Special Report: Minorities in Rural Areas


MASON CITY, Iowa – Jayla Johnson hails from Chicago. She has a passion for styling hair and cosmetology and decided to attend La James College in Mason City.

“I never thought that I was going to actually move to Iowa, I thought I was going to go to a school in Chicago, but I was like no, I want to venture out and it kind of helped me find myself too.”

But it was hard for her to adjust to living in a small city.

“The small town from being a big city, more people, more things to do and when I came here there was nothing really to do. I had to find stuff to occupy myself, so that was a struggle. ”

Although being a minority living Mason City has not been a walk in the park for Jayla, she says it has been a great learning experience for her.

“Well, since I’ve been here I’ve become more understanding of different people I’ve encountered, different situations and I had to learn you know some people are not like you, so you have to, you know, be kind of understanding of that.”

In Mason City and Forest City, Hispanics make up the greatest in the minority percentages at 5.1 percent and 2.9 percent, African Americans at 1.8 percent and Asian and Indian under 1 percent.

In Albert Lea, the Hispanic populations is 13.2 percent, African American at 1.1 percent, Asian at 1.1 percent and Indian under 1 percent. In Rochester, the Hispanic population is 5.2 percent and African American 6.3 percent.

Dailia Sajadian moved from El Paso, Texas, to Iowa about 12 years ago with her husband and three kids after her husband pursued a job opportunity and decided to make Mason City their home.

“I don’t feel that we have as many opportunities for minorities but at the same time I don’t feel that we, I don’t want to say rejected, but I don’t feel isolated in any way, shape or form here but definitely I think we need to probably be a little more conscientious of the people around us,” says  Dalila, director of Learning Services at North Iowa Area Community College.

While Dalia and her family have had a positive experience over in North Iowa, she says there is still a disconnect for minorities.

“We have experienced nothing but a welcoming from the community, but it has really been a challenge not to feel that you don’t have as much connection with the people around you.”

But in her role as the director of learning services at NIACC, she says she is grateful to have the opportunity to help connect minority students with the resources they need.

“I feel that I am in a position that if nothing else, that I can advise a student on how to further their education. I can advise them as to what opportunities there are, there’s a lot of times for minority students in particularly there’s a lack of information or what resources there are to help them succeed in college, so I feel extremely fortunate to be able to contribute to a little bit of their success.”

And there aren’t just racial minorities who struggle in North Iowa.

“We have had some incidents when we started the PFLAQ chapter back in 2004 — we had some threats from the KKK people down in Charles City.”

Dean Genth is a LGBTQ civil rights advocate and was the first gay man to get married in Iowa. He says city officials and law enforcement have done a good job in bringing the community together.

“I think that they do a great job for us every day looking out for our welfare and our wellbeing, and I think it’s going to be a challenge and I think they’re up to the test, but I just call on them to help us to be watchful and hopeful and offer leadership and put the face of the community out there that religious or racial intolerance or minority intolerance is not going to be something that’s allowed in our town.”

“Being black in a rural area, it was tough for a short time, but I think you know overall, I spoke to the people by my reputation and who I was and what I do.”

After being raised in a single parent home, fighting a drug addiction and being in and out of jail, Regan Banks decided it was time to make some changes in his life. In 2004, he was elected the first African American mayor of Manly which was a major accomplish for him, but not for others.

“There was times where I’d get nasty phone calls when I became mayor and you know things they wanted me to do and I couldn’t do led to name calling coming out by the N-word.”

During that time, Regan didn’t see many other African Americans in leadership roles in his part of Iowa, and that was a struggle for him.

“It was difficult becoming a head of something being black because we all see them with minorities that sit back in the back. When it comes to being Caucasians, they’re mostly in charge when you see them on City Council or in elections.”

But he credits all of his accomplishes to retired judge Michael S. Walsh, who helped Regan get his rights back after facing prison time.

“To me he’s just a person you can rely on, a person who is responsible a person who used his skills and used them to help others, and I never really actually gave it a thought about whether race had anything to do with it — and I think he’s just a human being that wanted to help other people and do something for himself.”

As for Regan, he says the nation has made strides to make things better for minorities.

“I think we’ve come a long ways, but I think we have to pray over all as to where we are today that it doesn’t return back to where it was.”

For more information on opportunities and resources available for minorities throughout North Iowa and southern Minnesota,  you may visit:

Riverland Community College

North Iowa Area Community College

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