Proud and grateful

EDITORIAL

BY ART CULLEN

Storm Lake has taken its share of lumps. So we were thrilled to watch Katie Couric’s take on The City Beautiful in her documentary “White Anxiety” that aired this week as part of her series America Inside Out on National Geographic TV. Our part of the story lasts about 10 minutes and provides a serious look about how an isolated rural community is making the best of it through the vitality brought by young people of color.

It made us terribly proud and grateful when a Hmong woman said she wished she had been born here. It was reassuring to see teacher Jean Knapp working with students from around the world. Our public safety department offers a window into how relationships can be built in a small community when fear is set aside. Couric explains how Storm Lake is growing while much of rural America, including Fremont, Neb., is bound up in confusion over change and trying to roll back the clock. Storm Lake is rolling forward. That is the message.

Change does not always bring comfort and embrace. Anxiety has shown itself in Storm Lake. And resentment for what has been lost — those days when a single wage-earner could support a family on a union wage. Dan Smith told Couric that she probably would not want to cut the bungs from hogs all day long. Even if you paid $27 per hour a white millennial would rather do something else for a smaller check. So, Tyson pays $16-20 per hour, which is a fortune to someone from Myanmar. Smith gets that. He retired from Tyson after 35 years making about half as much, relatively speaking, as he did with Hygrade and the Amalgamated Meatcutters. He knows that those days are gone.

“How can you begrudge anyone wanting to make a living?” he often says.

But the pace of change has been so fast it can take the breath away. Smith, when prodded, does wonder whether this will be the same nation when places like Storm Lake have gone majority brown. That’s not something he dwells on, but he acknowledges it is there in the back of his mind. What we think he really is thinking: “My dad Joe was able to build a house on his savings from Hygrade and raise a family with five children while my mom Dorothy stayed home to make sure we were flying right. There is no way I could do that in the new economy. And that makes me anxious.”

That’s understandable. That is what Couric was trying to get at: Let’s get our anxieties out there so we can address them together. In Johnstown, Pa., she draws candor out of firefighters black and white who talk basketball but never the history of race. A white firefighter says that five minutes of conversation just changed his worldview.

When we get out of our social networking bubbles we can see each other as neighbors and not threats to a way of life.

We see America fundamentally through the Statue of Liberty. We are the heirs to filthy immigrants who came on cattle boats across the pond. They built this place. That is the story of America, expressed in Storm Lake. We offer people a new life and a fresh start in a land of opportunity and freedom. Sometimes we forget what freedom really is, until a simple woman from Asia reminds us. Our plea is simply to let us pursue that experiment in the rejuvenation of a rural place.

The only real alternative is to grab a shovel and start digging, we told Couric, because rural places that do not grow surely will wither and fold back into the land. Then there are places like Storm Lake, which are resilient, that are willing to adapt to economic, cultural and natural forces that are far bigger than us. It indeed is a model certainly for Iowa and the Midwest, with top-notch graduation rates, a fantastic community college and private university pitching in, and a city council that does not put police dogs on the heels of the poor. It can be a model for the nation. Iowans, we tell Couric, are pretty open-minded people who still shoot for what works.

“Is everyone this tolerant?” Couric asks as she strolls around Storm Lake, greeted with smiles by all.

Well, we sure try. Thanks for pointing out to the world what we long have known:

This place is the best. Because we work at it.