Iowa State University’s research on small towns in Iowa shows lower levels of social engagement and interaction, especially in civic organizations and local associations.
When people talk about the need for community members to come together, get more involved, and create positive community change, how inclusive are the conversations?
Many of our Iowa towns are seeing population growth because of immigrants, but are those new neighbors being included in community-issue discussions and actions?
Generational and cultural differences lead to innovation and different ways of participating in community life. When we speak about the need to come together, get more involved, and create positive community change, we must recognize that these discussions need to be inclusive of all residents, otherwise we are missing out on talent and insight. We also miss the opportunity to cultivate leadership in our community.
In spring 2018, two field specialists from ISU Extension and Outreach Community and Economic Development (CED), Jon Wolseth and Jill Sokness, piloted a new module for Leading Communities: A Place-Based Leadership Program in Storm Lake, not only to address these questions, but to include members from a diverse array of cultures and backgrounds in the workshop series.
Leading Communities, co-created by field specialist and ISU professor of community and regional planning, Deborah Tootle, covers four core competencies: Understanding Community Leadership and Your Community, Identifying Issues and Framing Ideas, Building Social Capital, and Mobilizing Resources for Community Action.
The pilot included additional material that focuses on the characteristics of social capital in immigrant and receiving communities, reflecting on how communities can intentionally build social relationships and networks across ethnic differences that can serve as assets in community development.
The idea for the program arose from conversations with Salud!, a multicultural health collaborative based in Storm Lake. Salud! members were looking for leadership training that would engage with diverse constituents and provide skills and experience for individuals who may already be informal leaders but lack the confidence and opportunity to interact with established institutions, such as local government, the school district, and the chamber of commerce.
CED secured a grant for partial program funding and curriculum development from the office of the ISU Vice President of Extension and Outreach. Working with Buena Vista County Extension, Salud! gained additional financial support for the program from Buena Vista University, the City of Storm Lake, and local employers.
Community partnerships were crucial in the success of the program. Salud! worked diligently to recruit participants.
Tyson sponsored a number of their interpreters to participate, including paying them for their time in the program. The city mayor and school superintendent were active participants in the program. Organizations such as the chamber of commerce and Habitat for Humanity sent employees. Buena Vista University saw it as an opportunity to increase student leadership and community involvement.
In all, 29 people representing 18 organizations and seven countries of origin, including the United States, Mexico, El Salvador, Burma, Laos, Thailand, and Micronesia, participated. Lively
participation was the norm each night, with most people attending all six workshop sessions, contributing to discussions and actively participating in exercises.
Piloting the program with the additional modules allowed for constructive and interactive discussion about social networks, bonding social capital in immigrant networks and receiving communities, and the importance of bridging ties and community integration.
The material resonated with the experiences of the participants, allowing for enhanced understanding about the social dynamics of immigrant and the receiving community. For instance, they learned how bonding social capital—in addition to supporting newcomers who are adjusting to new lives—can at times be a barrier to reaching out to other resources and gaining information from outside their own circles.
One group exercise gave participants a hands-on experience in mapping out their own social networks. This exercise involved index cards, string, tape and a wide expanse of wall space to map out existing social networks among the group members, illustrating how connected group members already are and what those connections could mean for future endeavors in the community, both personally and professionally.
It also gave them the opportunity to see the value of their networks and what kind of strength exists within their connections to assist in community development efforts. They were able to see the difference between “webs” and “islands” and how the reciprocal exchange of ideas creates strong bonds.
The importance of the added modules lies in the lesson of diversity and how it leads to more diverse thought, more varied ideas, and more access to information. At a time when community growth occurs primarily because of immigrants and refugees, it is important that long-time residents see how new neighbors can be assets for the entire community.
It is equally important the new residents have the means in which to fully access resources, while at the same time understand they can contribute to the community as well.
When we work on teaching the value of this reciprocity, we are striving to increase social engagement and interaction in local organizations and associations from all members of our Iowa communities.