Mauricio Romero (left), Rod Hogg (center) and Todd Patton share their ideas during the cultural diversity forum held in Scott City last week.
By Rod Haxton, editor
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Cultural diversity isn’t something that a community can control. It just happens, often times in response to workforce needs of new or existing industry in the area.
What a community can control is their response to changes in their demographics, which may be seeing their first significant change in decades. This has happened in Western Kansas due to the influx of a Hispanic population in response to the existence of the packing plant industry and expansion of feedlots.
That has been a mixed blessing for communities.
The influx of Hispanics has reversed declining population trends in some towns, helping local businesses and putting more students into local schools.
On the other hand, it has also forced people in those communities to accept change.
“That’s something we struggle with as individuals,” says Derek Okubo, senior vice president with the National Civic League. “It can be even more difficult to deal with these issues as a community. But it’s important for communities to deal with cultural diversity issues in a positive and constructive way.”
Scott City took a step in that direction with a recent public forum attended by about 40 people - evenly divided between Caucasians and Hispanics - which was moderated by Okubo.
This was a follow-up to Scott City being selected as an All-America City finalist earlier this year. Okubo said that Scott City was “painfully close” to being a top-10 AAC winner.
“This was one of the best groups of cities we’ve ever had in the competition,” says Okubo. “Scott City deserves credit for doing so well.”
However, it was felt that Scott City needs to make strides is cultural diversity. In recognition of the need to make progress in this area, the Scott City Chamber of Commerce and the local AAC delegation invited Okubo to share his experiences and expertise.
“Our kids are integrated all day long while they’re in school, but it ends too often once everyone goes home,” says Chamber Director Katie Eisenhour. “We want to find ways to keep this diversity in the community all the time.”
Persons on both sides of the cultural divide expressed a desire to bridge that gap.
“The overall benefit is enrichment of the community,” offered Santos Prieto. “The more people who come to the table, the more possible solutions we will have to address our problems. It will make us a better community.”
Scott City isn’t unique. As the community has become more diverse it has left community leaders wondering how they can bring people together.
“The most courageous communities are the ones willing to talk about it openly and admit that we can do better,” says Okubo.
The difficulty, however, can come in initiating that conversation in a “safe” way, which Okubo describes as a means by which people “don’t become overly defensive.” There is also a certain level of “fear” which Okubo says some communities must learn to overcome, some of it arising from the immigration issue.
“There are people in a community who will try to place blame for their situation on something or someone and it’s often the minority population that is identified as the reason. The immigration debate has been framed in a fear-based context rather than a way we can come together and address issues effectively,” he points out.
On the other hand, emphasizes Okubo, “smart, compassionate and reasonable people have a common desire to bring people together.”
A Deliberate Effort
Efforts to bridge the cultural divide don’t come easily. It’s a natural tendency, says Okubo, “to segregate ourselves into like groups.”
Even at a forum focused on diversity Okubo pointed out that the audience had segregated itself, with Hispanics and Caucasians sitting at separate tables. Those groups were broken up before the discussion began on ways to bring about more diversity in the community.
Just as he had done with the 40-plus persons in attendance, Okubo says it takes effort to cross cultural lines and establish relationships. Within the established Caucasian population of many Western Kansas communities, leadership roles are defined by those serving on school boards, city councils and in county government - which is rarely represented by Hispanics.
That’s why he says it’s important to identify the “self-appointed leadership” within the Hispanic community.
“If you want to schedule an event those are the people who will make sure others within their community show up,” he explained. “As the trust develops and shared goals start to emerge, it’s easier to build relationships.”
Okubo encourages communities to develop multi-cultural activities that highlight all traditions - not just those of a single group of people.
“These are activities that can build bridges,” he says. “Of course, the next step is to build these into year-long interactions.
“It’s like a marriage,” Okubo adds. “You have to work to keep it going.”
Ideas for bridging the divide
A community forum on cultural diversity held in Scott City offered the following suggestions:
•Offer English as a Second Language classes outside of normal working hours.
•Offer mentoring classes in which Caucasian and Hispanic participants can work together one-on-one.
•Businesses could hire more employees who are bilingual.
•Take steps to encourage more diverse cultural representation in local government.
•Provide a resource/guidance center to help newcomers to the community.
•Establish “ambassadors” within the different cultural groups who can assist in developing better lines of communication.
•Start a multi-cultural activity that can become an annual tradition in the community.
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