re here and other companies as well. There’s a company that makes the bottles per se. It’s here as well. There’s a lot of satellites, companies that service those big ones. I think JBS meat plant has, I don’t know how many companies around it that supply work to the main factory, so rather supporting jobs.
Hannah Shultz: Himar comments on the role of manufacturing in rural communities. We hear this several times throughout this series. Manufacturing is huge across Iowa, and it’s not just food production. Custom fire trucks? Built in Iowa. Grizzly coolers? Yep. Windows? Iowa again. Even racing wheels that are used by NASCAR are made in Iowa.
Himar Hernandez: I think that’s a myth as well, because for example, you go to Mount Pleasant, very close here, very manufacturing-based community. You go to other communities like Lenox, just manufacturing towns as well. They have to do with agriculture, but, I mean, I think there’s a reason why these communities exist of our size out there in the middle of nowhere, is to support the agriculture out there as well.
Hannah Shultz: People choose to live in rural communities for all sorts of reasons. They stay and come back because they like rural life. In the third episode of this series, we’ll talk with Emily Warnell about who lives in rural communities and she will reiterate a point Himar makes. People choose to live in a community based on the characteristics of that community. A few weeks after we talk with Emily, we’ll talk with Rachel Gosse who calls herself a super commuter. She drives more than an hour each way to our office in Des Moines, so she can live in a rural community.
Himar Hernandez: I was looking at the data this morning and, for example, Ottumwa has a younger population than the state average, which is something you don’t think of rural communities. You think, “Oh, they must be old or they must be shrinking, they must be dying.” They say Ottumwa has three years younger than the state average. We’re a younger population there compared to the rest of the state. That is also a misperception [inaudible] of rural communities – they’re dying, they’re small and they’re an older population. There’s maybe some data that supports that, but there’s nothing that supports a true 100% feature of a rural community. I just did an action plan with an organization last week and they said everybody was in a 100% agreement after looking at data and looking at what we have and what we don’t have, that we have plenty of resources here to meet the needs of everybody in our community. So, how do we make sure that those resources are distributed to make sure that everybody has access to those resources is the question, not whether we have the resources or not. We just have to get a little bit smarter about how we make sure that people have equal access to resources. This is true, at least, in Southern Iowa, that we are the poorest in the state. We know that. That’s there. On the other side, we are the most affordable places to live in the state. It depends on what you want to look at in terms of success or what you’re looking at. I mean, if you look at the prices of homes down here or rent, you can make a decent living versus finding, maybe if … whatever you make in a bigger community. Even, I’ve heard of communities, even close to us like Pella, where you can rent an apartment for $1,300 or you can rent a three-bedroom house in Ottumwa for $1,300. It’s just what you’re looking for. It doesn’t mean that one is correct and the other one’s not. It’s just dependent of what you’re looking at. In Ottumwa and Wapello County, I looked at it this morning as well, has far more Democrats registered than Republicans. Now, there’s a lot of Independents and they tend to go back and forth depending on the candidate they like. If you just look at registered voters, that can be true in one county, not necessarily in the county next over. It just depends on which community you’re looking at. I think one mistake is that we group all these communities into one and say, “They’re all X,” and name them as if they were equal. They’re not. They’re all different just like urban communities are all different from one another.
Hannah Shultz: I’m really excited to talk about the diversity in Ottumwa. This is another theme that we will hear throughout this series. Many small communities across our region are very diverse. As Kristy Nabhan-Warren will tell us in a few minutes, the Midwest is a deeply global place. Through my conversations with Himar and others from Ottumwa over the last few months, I’m convinced that Ottumwa has one of the best food scenes in Iowa, if not the whole Midwest. Himar will mention LULAC, which is the League of United Latin American Citizens. LULAC works to advance the economic condition, educational attainment, political influence, housing, health and civil rights of the Hispanic population of the United States. There are 18 LULAC councils in Iowa. Many of them are in small communities. Let’s hear more.
Himar Hernandez: In most rural communities, there’s a lot of diversity. Especially in Iowa, it’s driven by agriculture, needs for agricultural employment or labor force, meat plants. Not only because of those, but those ones maybe have been historically the main drivers in the last 20 years, so a lot of diversity, a lot of diversity in our communities. We have seen a lot of diversification in the last, I want to say, six or seven years. Predominantly, the immigrant communities used to be Latino only. Even then it was very diverse, more diverse here than in other parts of the state. If you went to Marshalltown, it was mostly at the time Mexican origin and here in Ottumwa, from the beginning was very diverse of Mexican and other Central American countries. We still have a lot of people from Guatemala, from El Salvador, from Honduras, and Nicaragua, from Cuba, which makes it really refreshing. In the last six years, we’ve seen a lot of influx of refugees from other countries, a lot of African countries, especially Ethiopia, Eritrea and Congo. We have a lot of those businesses as well, which is really exciting. We have two African grocery stores. We have an African restaurant. We have a lot of Southeast Asian refugees, Burmese mostly that are here and they’re very entrepreneurial. I’m waiting for a restaurant. They haven’t opened one yet, but we have two grocery stores formation from Burma and so very entrepreneurial wonderful people. We have a lot of Marshallese that we’re starting to see as well, so a lot of diversity, which is always refreshing for our community.
Hannah Shultz: Himar is going to talk a bit about Ottumwa’s annual international festival, which like so many things, was virtual in 2020. I have an image in my mind of everyone in Ottumwa dancing in their living rooms.
Himar Hernandez: The organization here, LULAC, who adopted the international festival that we had. It was run by another group and when that group went away, then we adopted it and continued it. It’s something that started, I want to say, in the late 90s, again, to celebrate diversity. This is actually one of the four pillars in our city’s comprehensive plans, so it’s not just a bunch of us saying, “We think this is good.” The community in general, through surveys and through the city itself has recognized that this is one of our strengths and so a lot of emphasis in the beginning was put into celebration of diversity. We still do that. We still have the festival every year. We also have moved a little bit deeper than just celebrating diversity by promoting equality, promoting similar opportunities, equal opportunities. We are very strong in celebrating diversity. We’re also trying to go a little bit deeper than just celebrating. Yeah, we adopted the festival two years ago. The group that was doing it before stopped doing it and it was either we took it over or it would die. The community was clear that they wanted it to keep going and so we’ve had it three years in a row now. This year, we really were debating whether should we do it in person, should we cancel, should we do it virtually? Everybody in the state canceled and so we decided that we were going to have it, that our people needed to celebrate no matter if they were stuck at home or that it was a year that needed bright light and so we held it. After we made a decision, we heard that other communities heard of us doing that, and they changed and celebrated theirs as well. I hear that none of them were as successful as we were, which was just shocking. Even Des Moine, I heard they didn’t do as well as we did. We were just very supported from the beginning from our sponsors. We raised just as much money if we had it in-person. We had more attendance than we would’ve had in-person. It was just really, really good experience. We were able to raise a lot of money, enough to cover next year expenses and enoguh to do the scholarships that we wanted to do. Even though we are a organization that is focused on Latino advancement, we were clear from the beginning that we wanted these to remain an international conference, an international festival, and that were inclusive and that we celebrated diversity in general, not just the Latino culture. We were very, very happy and then we’re just hoping that we can go back to normal. Just dancing by yourself is just not as fun. One of the things that we are very mindful is that as LULAC, we are obviously, again, focused on the Latino population, but we want to be allies of any diversity efforts in the community. I know this has been a very tough year in terms of racial conversations, and equality, and equity and, in other term, inclusion. I have seen a lot happen in Ottumwa, just probably like in every other community, but here we started a group, Ottumwans for Racial Justice. That’s a group that started this year and it’s very active. We have another group LGBTQ+, Ottumwa Pride. We started this year. We didn’t have that before. That’s a very active group. Now, there’s a chapter, there’s a community group, there’s a high school group and there’s a middle school group, so that’s very exciting. Then, tonight, after this, I’m going to city hall because our city council is going to decide whether we establish a human rights, civil rights committee, a commission, sorry. We used to have one a long, long time ago and then it went away. The discussion at the time from what I hear was, “well, there’s one at the state level, so if somebody has a problem, they can go to the state”. The more we talk to different groups, Ottumwa is like, “Yes, that’s okay and we need to have one here too so that we can advocate for our citizens”. If they have an issue here, if we can resolve it here before they have to go to Des Moine – because Des Moine is intimidating. If it’s out of their community, I say, you have to go through paperwork… If we can take care of that here, if it’s our police department, if it’s our… whatever it is, we can respond to it faster before it becomes a lawsuit, for example, or before it becomes a complaint to the attorney general. We have been saying that it’s good to have that state organization and that doesn’t mean that we cannot have one here as well. I’m hoping that that goes forward.
Hannah Shultz: I followed up with Himar to find out what is happening with the civil rights commission conversation at Ottumwa and he had some good news to share. The city administrator is looking at other communities that have similar commissions and will make her report to the city council in early 2021 to help determine the next steps for Ottumwa. Now, we’re going to hear about commitment to community development and other exciting changes he’s seen in his town and among his fellow Ottumwans.
Himar Hernandez: The biggest change I have seen is that when I got here people were… negativity of Ottumwa, the perception and that it was okay to just trash your town. It was okay and the town looked bad. It started to change, I want to say, about eight years ago. There’s other things that happen. We have a new foundation in town that’s really into working and changing that image and not only image wise, but also infrastructure. We have realized that next week we have three blocks of our mainstream that are going to be reopened with brand new everything. Facades, streets, sidewalks, lights, everything’s brand new utilities. We did a study about eight years ago, and it was a housing study that the city asked Iowa State to do. It was funny because after a year-long process, we came back and out of our 10 top recommendations, none had to do with housing. It was an eye opener for us. It was like, “But we hire you to tell us which houses to build.” And we said, “No.” Everything we’ve heard, all the data we look at shows that unless you take care of these 10 things, no matter what house you build people won’t come. Those things had to deal with image, online, coming into town, going through downtown, the image of the school district. The school district had an awful image and it’s not a bad school district whatsoever. This seems to be a recurrent theme in other communities. I’ll give you an example here in a little bit, but we’ve invested a lot in the community school district image, in our business district, like I said, brand new everything. We have a uniform now, marketing campaign in the city, so same logo. I feel like other communities have done this. The school district has the same logo as the City of Ottumwa. These have different colors. We all have the same kind of united image still showing diversity of the organizations. Then, yeah, I’ve just heard that somebody says there’s nothing to do here. I might tell them, “Tell me more about that. What does that mean to you. Or when you say this town it’s not safe. Okay. Let’s talk about that because we have same or lower crime rates than other towns so why would you say that?” That’s kind of the technique that we’re using with people now if they say something, “Okay. Tell me more about that. How did that happen to you?” “Well, I fell in a crack on the sidewalk.” “Okay, was that a public sidewalk or was that a house?” “Okay. It’s a house.” “Okay, was that reported?” Just go deeper and eventually people come to say, “Okay, it’s not an excuse if I didn’t fix it or I didn’t get involved or if I didn’t look for opportunities to be active in my community”. I was teaching a leadership class in another community, a rural community, smaller than Ottumwa, probably about 12,000 or less. In the first class, I always do this. I say, “What are the biggest issues in your town?” So people name, and it was a consensus of the whole class. I had, I think, 18 leaders of the community there, that the schools were awful. “We just have really bad schools. We need to fix the school problem.” I say, “Okay, let’s look at the data.” The way we present data when we go into communities, we compare them to their peer’s community and also to the state of Iowa. When they looked at the data, they saw that their school district was performing better than their peers. Okay, so anybody, the same size, similar distance to a bigger city and that was a very shocking experience for them. Then we went and looked at the third column and not only were they doing better than their peers, they were doing better than the state of Iowa in general. That was a huge eyeopening moment for them. I asked them, “What does that mean? Why would you say you have bad schools when you’re performing better than everybody else?” It came down to an image issue you, the way the school communicated or that they’ve had one instance of a student hitting another one and so that took it to the social media and it wasn’t addressed by the school, so we must have really bad schools. [inaduible] Everywhere, in every school district in Iowa there’s a fight every day. Instead of throwing money into building a brand new school or [inaudible], something like that, what they did is they put their efforts and energy and resources on a campaign, an image campaign on how do they communicate with parents and how do they communicate with students? And so just digging deep into the root of that problem. That’s just an example of, sometimes, our community has been our worst enemies in terms of image and not seeing the value that we have and the benefits that we have.
Hannah Shultz: Himar’s last point here is so important. We internalize stereotypes and comments and too frequently allow exceptions to make the rule. Ottumwa and so many other communities like it have so much going for them. Now, we’re going to hear from Kristy Nabhan-Warren. Kristy is an anthropologist of religion and is faculty in the religious studies and gender, women’s and sexuality studies departments at the University of Iowa. Kristy’s unique among our guests for this series. She’s a researcher and she doesn’t currently live in a rural area. She does spend a lot of time in rural communities. I’m excited to share her research with you. She does research to contest narratives that white Americans hold close about rural areas and her work reinforces the reality I mentioned a few minutes ago, that the Midwest is a deeply global place. Nabhan-Warren grew up in Gary, Indiana and now lives in Iowa City. She spent most of her time in the Midwest and she now does research and works with folks living in rural areas. I asked her why she chose to live in Iowa city rather than a rural community, given that she spends a good deal of her time in rural areas.
Kristy Nabhan-Warren: We actually seriously considered West Branch or West Liberty. My first two years teaching here … so I taught at Augustana College for 10 years, which is about an hour away in Illinois and I got this job offer. My husband had yet to get a job offer here and our kids were young and we were in a great neighborhood in Rock Island, which is a very diverse community, for those of you who’re familiar with Rock Island. Our kids went to a magnet school there and there were more Black American kids and Latino kids at their school, so our kids were actually minorities and we loved that. It was hard to think about leaving Rock Island and so I commuted the first two years to Iowa City about three days a week. It was pretty exhausting because the kids were young and I was coaching my one son’s soccer team and it was just crazy. I drive from a full day to go coach on a soccer field. It was a little nutty. Anyway, once my husband got a job at Iowa City, we committed to moving here with the kids and we were like, “Okay, where are we going to want to live there?” Because, yeah, I mean, West Liberty was really appealing because it’s not technically rural, but they have an incredible dual language program and that was really appealing to us. We looked into Solon, we looked into West Branch. At the time we were going to Quaker meetings there, which we really love the Quaker community there. I think what it honestly came down to is we didn’t want to commute. I bike to work, so it was kind of like, “What is the most important thing?” For us, I think after those two years of commuting, I just didn’t want to drive anymore, so when we were looking for a house, it had to be biking distance. We’re about a 15, 20-minute bike ride from our home to campus. The schools were appealing, but to be honest with you, the West Liberty schools in some ways were more appealing because our kids probably won’t be bilingual or have dual language now. I love the Iowa City school system, but I do think the language program has something to be desired here, so I will be critical of it. I think if we would have moved to West Liberty, yeah, that would have happened. Yeah, I mean, I think we were definitely open to it. In fact, we did look at a home that was on 10 acres. That would have been about 35-minute drive to campus, but I think that’s what it came down to. We just didn’t want to have to rely on a car. Our environmentalism and how we wanted to live, not be car dependent, that trumped living in rural America. I still find it very appealing and Steve and I talk a lot, my husband and I, once the kids are out of the house, but now we just really love being able to bike. We like being able to go downtown, go to the museums. Well, now in COVID, it’s a little harder. I think it’s the accessibility and being close to things that we really value.
Hannah Shultz: I think anyone who has ever had a long commute can understand her family’s decision to live in Iowa city. Kristy’s style of research is sometimes called ethnography, sometimes community-engaged research and many other things, depending on the scholars discipline. She describes more about what she does and how she works.
Kristy Nabhan-Warren: When we look at the statistics, yes, Iowa is a white state compared to other places but – and this is something that I learned with my research in meat packing plants. In my current research, my new book’s coming out next fall 2021, I was really interested in unpacking what scholars call the intersectionalities of migration, religion, and work and trying to understand the new migrations, right, because there’s been a lot written on post-1965 migration, but not really, really recent migration. There’s been a real bias in the scholarship towards the coast, right, or big Midwestern cities. We had quite a few really good studies on Chicago, for example, but none on rural Midwest. Yes, my work is, I’m very much pushing back against tropes of the Midwest being a flyover, Iowa in particular being a fly over state, that we’re lily white, that we don’t have diversity, that we’re this and that we’re that. I think that’s … as much as I love journalists and I love journalists writings and I read a lot of their books and articles and assign them to my students, I think that we need to move beyond what I would call hot takes and do more cold takes. That’s what scholars, that’s what we can contribute. Community-engaged research is going to people in their homes, their places of work, places where they worship and I conduct interviews. A lot of times these interviews end up leading to more interviews and then friendships. The interviews, community-based research that I do ends up becoming very transformative, I think, for myself, for my students – I bring this research to my classes- , to the way I see the world. I guess that’s such a great question because I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I’ve always called myself an ethnographer or an anthropologist of religion, but increasingly I’m saying, who also does social justice work and who does community-based research. I’ve been thinking a lot about how important it is to say that. For me, it’s more than just talking to people and recording what they say. It’s getting research out there, but research that I hope can help impact the lives of the folks I’ve been privileged enough to interview in positive ways. Hopefully, the research that I put out there, the books I write, the articles I write can help make some positive constructive changes and push those in power and control like corporations to be motivated to make some changes. I’ve always worked with the US Latinos, primarily Mejicanos, Mexican Americans, but increasingly, for this new book project, I had the privilege of working with many more refugees from the DNC, Myanmar, Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Somalia. I’ve always been drawn to communities who have been oppressed, forgotten. As a non-Catholic who does Catholic studies, I’ve always been really drawn to Latino Catholicism. That’s how I sort of got my start as a scholar and those are the first individuals I was privileged enough to work with. I always ask myself, “What would it look like if we centered the experiences of people who have always been marginalized, right? Whether it’s Mexican-Americans, whether it’s Somalians, Sudanese, Congolese? What would it look like if we centered, if we started the story with their experiences and then worked outward from there?” Yeah, I think the whole span of my research has been deeply informed by my encounters and engagements. I’ve always been an outsider. Really, I’m a non-Catholic who has spent a lot of my career working with Catholics. I’m a white ethnically Lebanese-Swedish-Polish woman. My dad’s side’s Lebanese. My mom’s side’s Polish. I’m very unlike the folks I work with and doing the kind of community-based scholarship that I’ve done has really woken me up in a very real way to my own white privilege. I mean, I think it’s easy to say, “Oh, we have white privilege,” but, I mean, when you do this kind of work, I think it has to become transformative. Right? It’s really woken me up to the hard realities and I’ve had to really sit with that. Right? The ways that I have been privileged because of my whiteness. Right? And then what can I do with my privilege as a white woman, tenured professor at a major research university? How can I use those privileges to help? I want to say help in a kind of trite way, but to pay it forward, to give back – I’m sort of lacking the right language right now – to those communities that have given me so much, and that gives so much to us, the United States? What I’ve learned in the course of my research is that refugee – and in my work, I call all these individuals refugees, whether or not they have the legal status. All of these individuals from the Northern, whether it be the Northern triangle, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, whether they’re recognized refugees, I mean, most of these folks are not. Right? Those from the DNC, Congolese are recognized as refugees. Whether they’re technically recognized as refugees or not, I call all of these individuals refugees because they’re fleeing something for something. None of the folks that I interviewed wanted to leave their homes. These are men and women from around the world who are living in our state in Iowa, who are making major contributions to their towns, they’re revitalizing downtowns, whether it be restaurants, cultural centers, painting their homes bright, beautiful colors, planting flowers, they’re working in meat packing plants. Where you find meat packing plants in the Midwest and in our state, so too, you will find the most diverse communities. Right? And so Columbus Junction, Iowa, West Liberty, Iowa, Waterloo, right, Perry, all of these places. Now, we read a lot of negative things since COVID outbreaks. Let’s be honest, these plants have not handled, these corporations have not handled the COVID outbreaks well. They’ve been very late to come to the PPEs, personal protective equipment. What I’m really interested in is not just economically what these individuals are bringing to their communities because they most certainly are, but culturally, what they’re bringing to them. Indeed, there are racist outbursts. We had Steve King, for example. That’s the stuff that we hear in the news and that’s real and I don’t want to dismiss the danger of racist discourse and dialogue because it’s alive and well in our country as we know. That’s a story that we need to talk about. What I’m trying to tell in my work is another story learned from community-engaged research. People in towns like white folks were like, “Yeah, I really didn’t like these new migrants at first, but yeah, I really think that they bring a lot to our community.” Sometimes it’s begrudging acceptance, but acceptance, nonetheless. What I would like to see more scholars do and just more people in general, is to look beyond the hot takes that we see in the news and to really explore what’s really going on in the Midwest. That’s what I think community-based research, to go back to your first question, can do, long sustained research, where we embed ourselves in communities. We sit down for coffee. Again, all my research for this book was done pre-COVID. Sitting down for a lot coffees, a lot of meals, a lot of conversations.
Hannah Shultz: Kristy’s going to talk about Art Cohen from Storm Lake, Iowa, another meatpacking industrial town. Art is a Pulitzer prize winning journalist and has written a book about his community. We’ll be hearing from him a few times throughout this series.
Kristy Nabhan-Warren: I like his book, Storm Lake, because he really tries to lay this out too, is that, these are complicated places. Let’s really talk about white Americans, native born white Americans, really wrestling with their own inherited racism and really wrestling with the fact that they really appreciate their new neighbors, but they’ve internalized that they shouldn’t like these new neighbors. I think it’s so much more complex than we’re led to believe in the news. That’s one thing I really appreciate about Art’s work. There are more scholars looking at the Midwest now as really complex laboratories. What I try to argue in my new book is that, the Midwest is a deeply global place. It really is a hub where we can look at shifts in the new migrations, work. I think it’s a really interesting place, a really dynamic and vibrant place to look at. I’m really hoping that we can get rid of this whole lexicon of fly over because I think there’s a lot of richness in places like Iowa and I am not a native born Iowan. I don’t have an axe to grind like, “Oh my state’s awesome,” because I’m fairly new to Iowa. I do strongly feel like Iowa … there’s a lot going on here that I think is a future of the country in a lot of ways. I think we need to reckon with it.
Hannah Shultz: One of the interesting things about Kristy bringing Art into this conversation is that they have some similar arguments about rural communities and the racist reputation rural white America has.
Kristy Nabhan-Warren: Because I have a Catholic studies position, I was really committed to understanding Catholic parishes and Catholic parishes historically have always been pretty diverse places. They’ve always been segregated places too, though. There’s that definite racialized, racist history of most religious organizations in the United States. I was really interested because I was reading up on the new migrations to Iowa and how many of these migrants are Catholic. I had three different parishes where I was conducting field work. Initially, I really wanted to study rural parishes because that’s where most of these migrants and refugees live, they live in rural Iowa and they’re going to these rural churches, in this case, Catholic parishes. I was really interested originally, the focus of this project was understanding how Catholic parishes were or were not dealing with the new migrations. Are these post-racial spaces? Are these what some sociologists call them shared parishes? What are they? What’s going on here? It became a much bigger project because one of the priests I worked with in Columbus Junction said, “You really should go to the meat packing plants,” because that’s where all of the individuals I was talking to, that’s where all of them work, they work at Tyson. That’s how I got into the meat packing, that’s the meat packing plant component. I really wanted to understand their work lives and how they carry their faith with them into the workplace. I think these are much more complicated places. I think it’s easy to say that this is just a bunch of racist, white people. I think that that’s a really unnuanced, unsophisticated argument that I hear a lot in the news and even academics making that argument. My whole career, I’ve been really drawn to pushing back on narratives. This is one of the narratives that I want to contest, that rural places are X, Y, and Z and what I want to show is, well, maybe there’s some truth to that, but it’s also this. I think, for me as a scholar, rural spaces are really fruitful, literally, – pun intended – really fruitful places for contesting those narratives that we hold very dear as Americans, as white Americans.
Hannah Shultz: We’re going to end our time with Kristy talking about farmers and agricultural workers. Later on, we’ll have a full episode on food systems and we’ll talk about rural employment and community sustainability. But I like what Kristy says here and I think it’s a good note to end with.
Kristy Nabhan-Warren: I think another thing too, I have a lot of white Iowa students who are from farms. I think there’s this idea, this mythopoetics, if you will, of farming families and that they have this kind of stability. Farming families are really suffering and most farm families have husbands and wives who work second jobs. I haven’t worked with that many farmers for this project, but I have worked with farmers, interviewed farmers and I’ve met wives who are teachers and also get up at 4:00 in the morning to feed the pigs and to get things ready. I mean, these families are amazing families. Right? But that these families aren’t struggling, I mean, I think the farm crisis, yes, it was in the 80s, but I think we have a new crisis. I think the current administration’s policies have hurt farmers even more. What I’ve really learned is like, “Wow, I mean, it’s really freaking hard to be a farmer.” It’s like, there’s such a commitment and passion to the history and to generations and so I’ve gained a real appreciation for farm families doing this work. My work is mostly focused on meat packing and that labor, but I’ve also had the privilege to interview some farmers too and cattle ranchers, just how hard these folks work and they don’t really make a lot. I mean, it’s really a vocation. What I’ve learned is, farming is really a vocation and it’s like a calling and there’s this commitment to family and generations that I find very, very moving. One of my colleagues, Robert Wuthnow, he’s now retired, he’s emeritus at Princeton. Robert Wuthnow has some really good books out on farming and religion, and I’m not as much of an expert as he is, but he’s from the Midwest, I think he’s from Kansas, but he has some really great books about farming and faith, and the Midwest and faith, so I gained a real appreciation of farming. I think it’s a story that we don’t know enough about, how much these farmers are struggling. I think rural America is a lot more diverse than we thought. I think it’s a place that’s very precarious. There’s a lot of precarity, economic precarity. White folks, brown folks, Black folks are struggling in rural Iowa and in rural America. I think that that’s an issue that we need to think about, policy-wise. What can scholars do to draw attention to this? What can we do to help rural America and farmers.
Hannah Shultz: That wraps up today’s episode of Share Public Health. I hope you’ll join us next week. We’ll talk with Mary Swander who lives outside of Kalona, Iowa, Art Cohen from Storm Lake and Heather Lujano from Washington.
Thank you for tuning into this episode of Share Public Health. Thank you to the Injury Prevention Research Center, Iowa Center for Agricultural Safety and Health, the Healthier Workforce Center of the Midwest, the Heartland Center for Occupational Health and Safety, the Great Plains Center for Agricultural Health, the Midwestern Public Health Training Center, the Prevention Research Center for Rural Health and the Rural Policy Research Institute. Our theme song is Walk Along John. It’s performed by Al Murphy on fiddle, Mark Janssen on mandolin, Brandy Janssen on banjo, Warren Hamlin on guitar and Aletta Murphy on bass. Al learned this song from a Fiddler named Albert Spray, who is from Kahoka, Missouri. A transcript evaluation and discussion guide for this episode are available at mphtc.org and in the podcast notes.