In the late 1980s, Lexington was still a small farming community in the fertile Platte Valley. Lexington farmers were still planting and harvesting the same land their ancestors farmed 100 years ago; neat homes lined the streets of the town; business and industry were thriving.
Then a large manufacturing business left town, leaving vacant its manufacturing facility so large that 12 football fields could fit inside. It also took with it many jobs; homes went up for sale; people moved away.
"We needed a company to fill that building," said Eric Brown, General Manager of KRVN Radio and a leader in the Lexington community. A group of about seven Lexington leaders devoted much of their time for about a year and a half to recruit businesses to move to Lexington and occupy that facility.
When the team of Lexington leaders looked for businesses to occupy the facility, they seriously considered the impact each option would have on social services, law enforcement, health care - every part of the community. "We wanted to know what impact it would have on Main Street," Brown said.
That's when representatives of Iowa Beef Processors (IBP) decided that, with some remodeling, the facility would work for them. After many months of remodeling, the beef processing facility began operations in Lexington in 1990. Many Lexington residents started working in the facility, Brown said, but few still work there. Instead, immigrant workers flocked to fill the jobs at IBP (now Tyson).
In the years since then, Lexington has changed. Farmers still farm the land of their ancestors; neat homes still line the streets. But there are businesses in town that are owned by Latinos; the Lexington Public Schools are about 75 percent non-white. Although most are Latino, there are a few students from Africa; most are from Sudan and Somalia, with a few from Ethiopia.
"We have the same minority percentage as Los Angeles," Brown said. "When people say Lexington has changed forever, well, nothing stays the same. What you try to do is make it an attractive place to live. We've recruited good teachers; we have a good hospital; we've raised a ton of money for a new library; prior to that we built an aquatic park. We just remodeled the middle school auditorium. So you do things for humanities and quality of life," he said.
Dennis Burnside, Assistant City Manager in Lexington, believes it takes a generation or two for existing residents of a community to accept new residents, but his office is not sitting by waiting for that to happen; it's moving forward, assuring that representatives from every part of Lexington are "at the table."
"We're trying to establish a 12-member Multicultural Commission," Burnside said, on which most of the ethnicities in town are represented. A number of Latinos have volunteered to serve, he said, and Burnside's office is trying to also get the community's Africans involved.
"Most of the people who are moving the community forward think this (immigration) is a good thing and try to be welcoming," he said. The economy is doing well; new businesses are opening; students are in school.
The Lexington Public Schools are led by Superintendent of Schools Todd Chessmore, who believes that all students should graduate knowing two languages, regardless of their ethnicity.
"My pie-in-the-sky dream," he said, "is that every student be biliterate - able to read and write in two languages - before high school graduation." The system has been teaching English to Latino students for many years, but is now placing more emphasis on teaching Spanish to students for whom English is their first language. The benefits will be great as these young people enter the job market. Preference will be given to those who are biliterate, regardless of ethnicity.
Chessmore has a good bit of experience in leading school districts with non-white populations; he spent nine years with Indian Reservation schools, which, he said, is "probably the most difficult system in the state of Nebraska." His focus is on dealing with the whole child, "helping students be happy with the skin they're in and their lot in life, have aspirations to move on and help other people," he said.
"We are offended by harsh discussion that goes on concerning immigration. And sometimes we forget that we are affecting kids when this is the only country they know, but say they aren't welcome here.
But, he said, "we are offended by harsh discussion that goes on concerning immigration. And sometimes we forget that we are affecting kids when this is the only country they know, but say they aren't welcome here. And I take pretty strong offense that we can be so uncaring and harsh on anyone's children."
Chessmore sees only potential when he looks at kids and schools, and focuses on what constitutes success. The graduation rate is good; students are winning awards and scholarships; they're going on to college; they're getting jobs. "We're now hiring back some of our Latino students that are now graduates of the University of Nebraska-Kearney to our program, so there are a lot of really good things going on in Lexington."
Lexington is a positive community, an accepting community, an ever-changing community, according to Lindsey Tederman, editor of the Lexington Clipper-Herald. "People are people, and they may have an accent, they may be a different color, but I think we're all trying to do the same thing - work, raise a family, live together cohesively."
Tederman credits the strong core group of lifelong Lexington residents who have come forward to model for the entire community in accepting the immigrant population. They have also worked hard at keeping the community thriving.
Even so, there have been legitimate news stories from Lexington that haven't been positive for the community, and the outside opinions of Lexington based on these stories concern Tederman. When the stories are picked up by other papers, she said, "they can't resist inserting a phrase about the high immigrant population of Lexington, which may or may not be relevant to the story."
Tederman said communication issues are the biggest roadblock to acculturating the diverse community. She said the Latino population has a culture similar to the Caucasian population, but the new arrivals from Africa have dissimilar cultures. There is uncertainty about who is responsible for helping them acculturate, she said; there are no funds or groups designated for that purpose, and that makes it a bit complicated for the community.
"If I were to give advice to another small community about to get a meatpacking plant or other large business, it would be to assemble a core group of people who have been in the community for a long time, and get them on the same page," Tederman said.
"I'd also tell them that it's not going to ruin their city; it's actually going to improve their economy, it's going to grow. Take the things that are positive and work with those, and be proactive instead of reactive."
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