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Building Welcoming Communities

3 young people talking on a sunny street
Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash
headshot of Gladys Godinez
Gladys Godinez, Community Organizer at Center for Rural Affairs

Let’s talk about a small town somewhere in rural America. Pick one; there’s probably such a town near you. For decades, people have been drifting away, moving to the big cities for education, jobs and opportunity. As a result, the town has dwindled.

But now, times are changing and populations are shifting. Maybe the local manufacturing firm has trouble filling open positions and starts recruiting among immigrant and minority communities in the larger cities. Or maybe the town itself has launched

a marketing campaign to entice people to visit and stay. Maybe people are moving in on their own to escape the high cost of living in the urban centers. Whatever the cause, new people are arriving in town. But what happens when the newcomers look different, sound different, act different from the majority of the people in the town? How do you bridge the divide? How do you bring people together?

headshot of Jordan Feyerherm
Jordan Feyerherm, Project Associate at Center for Rural Affairs

That’s where the Center for Rural Affairs (CFRA) comes in. This forward-thinking nonprofit works with rural towns all over Nebraska to help them embrace diversity and become welcoming communities. I recently caught up with Gladys Godinez and Jordan Feyerherm to learn more about their work in the CFRA.

Serving Rural Communities

The Center for Rural Affairs was started in 1973 by Don Ralston and Marty Strange, two visionaries who understood the needs and the potential of rural America. From the beginning, they built their organization on a set of values that embody a spirit of welcoming, fairness and opportunity. These values are baked into all their programs, from small business assistance and loans, to farming development and farm policy to environmental programs addressing climate change, clean energy and clean water.

Six years ago, Kathie Starkweather, then the Director of the Farming Community Program, launched an initiative to address diversity and inclusion in rural communities in a more direct way. She wanted to focus on the cultural and interpersonal aspects of building welcoming communities and sought out effective tools to help with the process. Today, Gladys and Jordan carry on this inclusion work throughout Nebraska and beyond.

How to Begin

Helping communities embrace diversity is patient work—not in the sense of waiting for something to happen, but rather holding a vision for what can happen and walking steadily toward it. Gladys and Jordan have their finger on the pulse of the region and are always ready to respond to needs as they emerge. Sometimes it starts with a simple conversation, a chat with residents over coffee. Sometimes a town will contact them directly and request training. Whatever the circumstances, when a community is challenged with diversity, Gladys and Jordan are there to offer assistance and help ease the process.

There is no textbook on how to do this work… there is no roadmap. ~ Jordan Feyerherm

Recently the nearby town of Fremont formed a Diversity Council through the economic development program. Hearing this, Jordan and Gladys connected with the Council to see how they could collaborate. As a result, they brought Civity training to the Fremont community, a program that helps individuals learn to have conversations with people who are different from themselves.

During that training event, Gladys and Jordan learned that Midland University was putting on a speaker series in Fremont focused on intentionally talking about diversity. So Jordan approached the University to explore how they could work together. That led to intercultural training for the Academic Council and, ultimately, the entire university staff.

Using Good Tools

The tools Gladys and Jordan use are purpose-built for helping communities go beyond simply tolerating difference to actually start welcoming diversity. The Civity training, mentioned above, is an excellent starting point, especially for communities and organizations that are new to the diversity and inclusion work. It gives people the skills to actually sit down with someone and talk about their differences. Sometimes the individuals agree to disagree, but they have a civilized way to do it. In other cases, people find they have more in common than they realized and discover a new friend.

Civity really gives us a starting point, to be able to just have conversations. Because really, at the end of the day, that’s what we want to have, is a civilized conversation about our differences. ~ Gladys Godinez

Another valuable tool is the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI), a 50-question survey designed to help people see how they currently engage with difference and specifically how they perceive cultural difference. At Midland University, Gladys and Jordan were able to sit down with each member of the Academic Council individually, go over the results of the IDI and walk through the development plan that comes with it to grow their intercultural competency. They held a workshop to cover this material with the rest of the staff. From there, they worked with the University to decide on next steps, which range from one-on-one coaching to group training to addressing the practices and policies of the University.

Challenging but Rewarding Work

As with most things, the first challenge with the inclusion work is simply making a beginning. We humans tend to stick to what’s comfortable and familiar. So helping individuals buy into the idea of welcoming diversity is the initial step.

The next hurdle is helping communities realize that this isn’t a quick fix. Inclusion is a long-term strategy and investment. Diversity has needs that are different from the mainstream. If you are recruiting people to move to your town, there’s a lot to consider: Do you have housing? Do you have services? Do you have bilingual medical personnel?

It’s not just a one-day event. It has to be a long-term process for the community, for an organization, for an individual—to fully understand what [inclusion] entails. ~ Gladys Godinez

But the rewards are well worth the effort. Recently there were two immigration raids in very rural communities in Nebraska, detaining over 130 people. The CFRA did the best they could to respond, given the timeframe and the resources available. But out of that difficult experience came rich friendships. A year later, Gladys was able to help create a family event in one of these communities that brought people together in a concrete way.

Food is another great way to bring people together. Drawing on his background in cooking, Jordan enjoys helping people create events where they can break bread together, share their stories and build empathy.

If you have, yourself, experienced situations … where you’ve felt “othered”, where you felt like an outsider wanting to participate… and being in a position where you can actually enact change to the contrary… that’s incredibly rewarding. ~Jordan Feyerherm

In one community, the CFRA helped launch a 7-day cultural event. There was one woman who wanted to start a folkloric dance group. She danced and taught a class at the 7-day event. Now, not only has she created a formal entity for her group, she is being featured in the local museum as a changemaker in her community.

[When there’s no focus on inclusion,] there are people who are not at the table. So those individuals coming to the table and being part of… They’re really excited about 1) being asked, 2) being included, and then 3) being recognized by the community. ~ Gladys Godinez

It’s Not Just the What, but the How

In talking with Gladys and Jordan, I was struck by the dignity and respect with which they spoke about these communities and about their work. Changing attitudes is a hard job. No doubt, there are plenty of frustrations. But these two extraordinary individuals speak in a way that makes it clear they honor everyone they encounter, no matter where they are on this journey. It’s this attitude that brings hope to the heart—this is what creates lasting change.

To learn more, visit Center for Rural Affairs.

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