Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
June 27, 1997

Extension staff aid community diversity effort

by Laura Miller, ISU Extension

A group of ISU Extension field specialists and county extension education directors are working toward diversity in their own communities. And they're getting results.

Joyce Samuels, who heads ISU Extension's affirmative action and equal opportunity programs, works with field staff involved in a variety of diversity efforts throughout Iowa. Groups in 15 communities have formed, with the help of ISU Extension and the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. Their purpose is to bring different people together to help them understand, accept and appreciate their differences.

More than two years ago, ISU Extension completed a study that looked at ways to increase services to underrepresented groups and reach a more diverse clientele, Samuels explained. At the time, officials decided to work with local human relations commissions to identify interested key people or organizations.

The Iowa Civil Rights Commission was working with the same groups to combat hate crimes throughout the state. Since then, ISU Extension has joined the civil rights commission in its "Team Diversity" program.

"ISU Extension is the perfect avenue to work with diversity issues," Samuels said. "We have offices in 99 counties, we have a mission to serve all people and diversity could become part of our ongoing programs."

Thirty-nine Iowa counties have ethnic populations of at least 200 people or more, and educational programs and services, such as those offered by extension, are in greater demand, Samuels said. In 1996, extension field staff had personal contact with approximately 54,000 people in non-white ethnic groups, including a growing number of Hispanic and Native American audiences.

Extension's diversity efforts also are targeted to communities with refugees. Twenty-eight counties had refugee populations that totaled nearly 18,000 people last September. This includes people from Bosnia, Cambodia, Laos, Iraq, Haiti, Cuba, Sudan and other Mideast, Far East and African nations.

"Progress can be slow but we're beginning to see more awareness and concern for diversity issues," Samuels said. "Iowans in rural communities have never had to encounter people of color or people who don't speak their language, but we're finding that people really want to help each other."

Coletta Weeda, Crawford County extension education director, is a member of the Denison Cultural Diversity Committee formed more than two years ago.

"With two packing plants in Denison, the Hispanic community was growing. Individuals in the community wanted a proactive group that would work to improve communication among different cultures," she said.

Members include the high school principal, a local newspaper publisher, and business, labor and law enforcement representatives. The group has helped initiate soccer tournaments, workshops, English classes, and Cinco de Mayo and Our Lady of Guadeloupe celebrations.

In Sioux City, extension family life specialist Eloise Caltvedt helped organize the Siouxland Diversity Coalition. That group has recruited leaders for study circles, sponsors an annual Diversity Day, and is working on a mediation center.

"Our mission is to provide educational and other experiences that would help our community begin to see diversity as a good thing," Caltvedt said. "Sometimes, we have difficulty accepting people who are different from ourselves, but we feel Siouxland should be a safe and nurturing place for every child and adult."

Bill Helgen, Marshall County extension education director, works with the Marshalltown Diversity Committee that sponsors community forums. Currently, the group is working on a brochure and video.

"We don't make diversity happen," Helgen said. "Our best role in extension is to create a process that will help people move through the stages of first understanding, then accepting, and finally appreciating our diversity."

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