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U of M research: First connect, then lead

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Toby Spanier
Toby Spanier, an extension official in Marshall who has been involved in encouraging Latino leadership in a number of southwestern Minnesota towns.
Photo courtesy of U of Minn

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By now, it's common knowledge that the Latino population in many Minnesota towns has grown significantly over the past two decades. In five outstate cities, Latinos - mostly Mexican but also immigrants from other countries - make up more than a quarter of the residents.

At the same time, as we've shown in a number of Ground Level projects, challenges in rural Minnesota have become more complicated, thanks to an aging population and a changing economic picture.  Access to health care, broadband availability, local government fiscal squeezes and other issues are increasingly intertwined and thorny.

But to what extent have the growing Latino populations been involved in addressing larger community challenges?

That's the question a handful of University of Minnesota Extension and Humphrey Institute researchers took up this year. They interviewed people in Worthington, Austin, Melrose and Montevideo, talking to both Latino and Anglo residents from non-profits, businesses and local governments. 

"Community issues are becoming more complex," said Toby Spanier, an extension official in Marshall who has been involved in encouraging Latino leadership in a number of southwestern Minnesota towns. The research project was his idea, and it involves Scott Chazdon, evaluation and research specialist with the U's Community Vitality program, Ryan Allen, assistant professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and interviewer Amanda Hane.  The researchers hope to draw conclusions from their work in the coming months.

"I believe that as community problems and issues become more complex, I think the need for integrative leadership is key," said Spanier, who has worked in Honduras and Venezuela, referring to the idea that people from all sectors need to come together to solve problems.  "The solutions are not comprehensive enough."

"Community issues are becoming more complex."

Some people who study diverse places are coming to think that simply juxtaposing two cultures side by side can actually be counterproductive and result in people becoming less engaged in community life. There are very few Latinos in elected positions in outstate Minnesota, for example.

"When a community becomes rapidly diverse, there's a tendency to pull in," Spanier said. "So perhaps the strategy should be to have people get to know each other well first, to have those connections first and then get involved in leadership."

Those connections might be forged through some kind of shared experience like dealing with housing needs or trying to shrink a school achievement gap, both Spanier and Chazdon said.

At the same time, another University of Minnesota Extension research project related to Latino-white connections is proceeding in Willmar, home to a population that is one-fifth Latino. Researcher Adeel Ahmed, community economics educator in extension's  St. Cloud office, interviewed dozens of minority business people to determine how much they use "mainstream" resources like economic development authorities and banks.

Even among long-established Latino-owned businesses, owners tend to tap relatives and their own business profits when looking for money to expand,  Ahmed said. That's behavior that may be successful but that may also restrict a company's growth, he said.

"The economic development authority felt out of touch," he said.