A Colorado State University faculty member and his students have been getting out of the classroom and into a community that has seen its share of struggles in recent years — but a greater number of victories.
It’s a community that is one of the most diverse in the state, but it’s not a Denver suburb. It’s the small, rural town of Fort Morgan on the eastern plains. And it’s served as an opportunity for students in CSU’s Department of Ethnic Studies to witness — and participate in — evolving real-world race relations.
Eric Ishiwata, a CSU associate professor of ethnic studies, came to the Fort Morgan project by way of Japan.
His previous research focused on the recruitment of Brazilians of Japanese ancestry to be unskilled workers in Japan, and the resulting strife as Japanese nationals treated them like second-class citizens.
“It was interesting work, I was interviewing dentists from Sao Paolo who were making three times as much in Japan painting cars for Toyota or Nissan,” Ishiwata said. “But at some point I said, ‘Why am I flying all the way to Japan when there are problems going on in my own backyard?’”
Some of Ishiwata’s CSU students from Greeley had told him about an influx of East Africans there, where they were employed in the local meat-processing plant run by JBS USA. Primarily hailing from Somalia and Ethiopia, these employees had been granted refugee status and a right to work in the U.S. by the federal government.
In Fort Morgan, where about 60 percent of the workers at the local Cargill meat-processing plant are Latino, more job applications began flowing in from East African refugees, who found favorable living conditions, strong social services and a job that pays a living wage in Colorado. In 2005, less than 1 percent of Cargill’s workforce was African; today it’s about 30 percent.
But as might be expected in a largely white, traditional and conservative rural community, the integration of the East Africans, many of whom are Muslim, was less than seamless.
“There was some animosity and very little experience dealing with foreign-born populations,” Ishiwata said.
Still, Fort Morgan has taken a proactive, positive approach to helping the three major populations — East Africans, Latinos and Caucasians — better understand each other.
OneMorgan County, a nonprofit organization started by Morgan Community College to offer citizenship and English classes to Latinos, joined forces with leaders from the school district, police department and Cargill to build bridges between the seemingly disparate cultures. They held forums for the newcomers on everything from how to obtain bank services to health care to housing.
When a possible conflict arose around accommodating Muslim prayer in school, the superintendent created a common-sense policy that allowed schools to make accommodations as long as they didn’t disrupt instruction, such as allowing prayer during breaks or lunch.
Cargill, the biggest employer in the county, played a significant role in helping its foreign-born workers acclimate to their new home — and helping the town adjust to their presence.
The company hosted weekly fairs where community members came to the plant to discuss topics with the new hires, such as setting up utilities, using on-site educational opportunities like English classes, and finding local sources for donated food, clothing and household goods. The company distributed maps, coupons from local businesses, and a publication on the basics of living in an apartment or rental house (how to use home appliances or talk to landlords about leases, for instance).
“Cargill has really gone beyond the industry standard,” Ishiwata said. “They recognize that the community is affected by their workforce. They’ve gone above and beyond to smooth out any tensions or rough spots in the community because of their workers.”
The Fort Morgan approach, which is now held up as a model for race relations, became Ishiwata’s research focus. And he was no detached observer; he has been involved in the efforts, acting as a consultant and forum facilitator since 2013.