Season 2 Episode 7
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.
Hello, I’m Hannah Shultz. Welcome back to Share Public Health series on rural health. I’m excited you’re joining me. If you haven’t listened to last week’s episode, I encourage you to do so. But don’t worry if you haven’t. We’re going to kick off today’s episode talking with Heather Lujano. Heather is a social worker and works in the Washington community schools in Southeast Iowa. She has focused a lot of her life and career in working with and supporting immigrants. She shares her experience studying in Mexico, and how formative those years were in shaping her work.
Heather Lujano: My first experience as a minority was when I traveled to Mexico, and that was actually through a college study program. And so I stayed for several months and had lots of different experiences that I had never had in my entire life before. And so I think that particular experience that I had, which happened in 1990, was something that really changed me as a person. It changed my view, it changed what I was concerned about or interested in, and what I paid attention to. So then having that experience of being a minority, I came back to Iowa and looked for work, particularly with programs that work directly with immigrants. In this case, we were talking about Spanish-speaking immigrants in the state. And so I began working with Proteus, and I was going out into migrant camps. Sometimes we’d set up our little office on a blanket with some coolers there to sit on and chat with people when they were on a break. We’d go a lot in the evenings because of their long work hours, but with Proteus, I was doing outreach in that way, getting to know people, trying to find out their needs and seeing how the programs we had available here might assist them. Then I went back to Mexico and lived there for maybe four or five years, and I completed my BA during that time as well, which was in Latin American studies, or is in Latin American studies, I do still have it, they haven’t rescinded it yet. I didn’t have any language, but I did speak fluently by that time. But the first time I went to Mexico, I spoke no Spanish whatsoever, which really was something that changed, I think, my experience, because I think that to me was like the bucket of cold water. Like, “Oh my goodness, I know nothing. I can’t even ask for what I really want at this store or restaurant. I don’t know how to pronounce any words.” All this was just something for me, and that was back to my first trip to Mexico. And so then obviously I took Spanish classes while I was there, kept learning, et cetera, kept learning as I worked with Spanish-speaking people here in the state while I worked with Proteus. So my journey has kind of been, I go learn things and then I figure out what this means to me and how I need to apply that. So to make a long story kind of short, I ended up coming back to the US, and then worked… my first job back in the US again was with Proteus, and I was a career development coordinator. So I was working with immigrants, trying to assist them in finding a permanent employment opportunity, looking at their family’s needs, helping them with job applications, or in interviews, or preparation for those types of things. We did a lot of aptitude testing, and so I would have employer contacts and I would be like, “Oh, I have these people.” And it was through the job training partnership [inaudible] which was an incentive for some of the employers. And through that work actually, I met Tammy Shaw who now is working with Iowa WINs in Mount Pleasant. She was working at that time at a company, and I had contacted many companies in the area regarding my clients, and some of those contacts are people that I still know and work with today, which is amazing. That’s how I got to Washington. I came back, worked with Proteus, started meeting people in the area here, and then I heard about a position with the Washington schools. So I applied for it, and that was actually a rural health access grant. That was in 1996 that I was hired by the Washington schools on a three-year grant. Okay. 24 years later, I’m still employed at the Washington schools. So obviously, the work that I was doing was something that either I came at a perfect time when they were like, “Oh my gosh, we don’t know anything about this and here’s this person that doesn’t fit into any job description that helps us, or keeps us from getting sued or whatever.” I don’t know, but they still have me on. And so in that time from ’96 through now, I went back to the University of Iowa, got my master’s in social work, and likely within a couple of months, I will be taking my next level of exam to be an independent practitioner as well. So that language piece is really important in my story, because one of the first things that I worked on then, starting off with the schools here in Washington, was trying to find opportunities for people to learn more English. There were just a few interested citizens here in the town that had reached out in some way, shape or form, or happened to be a neighbor of an immigrant family and started having more conversations with them, or trying to work with them to learn the language. So we had two or three families that were working with people in their homes, just inviting them to work and practice English, and so then when I started with the schools, I was like, “Oh my gosh, we have facilities. Oh, we have classrooms, and let’s get this organized.” And so one of the first projects that I did was helping to bring English, adult ESL classes in a more formalized way into the community. So we partnered with Kirkwood Community College, and they offered it for free, and the actual first class that happened in Washington happened at Lincoln School here, which is an elementary building in town. And we offered childcare, we had Kirkwood providing materials and an instructor, and we had some people in the community that would bring snacks and it was just a very family-friendly thing. Over the years, that has morphed into what Kirkwood now offers from their new site, which is a very structured program. No children are allowed in the building, which I understand. They’ve got other classes going on and lots of equipment, but that first class actually happened with those partnerships formed with the schools. There’s been a lot of groups that I’ve tried to get started to keep some of these projects going. I’m always focusing on how to get participants from the population that we are working with to be part of what we’re doing, and part of those decisions. So I guess in a sense that’s… Well, it’s leadership development, it’s comradery, it’s collaboration, it’s including voices that are the reason that we’re here. So Washington is what I would consider to be… Well, see, I grew up in Vincent, Iowa. There’s like 115 inhabitants, probably if you count people’s pets. In my childhood, living there, I’d seriously thought my mom had special powers, because she was like, “What were you doing on the other side of the tracks?” And I was like, “Oh my gosh.” It never occurred to me that neighbors were calling her up and saying, “Oh, we saw your daughter riding her bike on so-and-so’s property.” So that whole rural is a piece of who I am. And so the years that I was in Mexico, living in Mexico City, those were culture shocks, language shocks, all of that, but I still came back to the rural community. But what Washington is to me, is a city, because I grew up in such a rural place where my backyard was corn or beans all the time. So Washington has big stores and restaurants and all this, but to some people or me, having lived in Mexico City then coming to Washington, I’m like, “Oh my gosh, there’s nothing here.” It’s just a matter of perspective. But Washington, I think, is a community that even though I’ve lived here for 24 years, I’m new. I’m new here because I don’t have roots here necessarily, and I’m not from a family that people know as a family that they’ve been acquainted with. So I can only imagine how they must feel about some of the immigrant families that have settled out here too that don’t maybe look as similar to the… those types of things I think are interesting when we start talking about what’s Washington, what’s it like? It’s just a matter of perspective. My perspective is it’s a place that I can usually feel at home in, it’s a place that I was happy to raise my children in because of the smaller aspect of it, but there’s also challenges, I think, that exists in any community when you have different people from different places coming together.
Hannah Shultz: Remember last week when I said we weren’t going to define rural? Washington has a bit over 7,000 people. Coming from Mexico City, small town. Coming from Vincent, Iowa, it’s a city. As Heather mentioned a moment ago, she’s been a lot of time learning language and helping folks in her community learn English. She started several programs, and will share some of them with us now. She kicks off talking about a program she was involved in that eventually Kirkwood Community College became a part of.
Heather Lujano: So over the years, like I said, that Kirkwood class has been coming into the Kirkwood umbrella. It is now offered regularly, and that’s a huge resource for the population I work with. But through that time, I really wanted to get… so I had a group of people like I’m telling you, people from Washington who had lived here for 40 years or whatever, or their families were from here working with me and who were interested in helping and reaching out and welcoming people. But we didn’t have a lot of people from the population that I was working directly with on a day-to-day basis as part of our idea bank or what’s going to work, what do we need? It was I think the late ’90s, because that was before my kids were born, that I started working to try to get a community group that was mixed populations together, but focusing on specific issues of the Latino community, because this was a growing population. And there were lots of needs, lots of interpretive needs in the community, there’s cultural differences, all those types of things. How do people access services? And this also fell in that idea of the rural health. So I was in contact with some large organizations and providers as well, trying to figure out how we can problem-solve. But what ended up happening is through the Y, we started a group that was called the Comité Latino, which just means Latino committee. So trying to look at what’s going on in our community, who’s coming in, what do we need to do? And my main purpose there was to have actual Latinos being part of this group as well so it’s not just a bunch of people from the town coming together and saying, “Oh, what are we going to do with these Latinos?” But have these joint community conversations through the Comité Latino. What I realized over time was, over I don’t know how many years we met, the people involved, it was not the right time in the community for this group to be self-sufficient or be sustained. It could have been sustained and it would end up being our same selves, white people coming to talk about the Latinos. That’s not what I wanted. I wanted to have everybody being part of the group, and not just some of us. So what ended up happening is, I just decided, “You know what, I don’t think our community is ready for this group yet. I’m out on a limb and that’s okay.” But I learned a lot through this experience, and so then I focused. I decided, “Okay, Comité Latino, that was a great experience.” I think we worked together a couple of years at least, maybe three, we did a couple of events that were well-attended, we never got to have non-profit status or whatever because we were under the auspices of the Y, which was fine, but it was kind of like, “Okay, we got a few things done, it was interesting, people had some opportunities to exchange and have a positive experience, but this isn’t really what people are ready for yet.” And so then I started focusing on working with youths in the schools. And so as far as who are these Latino students? What’s missing in the schools? If you’re Latino, how do you feel at X elementary building? At X high school? Where are your safe places? Who are your connections? Are you connected? And so I started just having a time to meet with some of the youth at the middle school and high school during a study time or whatever just to have conversations. Because I was like, “Okay, Hey, what’s school like for you?” And we had all different language abilities. We had some people that didn’t even speak Spanish that were Latino, we had people that hardly spoke any English. So these were always bilingual conversations with me facilitating. What I learned from the kids was that they felt like they were outsiders. There were sometimes barriers to participate in activities or whatever. So I started working more helping them and the parents have information like, “Okay, when are sports physicals offered? What are we doing here?” And that type of stuff. And I started having the school calendar translated to Spanish every year with resources and that type of thing. But what came out of these conversations with the youth was that they love to hang out and they love to chat in their home language. So I ended up saying, “Hey, why don’t we form a school group and you guys can decide what we’re going to do. You guys can decide what’s important to you.” That was 1999, and the very first group started and the kids decided they wanted to call themselves La Onda which is like what’s cool and vibing. So La Onda started at Washington High School in 1999, and we had six people in the group besides me. So over the years, what has happened is, the kids every year decide what their focus is. “Okay, what are the projects we want to do this year? Okay.” They decide their officers, everything. And over the years, it’s opened up to be the La Onda multicultural group, because we, over the years, have had exchange students coming into the community, and those were kids that also … the La Onda kids were like, “Hey, I know how you feel when you’re feeling like you’re not quite in the group. So come to La Onda. We accept all cultures.” Anyway, the La Onda group at the high school just celebrated their 20th anniversary last December, and we had a lock-in at the school and we have 32 students there that night. So La Onda has continued. And then the other group that over time we had was called Friends and Neighbors of Immigrants. And that was a group… I think it was in the mid-2000s or early 2000s, maybe 2002 or so, where I started again to have this community group. I just felt like, “Gosh, we need a community group because we are a community, but everybody’s off on their own places and people really don’t come together just to say, “Hey, who are we as a community, and what do we need?” So I’d have this, “Okay, I’m going to try a community group again. I just can’t let it go.” I just felt like it was important. And so we started… again, a lot of the same people that were initially involved in Comité Latino as far as the Caucasians involved, and we were called, at that time, Friends and Neighbors of Immigrants, and again, we were trying to get more participation in the Latino community. It’s part of our group because there were raids going on in Postville and other areas and we were just like, “What is going on? What do we need to do or consider as a community if there is any way, shape or form to be prepared or support each other?” And so one of the things that the friends and neighbors group did at that time, was organize a peace march here in the community. And that occurred on May 1st. And I can’t remember the exact year, but I do know that we had over 500 people participate in that peace march. And we had kids from the La Onda group that decided they wanted to be involved, and so they borrowed some drums from the school, and they were out in front marching and they had the beat going. And people were just peacefully marching to communicate, “Hey, we want peace. We want to get along.” So the peace march, I think, is really important because people from all walks of life came together, all ages, all ethnicities. And we wore white, and we had some support from community groups too, like the Daughters of the American Revolution bought flags for us to give out, we had some elderly people that had made some swatches of white material that people could tie on their wrist as a bracelet just to include everybody and have more white in our parade or peace march, and so those types of things are cool. Things that happen in a rural community that I don’t know. Maybe more other different things happen in a larger city, but to me that was really significant. I know it was on the front page of The Gazette and the Des Moines Register, but I just can’t remember the year. But it did occur on May 1st. Anyway, so that’s Friends and Neighbors of Immigrants, [inaudible] era, and then that group eventually… again, we didn’t have that momentum we needed in a sense to keep going. And there’s a point where me, I have to recognize my own limitations too and say, “Okay, is this what I want or is this what the community wants? Is this what we need? Are we working together? Am I putting in more energy than everyone else?” To truly have it be a community project, we all have to give some, and we all have to try to collaborate at the same level. And so I have that leader tendency I know, which I think is a good thing, but it also can be a hindrance because you can be out there too much in front when what you really need to do is step back and walk with the people. And so that brings us, I think, to where DUO comes in, because… especially with the Mount Pleasant raid and all of that that happened, lots of wrenching things going on in rural communities in Iowa. And again, the same group of people we come together again and we were like, “Okay, what are we doing? What does our community need?” But this was different because from the very start, we had Latino people in our group by our side, and we had all, to the extent that was possible, every meeting, we were trying to conduct in two languages. And this is the idea of DUO, like duality. But also we are one. And then, we had this brilliant idea from one of our group members, DUO, the word is the acronym of do unto others. And so then we started focusing on that idea of just the golden rule, treating other people how you want to be treated. And we don’t care [about] your economic status, your race, your culture, ethnicity. We just want to know that we are compassionate individuals and want to connect. So this is what DUO is. And initially again, we started coming together because of the raids and the scare tactics maybe from political entities or whatever, social media and everything. The community was very concerned and wanting to figure out, could something like this happen here? What’s the situation? So DUO really started working on listening to the community and trying to bring together resources that might be helpful. And I do have to say, we are a nonprofit right now, we incorporated in March of 2019. But we are still just in the fledgling stages. And maybe that’s just what good work is like. You always feel like you’re just getting started. It’s invigorating, but it’s also got some challenges. So we have a good core group and we obviously are trying to live out the mission of our group and always being considerate of cultures and languages, and also having that group consensus. And everybody’s an equal voice at the table, and I think that really is what DUO what is about.
Hannah Shultz: Heather makes a really important point about timing. For some of us who like to make things happen and cross things off the list, it can be so frustrating when things that seem obvious and important take time. Heather has been persistent in getting these groups off the ground, and trusted the community for when it was and wasn’t the best time. One of the things I really love about the guests we’ve got on today’s episode is the decades long perspective they have of their communities. Communities evolve over the years, and the distance and time our guests today have, is really enlightening. We’re going to head a few miles up the road to Kalona, Iowa, now to talk with Mary Swander. Mary was the poet Laureate of Iowa from 2009 to 2011, she has an arts nonprofit called AgArts, produces her own podcast called AgArts from Horse and Buggy Land, and is an excellent storyteller. Mary has lived outside of Kalona, Iowa for about 30 years. She tells us a bit about what she sees as the strengths of her community. Though she isn’t Amish, she spent about half of her life living in the largest Amish community West of the Mississippi.
Mary Swander: The biggest strength is that sense of community. One of the reasons I love living here is because I’ve got real neighbors. First of all, they’re small farms, and so I can look out my window and see the homestead farm houses of one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight different farms. I mean I’m on top of a hill. But that’s really an oddity. The rural landscape is becoming a vista of 10,000 acre farms. It’s really unusual to look out one’s window and see eight different farms. I love like … We have a neighborhood picnic, we have fish fries, we have little gifts exchange at Christmas time, and my absolute favorite thing is, sometime during Christmas week, the Amish come around caroling. We have these old fashioned things that really, really build connection and community. You’re standing there and they’re three generations in one family singing in harmony in front of you, and you really think it can’t get any better than this. The young people gone and established two other settlements in Southern Iowa, where the Amish are really growing in Southern Iowa. They’ll still get in their horse and buggies, and they’ll drive all the way to Sigourney. It’s amazing to me, which is what, I don’t know, 30 miles away. So that would take an entire day. So you watch that form of life play out in front of you, and it’s historical, of course, because that’s the way everybody used to live. But it’s also awe inspiring, because you think we would just not have the patience for that, and our minds go at much higher speed than we could tolerate a whole day in a horse and buggy. We couldn’t do it. And then you also see this sense of teamwork in how the Amish build their families. They visit all the time, and they go back and forth to each other, there’s never a funeral where they all don’t assemble. It’s a different culture than we’re living in even though we’re all living here in Iowa. There’s still that ethos of you help your neighbor and you pull together. We had the recent derecho, the big storm, we saw that come out. And in metropolitan areas too. I just saw people in truckloads with their chainsaws in the back of the pickup going to help people. That’s the rural area at its best when there’s trauma, drama, a problem, and people start pitching in.
Hannah Shultz: Mary’s moved to Kalona was somewhat unplanned. She talks a bit about what it was like moving to her home, and the new experiences she’s had as a result.
Mary Swander: On one of my trips down here, I’m driving by and there’s a for sale sign out in front of the school house. I’m like, “That’s weird. The Amish are selling their school?” And I’m driving on by. And then I thought, “Oh, wouldn’t it be a fun place for somebody to live?” And I’m driving on by. And then I’m like, “That may be a really fun place for you to live.” So I turned around and it was total whim. And I looked in the windows and they’re 9 6-foot tall windows because the Amish use natural light. And I looked out and it had this beautiful, beautiful vista. And the name of the school is Fairview school. So you have this beautiful view. It turned out to be the most complicated real estate transaction in the history of Iowa, but I eventually bought the school house and fixed it up to live in. And the Amish thought I was totally whacked and they thought I was totally nuts. They were like, “She’s going to live in it. Oh my God, is she going to live in it?” It’s 100 years old now, so it had its little creaks and moans but it’s solid and I put in a little… I kept it all one room, but I have a little kitchen area. It had a little boys bathroom, a little girl’s bathroom, so I knocked out the wall and just put a shower in and it’s one bathroom. So I had to kind of do some remodeling, but not that much. So I’ve been very happy here. I just can’t tell you how rich it is. There’s something interesting that happens every single day. I have like a lot of visitors and have friends all over the United States. Some come and they’re like, “Aren’t you bored out there? Don’t you get bored?” And I said, that is the one thing I am not. I am not bored here. Today, for example, they’re making sorghum right down the road. Three quarters of a mile down the road there’s a sorghum press, and it now runs on… they hook it up to the tractor to move the grinding stone around. But when I first got here, they had a little pony that went around and around and around. It was so incredible. And they go out into the hill and they dig the clay, and they have to grind the canes, and then they press out the juice and then they have to filter the juice through this clay and boil it. So it’s this huge big boiler with a little whistle on the top. And so all morning I’ve been hearing them go “toot toot, toot toot”. So you can drive by and if you honk, they’ll “toot toot”. And everybody in the entire… All the Amish in the entire region come with their cane, and then they have a little system where they scratch numbers into the wall of the shed, where they do this to keep track of which family brought how much cane, and then how that translates into the jars of molasses that they’ll come and pick up. It is an agricultural museum. One day I was looking out the window and I started talking to my brother and I’m like, “I am looking out the window, and they’re bailing hay in those little square bales like we used to make on the farm.” And my brother’s like, “With the twine? With the twine around the bale?” I’m like, “Yeah.” And he goes, “I have not seen that for 50 years.” I said, “Yeah, I know. It’s just a total blast from the past.” And he’s like, “Okay, what’s the machinery look like?” You don’t have to go to living history farms. I’ve got it right outside my window. So that’s fascinating. They do use some implements. They can have tractors, they use horses, but they also have tractors. They can’t use modern tractors. They can’t have a cab and a radio and all that, and so… There’s a cutoff date of probably… I don’t know, 1965 or so. I asked him once, I said, “Could you just cut the cab off?” And they go, “Well, yeah, but that’s a lot of work.” So they essentially have to get antique tractors. Different families will know how to fix international harvesters or John Deere’s. So they’ll try to get three of those same models and brands, and then they’ll have spare parts. I have become the neighborhood online implement dealer. Because those used to be advertised in the back of Iowa Farmer Today or something like that, but now most of it’s online and they don’t have internet, they don’t have computers down there or anything. So they come to me and we put in – its great – we put in bids or find out what the prices are. If it’s in a radius of like… I don’t know, 100 miles or so. They will actually get a ride there and then drive the tractor back. The transportation’s really expensive tp get these things here. And so I’m always scrolling down and they’re going, “There’s one. There’s one. That’s exactly what I want. My price range.” I’m like, “No, you can’t have that one.” And then they’re like, “Why not?” And I said, “Well, that one’s in Belize. So I filter these tractors for them.
Hannah Shultz: Mary told us her online implement dealership is one of the jobs she’s lost to COVID this year. We’re going to head to Northwest Iowa now to hear from Art Cullen. But don’t worry, we’ll hear more from Mary in a couple of weeks. I’m going to let Art introduce himself.
Art Cullen: I’m Art Cullen. I’m the editor of the Storm Lake Times in Storm Lake, Iowa. It’s a twice-a-week newspaper with a website stormlake.com. In Northwest Iowa, Storm Lake is a county seat town. The census says it’s about 10,000 people. We think it’s closer to 15,000 because of so many undocumented immigrants in Storm Lake, which is a food processing community, meatpacking. I grew up in Storm Lake, I was born in Storm Lake, returned after college and working at a couple few other newspapers in Iowa, Algona, Ames and Mason City. Then my brother, John, started the Storm Lake Times in 1990 and I joined him. So John said, “Why don’t you come home and help me with the newspaper?” And I did. And that was the reason I came home. I never thought I would ever come home to Storm Lake. When I left in 1975 after graduating from Saint Mary’s High School. On my way to the college of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, I thought I was never coming back to Iowa. I wanted to live in the Twin Cities like so many other young people from Iowa want to leave the state as soon as they can. I would say its biggest strength is … even before the wave of immigration, Iowa is very open and tolerant community. Because it’s kind of centrally located in Northwest Iowa, it’s always been salesman’s town and a college town, and also there were European immigrants who were coming in and working in meatpacking. So you were used to salesmen moving in and out, and faculty and staff and students moving in and moving out at Buena Vista, and Eastern Europeans coming in and getting established in meatpacking. So Iowa is kind of a transience to Storm Lake that made it open and tolerant of different people, different ideas, and because it’s a college town. So that’s really its strength I think, is its openness and tolerance.
Hannah Shultz: Art shows the value and importance of local ownership for communities.
Art Cullen: Storm Lake is a locally owned community. We’re a locally owned newspaper. We have four pretty sizable, locally owned banks. Although we’re dominated by Tyson and Walmart, and big box stores, we’re a retail trade center. A community is going to be about as healthy as its newspaper and banks are vigorous. And Storm Lake benefits from having these locally owned banks whose only business is investing in Storm Lake. Their profits don’t go off to Minneapolis or San Francisco or Sioux Falls. They stay here in Storm Lake and build housing and businesses. Those banks make contributions to the community, whether it’s through United Way or whatever it is, that you just don’t see from the corporate contributors like Walmart or Tyson. And newspapers, there are about 200 to 300 news deserts in the United States now. Towns of 20,000 to 30,000 people who are abandoned by chain-on newspapers. And they have no news source now other than what you get on Facebook, which is a bunch of propaganda and distortion. So it makes a huge difference. Local news ownership is everything. Every penny we make goes back into our newspaper, into paying our people more – and we don’t pay them enough – or trying to hire more reporters rather than cutting reporters. So I think local versus corporate ownership is everything. It’s true in agriculture where we lost control of the hog industry, and now we have epic environmental problems, rural poverty that we just simply didn’t have when we had independent ownership of livestock, as opposed to wall street ownership of hogs or Chinese ownership of hogs.
Hannah Shultz: Art ties together so many pieces of what we plan to talk about over the coming weeks from climate change, to food systems, to employment and other things that really make a community. I asked him about where people in Storm Lake work, and he weaves together so much history and community connection into this answer.
Art Cullen: Tyson employs over 3000 people in Storm Lake in its turkey and pork slaughter operations. The vast majority of those employees are immigrants. And the majority of the immigrant population is Latino, primarily rural from the state of Jalisco. The other major employers are Buena Vista Regional Medical Center that are hospital and clinics, which is run by Unity Point out of Des Moines – again, losing rural control – and Buena Vista University, which is a small liberal arts college, about a thousand enrollment which has satellite campuses around the state. And then education generally is… We have the Iowa Central Community College campus here and a sizeable Catholic and public school systems, healthcare, and then finance, referring to those locally owned banks and insurance. We’re a regional trade center. While Storm Lake is growing, most of the fourth congressional district, 39 counties in Northwest Iowa are declining in population. In fact, 67 of Iowa’s 99 counties are losing population every year. Buena Vista county, we don’t say Buena Vista, we say Buena Vista despite so many Latinos living here. Buena Vista county’s population is growing because of immigrants and meatpacking. So meatpacking has consolidated through the years as has agriculture. So that means there’s a lot of losers. Fort Dodge doesn’t have a meatpacking plant anymore. Storm Lake has just exploded with meatpacking jobs. So people come here from around the world to get a foot on the first rung to the ladder of American success. They perform incredibly grueling work for marginal wages and limited workplace protections. So it’s an interesting study here. This place is growing, although largely with working poor, whereas the rest of rural Iowa is working poor but declining in population. And that’s the reality. At first, there was some resentment. The union had been busted, a lot of old union guys saw a lot of Southeast Asian refugees from the Vietnam War coming in, and they’re saying, “Hey, we thought we were fighting those guys in Vietnam.” Well in fact, these people were our fighters. They were Laotian refugees who worked for the CIA and in our several wars in Southeast Asia. And eventually, people got used to that because these Asians just worked hard, paid cash for houses, bunked up three families in a house, whatever it took. There’s a certain amount of Iowa pragmatism that will respect that. “That guy works his ass off, I’ve got to respect that.” So eventually, they got used to it. And then about in 1990, there weren’t enough Southeast Asians to replace the lost Anglo labor, as people fled rural Iowa. They used to work in meatpacking. Those farm boys that are waiting for their dad to retire would work at the packing house and then help the dad farm. Well, the farm crisis drove everybody to Texas to work in the oil fields in Oklahoma. And there was nobody left to work in the packing plants other than the Asians, and they weren’t having enough kids. So they started hauling in people from rural Mexico who were being driven out of business by US corn flooding the Jalisco market and putting them out of business, our cheap corn. So then they come up here to slaughter hogs that are fed with that cheap corn that drove them out of business, then that pork is shipped down to Mexico for further processing where it’s then shipped to China or Japan. In 1990, a lot of young Latinos started coming up from Jalisco, young men. Then these guys eventually grew up and got married, and had kids, and settled down and realized it’s a different way of life here than it is in rural Mexico. And they started fitting into the community better, and the community started embracing them. So it’s been a learning process between these cultures and the community. We grow as a result of it, and we become enriched by it. But there are 30 different languages spoken in Storm Lake. Most children in Storm Lake are bilingual. That’s a huge advantage for them going out in the world. And then as the community grew accustomed to it, it began to embrace its diversity. It really kind of dug in and started really going to bat for immigrants. We have a pretty unique charter school in Storm Lake. You can go to Storm Lake High School for five years and graduate with a high school diploma and a community college degree from Iowa Central for free. Or, you can take classes at Buena Vista for free, a private college. It’s a unique charter school set-up, and so it’s mainly immigrant students and they’ll graduate from high school as a trained maintenance technician at Tyson, and they’ll be rather than making $16 an hour, they might be making $22 an hour. A lot of them are going on now to matriculate through four year educations, thanks to this headstart they’re getting, with a two-year head start on a four-year degree. So it’s been a pretty remarkable transformation of the community, and now if we could just get that union back and get those wages up, we could really start cooking with gas. There are two charter school programs in Iowa, and this is the only one involving two- and four-year colleges for at least 15 years. As an outgrowth of that, the University of Iowa then established, thanks to Sally Mason herself, the Storm Lake Scholars Program at the University of Iowa, which gives a fullride scholarship to about a dozen first-generation collegians from Storm Lake, which is pretty incredible. And Buena Vista, by the way, also offers the same deal, a fullride at Buena Vesta for four years to first-generation college students. The cool thing is that like our grandparents’ generation, these people don’t want to go to the Twin Cities. They want to stay with their families, unlike our culture which drives our children away from us and says, “You must go to New York to establish yourself.” These people want to stay with their families. So Storm Lake is now benefiting. Now we have Latino police officers, Latino… we just ran stories this week about a woman who’s getting her master’s degree in education at Buena Vista, Sandra Duque. She’s getting your master’s degree from Buena Vista, and she’s an immigrant, came here as an immigrant. We have a Vietnamese girl at 17 who’s graduating a year early with her AA degree and is off to study Mandarin Chinese and get a degree in international business at the University of Iowa. Now for the first year, Storm Lake is now teaching all elementary students who want to… they’re teaching in Spanish and English. So one day you’ll do your math and Spanish and the next day you’ll do it in English. So Anglo kids, and Latino kids and Asian kids are all having the opportunity to be bilingual.
Hannah Shultz: Storm Lake is unique in the way all communities are. Every community has its own personality. It’s not unique in it’s employment opportunities and having large immigrant communities. All across Iowa and the Midwest are meatpacking and manufacturing towns that rely heavily on immigrant labor. Washington, West Liberty, Denison, Perry, Postville, Ottumwa, Waterloo, Muscatine, these are just a few of the towns, big and small, across the state that have large immigrant communities and their own stories of how that shapes their towns. Storm Lake is also not unique in climate change being a threat to the people and industries that call it home. We’ll hear from Art again in a few weeks when we talk about climate change in the environment more extensively. But here’s a preview.
Art Cullen: The biggest threat to Storm Lake and every place is climate change. And right now, we’re in the beginning of what could be a multi-decade drought if NASA’s Goddard Space Institute is right, and they usually are. Many of Iowa’s top scientists believe that agriculture is in somewhat of an existential crisis. We’re losing soil 4 to 10 times faster than nature can replenish it, we’re subject to epic floods now annually that used to be every 500 years that are causing immense damage to Iowa’s crops and livelihoods, and right now, we’re running low on water in Northwest Iowa, which is the buckle of the corn belt, and this is the… Northern Iowa and Southern Minnesota is where the bulk of the nation’s hogs are raised. But we’re drawing down our water supplies way faster than they’re being replenished. So there’s some real existential questions about how we move forward with agriculture and Iowan food.
Hannah Shultz: We’re going to end on a more positive note. Art describes the 4th of July Star-Spangled Spectacular, which has me thinking again about Washington’s peace march and Himar’s comments last week about the great food in Ottumwa. Art also brags about the amazing Mexican, Cuban, African and other foods in Storm Lake. If anyone wants to go on a food tour of Iowa with me, get in touch. All this talk is making me hungry.
Art Cullen: Well, the biggest event of the year, except for last year, last summer I should say, was the 4th of July parade, it’s called the Star-Spangled Spectacular. There’s about 20,000 people who line up for this parade, and in every nation that’s represented, they carry the flag of their nation, and they dress up in ethnic costume, especially the Asians and Latin Americans. And then of course I carry the Irish flag, but I don’t dress up as a leprechaun. But there’s dancing Mexican horses, that’s the… it’s a big deal. And then any food you can imagine from the world is served that day in the parks, and it’s authentic from Africa to Cuba. The food in Storm Lake is amazing. We have Cuban restaurants, African, Asian from Hmong to Thai to Laos. So that 4th of July is pretty incredible, and it draws tens of thousands of people for this parade to watch. It’s called the Parade of Nations. It’s pretty cool.
Hannah Shultz: I am Hannah Shultz, thank you so much for joining me for another episode of Share Public Health. This was the second of 10 episodes exploring rural life in the Midwest. Please join us again next week as we talk about thriving and growing in rural communities.
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. The theme song for this series 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 these songs 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.