Storm Lake Shares Inclusion Efforts During Iowa City Managers Conference

Storm Lake was chosen to host the Iowa City Managers Association Summer Conference last week.

As part of the event, local leaders were asked to share the community’s diversity, equity, and inclusion success story with administrators from around the state. Mayor Mike Porsch and a couple of Storm Lake police officers spoke to the group and highlighted some of Storm Lake’s many outreach programs.

Storm Lake and the Storm Lake Police Department was honored with the Inclusion and Equity Award by the International Association of County and City Managers in 2022. Mayor Porsch noted that Storm Lake was among the first Iowa communities to answer the call to aid resettlement of southeast Asian refugees in the 1970’s. Porsch urged leaders of other communities looking to make inroads into inclusion to be patient in the process.

More on this story from the City of Storm Lake and Communications Coordinator Dana Larsen can be found at below. The City and Storm Lake Police Department leaders have been asked to present a similar program later this year for the Iowa League of Cities Conference in Cedar Rapids.

Storm Lake was not only chosen to host the Iowa City Managers Association Summer Conference last week, community leaders were asked to share the community’s diversity, equity and inclusion success story with administrators from around the state.

Mayor Mike Porsch and Storm Lake Police officers Gerardo Bravo and Dulce Salinas spoke to the group and highlighted some of Storm Lake’s many outreach programs.

“Diversity is being seen, inclusion is being heard,” Mayor Porsch said.

Officer Bravo is the son of immigrants, born in California and arriving in Storm Lake as a child, with little knowledge of English and little idea of what to expect of life in rural Iowa. Working at a local grocery store, attending Iowa Central and serving in the Iowa National Guard, he eventually took a job as a part-time jailer before being hired by the police department.

“I was one of few Hispanics wearing a uniform in Storm Lake… I was proud of that. I took on the challenge. I believe this is a great city,” he said. He was deployed to Iraq with the Guard in 2020. He noted that the SLPD sent care packages and watched over his family while he was away.

Officer Salinas was born in Texas, her mother a U.S. resident and her father undocumented. She was 8 when her family moved to Early, Iowa, where she found herself the only Hispanic child in the school district. Initially the experience was hard, and she faced bullying. She spoke of her fears in her younger years of coming home from school and finding her father taken away. In her youth she had seen a friend drown in a river, an experience that set her on a course for a career that would help people, she said. She too serves in the Iowa National Guard.

The mayor spoke of his pride for the two officers – “this is what America is all about” – and the department which he said has spearheaded the outreach efforts in the community for years. Storm Lake and the SLPD was honored with the Inclusion and Equity Award by the International Association of County and City Managers in 2022.

Storm Lake was among the first Iowa communities to answer the call to aid resettlement of southeast Asian refugees in the 1970s, the mayor noted. By the 1990s, the workforce dynamic of Storm Lake had changed with groups coming from a number of countries. Today, the Tyson plants proudly fly flags of numerous native countries that are represented in their workforce.

Growing up in Storm Lake 50 years ago, “I never thought we would be talking about a community as diverse as this one is today,” Mayor Porsch said. “The evolution did not come without challenges. One of the hardest parts is acceptance of that diversity. That does not happen overnight.”

He urged leaders of other communities looking to make inroads into inclusion not to expect that process to be achieved in six months. “You may make progress in six months. You may get there in six years. It’s an ongoing effort,” he said.

When he became involved in city government, Mayor Porsch said, he realized that leaders weren’t necessarily connecting with the 65 percent of residents who are not native residents or native English speakers. “We had to bridge the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and become ‘we.’” Schools, churches and organizations in the community worked hard to help in that process.

“What it boils down to is, you have to create relationships,” the mayor explained. As different ethnic groups have invited city leaders to attend their ceremonies and celebrations, the relationships have deepened. “That is a great place to reach out, where they feel comfortable. These would not be groups that would be coming to city council meetings and coming up to the dais to speak. If you want to do the inclusion part, you have to reach out, be willing to step outside of your box, get other people’s perspectives where they live.”

At first that process was uncomfortable, he admitted – going to events where one did not speak the language or understand the customs. Porsch said he quickly came to appreciate how the immigrant newcomers to the community might feel is such situations.

The police officers stressed that the outreach programs the community and SLPD created were the kind of opportunities they had not seen as youth growing up here.

“People get to hear from us in a non-law enforcement role. It is a way to connect,” Officer Bravo said. “People from other countries and societies may have different perspectives of police, not necessarily trust. We’ve found a solution for that.”

They explained some of the programs:

  • The YumVee – the department obtained a military surplus vehicle and outfitted it with a freezer to become an ice cream truck to patrol neighborhoods when the department is able. “The best way to the heart is through the stomach. It is a very useful tool to connect with children. We post on Facebook which neighborhoods we are headed to. Word gets around instantly and we can barely keep up,” Officer Bravo said. “The kids all know what the YumVee is and come running. We’ll have a few sports balls we will hand out, and sometimes play sports with them a bit. One language everybody understands is free ice cream. At the same time, we can hear from families what their needs are in their neighborhood.”

The department, known for its use of humor, also shared a short promotional video it had put together for the YumVee, to the tune of Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby.”

  • Operation Hoop Dreams – Officers heard from children that there was no basketball court available to them in their area of central Storm Lake. They set out to get a grant to build a half court behind the police station. When the public heard about their effort and started to donate, the plan expanded for a full court, with city employees pouring the concrete. Now, young people knock at the SLPD door to borrow a basketball – and often are challenged to put in a little work cleaning up the park in exchange.
  • Pop-Up BBQs – When the schedule allows, the SLPD puts up a tent and uses social media to invite the public for a free cookout meal. About 150-250 are served per event, covered by the crime prevention fund and donations. The BBQs help to break down stigmas about law enforcement and build rapport with people of all backgrounds.
  • Meet Us at the Market – Occasionally the SLPD will attend the local Farmers Markets, a good chance for community members to share needs and concerns in an informal setting, Salinas said.
  • Back to School Jam – The event was launched in 2022 in cooperation with the schools’ registration programs. The SLPD recruits local hair stylists, who gave 219 free haircuts to young people headed back to school last fall. School supplies and health screenings were offered at no cost to families, allowing another avenue to connect with families.
  • Chills & Thrills – The Halloween celebration in the city is a great chance for police and city officials to hand out candy and get to meet Storm Lake children. “We decorate the squad cars, and the kids love taking pictures with us. We always get a little charge when the kids come dressed as little police officers or firefighters,” Salinas said.
  • Coffee Partnership – The SLPD works with The Bridge of Storm Lake neighborhood ministry. The Bridge has its own coffee grinding operation to teach young people about entrepreneurial business. The SLPD has its own signature blends of coffee beans, assisting in raising funds for the program that serves a diverse group of young Storm Lakers.
  • Food Outreach – When possible, police assist with handing out or delivering food to the needy, working with the SALUD multicultural health organization and other food insecurity programs. It’s another great way to reach out, Officer Salinas said. It is important to see what people who may be struggling are going through, the mayor added, so when the council passes ordinances, they can be designed with the entire community in mind.
  • Coffee With a Cop – Events are regularly held in local coffeeshops and the campus coffeeshop, to build communications and hear what is going on in the neighborhoods.
  • Tacos With a Cop – Another form of the outreach effort, launched for Hispanic Heritage Month. Officer Salinas noted, “This is my baby.”
  • Movies With a Cop – This season, the SLPD arranged with the local theater to host a free movie event for children. Officers were able to engage with the children while they passed through the line. The event was a big success, filling the theater to capacity, and the department hopes to continue the movie events.
  • Holiday Outreach – Programs like Gloves of Love that collects winter gear for those in need, food drives, ham deliveries, school and nursing home visits and more brighten the holiday season for many in the diverse community. In a Santa Cops program, the SLPD and Santa make appearances at homes where children may have experienced a traumatic situation. “Kids sometimes have to witness crime and the aftermath. We’re sorry they have to see us in that light,” Officer Bravo said. “We want to show them the good side of law enforcement. We may see people on their worst days, but we should see them for happy occasions, too.” He noted that the program is especially touching to him, as Santa Cops had paid a warm visit to his family when he was away on deployment.
  • Social Media – The department uses the medium heavily for information, outreach, humor – and law enforcement. It has proven helpful in identifying suspects in thefts, finding a lost child or a missing person. The department is able to post in English and Spanish, translatable into other languages on Facebook, reaching a broader segment of the community.

“We work to make it a better community. Officers interact with the community in many ways. We want to show them that these are people you can turn to and trust,” Officer Bravo said. “It doesn’t matter about the color of skin or the background.”

“Being out there and hearing what the community has to say has made me a better mayor. It’s made me a better human being,” Mayor Porsch said. Referring to the two officers, he noted that they have come full circle from being local children to being leaders reaching out to the next generation of young people. “They are now pillars in our community. I appreciate Chief Cole and all of the officers for all they have done.”

One of the administrators in the audience, who had grown up in the area, echoed the sentiment. “Storm Lake has done a phenomenal job of including everybody, and you should be very proud.”

The city and SLPD leaders have also been asked to present a similar program later this year for the Iowa League of Cities Conference in Cedar Rapids.

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