Immigration and inclusion: the Center for Rural Affairs perspective

For hundreds of years, immigration has shaped U.S. history. And, it continues to shape America, especially in rural areas.

The Center’s immigration and inclusion work was recently featured on Totally Rural, a podcast hosted by Daisy Dyer Duerr.

Guests were Carlos Bárcenas and Jordan Feyerherm, who lead our community work. They promote inclusion in rural communities by hosting leadership trainings that focus on growth, diversity, and demographics.

What does inclusion mean?

Inclusion is making sure everyone in the community has a chance to participate and knows how to participate, according to Jordan. He said it’s welcoming new people to the community and helping them access resources.

“A big part of inclusion is making sure people have the knowledge and tools to successfully navigate a new life,” Jordan said. “What can the community do to be a welcoming community? How can you mitigate those biases? We’re trying to talk about biases and put biases at the forefront, so we can successfully navigate those and not let those influence decisions.”

In some rural communities, a person who is not from the community but has been living in the community for 20 years may even be seen as an outsider, especially in local elections.

“We know immigration plays a big role in the inclusion conversation, but we’re not only focusing on ethnic diversity,” Carlos said. “Instead, maybe their issue is about religion, gender, or generational differences.”

The Center’s goal is to empower community leaders to identify biases and set up plans to intentionally work on leadership.

“It’s not an agenda to teach one side to work with the other, it’s how we can empower community leadership to look at differences,” Carlos said. “When we talk about inclusion, many times, people think it’s about accepting immigrants. It’s not just about accepting immigrants. There is more to diversity than ethnic diversity.”

How do conversations begin with community leaders?

“Lots of coffee,” Carlos said. “It’s not an easy task. We’re encouraging leaders to have uncomfortable, comfortable conversations. How do we move forward in order to make our communities stronger?”

“One thing we’re finding in communities is that there are a lot of differences among everyone who lives there,” Jordan said. “We feel the differences are what make each community vibrant, and we’re just trying to explore those differences and celebrate them."

Our staff members are not experts. Their goal is to build relationships with leaders and help out at community events.

“There are many people in rural Nebraska who are making things happen, so there are things that are already working,” said Carlos. “We believe that you cannot change a community without changing the individual, so that conversation has to start at the individual level.”

Conversations begin with, “It’s OK to have biases. We all do.”

“We start a safe conversation about looking at the bias,” Carlos said. “Is this bias preventing you from becoming a better leader, or from making better decisions that affect your community? We let the community drive the conversation.”

Jordan and Carlos have found success in introducing people to others and finding people who are passionate about their communities.

“It’s enriching when you can meet someone who brings a new, fresh perspective,” Jordan said. “Sometimes those differences that seemed scary or seemed strange turn out to be some of the most rewarding parts of getting to know someone new.”

Has the national political climate affected the conversations?

Yes. They said the immigration and inclusion conversation has changed in the last year, along with the national political climate.

“Before the president was elected, we really saw the race conversation pushed forward,” Carlos said. “Let’s talk about documented, undocumented. Let’s talk about our immigration system. That conversation was moved forward.”

He said as soon as Trump was elected, there was almost a complete shift.

“People really did not want to talk about it anymore,” Carlos said. “They were not as curious or open to talk about race, diversity, and inclusion. We also saw more people justifying their prejudice and their bias. We saw more acts of pushback.”

What work is on the horizon?

Carlos said conversations about inclusion are some of the most challenging things, especially in a community climate where the conversation seems to be dominated by one group.

“How can we sit down, behind closed doors if we need to, to say, ‘how do we move forward and challenge our own bias, our biases?’” Carlos asked.

The demographics are changing in rural America. And in a lot of rural communities people are asking how they can keep their small towns vibrant.

“I think being forward-thinking about how we approach future problems is a big part of keeping rural areas vibrant,” Jordan said.

About Totally Rural

Totally Rural is dedicated to increasing awareness and expanding the discussion of rural issues.

This is the second time we have been guests on Totally Rural, and we look forward to another podcast later this month on community food systems. Click here for a blog on our first podcast on the Farm Bill and other rural policy issues. Thank you to producer Michael Levin Epstein and assistant producer Susan Sempeles.

Listen to the podcast

You can download the episode any of these ways: