Community leadership can be different for Latinos

One way a town can solve a problem is to put somebody in charge, come up with a plan and go to work. Parks get cleaned up, old buildings get saved, senior meals get organized.

But as the number of Latino residents continues to rise in a number of Minnesota towns, that approach might not always be the only way to get things done.

Toby Spanier, University of Minnesota extension

That’s one suggestion you can tease out of some University of Minnesota Extension research conducted in four outstate communities with sizable Latino populations. Leaders within Latino communities often come to their positions of influence differently than whites do, says Toby Spanier, extension associate professor in the Center for Community Vitality. And that can have implications for how problems are tackled.

“Our evidence suggests a more complicated reality in which leadership within Latino communities is most energized when it is organized collectively, as a set of tasks that everyone can pitch in to accomplish. . . By contrast, more formal structures that parcel out titles or roles to individual committee heads seem to engender less participation,” Spanier says in a report he wrote from the research.

Spanier and several other university researchers interviewed Latino and white leaders in Worthington, Austin, Melrose and Montevideo, trying to determine whether there are better ways to encourage leadership among Latinos. All of those towns have had substantial Latino populations at least for several decades.

The research was the instigator for our Ground Level report “Making Connections” earlier this year on how some Minnesota Latinos and whites have reached across ethnic divides. Now Spanier has produced the first formal results, a paper he plans to present next week at the Cambio de Colores conference in St. Louis on how communities in the Midwest are dealing with changing demographics.

Other researchers involved in the work were Scott Chazdon, Ryan Allen and Amanda Hane, who expect to generate other reports from the work as well, comparing how integration is or is not occurring in those four communities.

One of the things we noted in our coverage, for example, was the low number of Latino elected officials, particularly outstate, even in places with longstanding Latino populations.

“There does seem to be a difference in those two communities in the way people arrive at positions of leadership,” Spanier said. In fact, he said, often Latinos who emerge as community leaders are those translators and interpreters who are noticed and sought out by the white power structure.

In the conversations the extension researchers held, Latino leaders tended more to talk about mentors they had learned from and the relationships they had with others.

Spanier, who works in Marshall in southwestern Minnesota and has ample experience as a community organizer in Central America, said there are lessons to be learned by the many leadership programs run in Minnesota by university extension, foundations and others.

“A focus on building relationships requires patience but is a necessary first step in developing leadership programs that are accepted in the Latino community and in which Latinos are likely to be involved,” the study said.

“The approach to recruiting future leaders needs to be reframed in ways that de-emphasize the traditional concept of a ‘leader’ and instead structure multiple ways for Latinos to participate as helpers and to become part of a leadership team,” he writes.