Latinx Project tells story of strength and opportunity

New report highlights central Iowa Latinos contributions and disparities and elevates Latinx leaders

If 15 more Latinx students graduated high school than the current graduation rate in central Iowa, these students would collectively earn $1.68 million more over the next 30 years. If 15 more Latinx students earned an associate degree, these individuals would collectively earn $3.87 million more over the next 30 years. If undocumented Latinos in central Iowa could become U.S. citizens, their collective earnings would be $2 billion over the next 30 years and the community would see a 9 percent increase in homeownership.

These are gains not only for Latinx Iowans, but also the entire state, as more individuals in the region can achieve financial stability, build wealth, improve well-being, and fully contribute. This is the message the Iowa Latinx Project leaders want to share as they release the Nuestro Iowa report and dashboard this spring, highlighting Central Iowa Latinos contributions and the disparities that exist.

“Where the state is going, a lot of growth will be determined by our success with non-white populations,” said Rob Barron, one of the founders of the Latinx Project and Executive Director of Iowa & Minnesota Campus Compact.

Leaders, like Barron, especially point to the fact that Latinos are the fastest-growing population in Iowa; the population is on track to double before 2050.  

Ana Coppola headshot
“We know that having good wealth and having fulfilling jobs, that financial security, puts people in good condition not only for today, but also for future generations,” said Ana Coppola,  co-lead of Central Iowa Latinx Project and Public Health Planner with the Polk County Health Department. “That benefits not only the Latinx community, but also the entire community as a whole.”

Mid-Iowa Health Foundation invested in the development of the report with the understanding that having data can help target attention and resources to where they will have the most impact in improving central Iowans’ health and well-being, as well as to support efforts driven by communities most impacted by challenges.  

“The information provided through the Latinx Project allows community members, organizational leaders, and decision makers to have an informed understanding of our community needs, which allows for an intentional approach to policy, program, and investment decisions,” said Dr. Nalo Johnson, Mid-Iowa Health Foundation President and CEO. “With an online dashboard of information, we are excited to see how easily community members can engage with the information provided through the project.”

The need for data

Barron recognized the need for the Nuestro Iowa report while sitting on community boards and seeing the impact data has on funding decisions. Leaders value reports, like One Economy produced by The Director’s Council, to inform their efforts specific to improving the needs of Black Polk County.

“Here I am, in the Latino community – one of very few people who get an inside view like that – and it’s clear to me there is nothing to tell our story,” Barron said.

Dawn Martinez Oropeza, co-founder of the Iowa Latinx Project and Executive Director of Al Éxito, also saw this need as she was invited to community conversations as the only Latino representative, while recognizing Latinos are the largest minoritized ethnic group.

“We need more than one person in our community at these tables,” she said. “We are still not part of the conversation.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in spring 2020, the Latinx community especially faced hardship and harm as many adults continued to work in unsafe conditions or were suddenly unemployed, and students didn’t have reliable technology to access virtual school. Many families couldn’t receive assistance or were hesitant to seek services, because they lived with undocumented family members or feared being attacked.

Dawn Martinez Oropeza headshot
“We have been very hidden,” said Martinez Oropeza. “No one wants to acknowledge or address our needs because of political rhetoric that surrounds the community.”

A Disaster Recovery Fund grant kicked off a fund to help cover rent, utilities, health care bills, and other needs of central Iowans to fill this identified gap in assistance. Mid-Iowa Health Foundation and the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines leaders then approached Martinez Oropeza and Erica Johnson, Executive Director of the Iowa Migrant Movement for Justice who worked on the fund, to ask what else was needed.

These leaders elevated the importance of having data to tell the story of what was happening in the Latinx community. The funders, along with United Way of Central Iowa and Delta Dental of Iowa, collectively contributed $500,000 to launch the Central Iowa Latinx Project and produce an initial report.  

More than a report

In the process of writing grants to secure funding for the Central Iowa Latinx Project, founders Barron, Johnson, and Martinez Oropeza realized that the work was about more than just a report.  “It had to be something that really created the conditions to grow new leaders and to build connections within our community,” said Barron.

Vandegfit Huting Consulting worked with them to form a leadership team that represented different sectors who could advise on sections of the report.

rob barron headshot
“The team we built was honestly my favorite outcome of the process,” Barron said, “because a whole bunch of Latino leaders had never been in the room together and they invested in each other, got to know each other, built relationships beyond this project, and were able to come together and tell the story of a community that is really diverse.”

“I didn’t know about the great work that each leader did in their own sector,” Coppola said, “It was so nice to meet them, to learn about the job that they do, and how passionate they are to help the community be better.”

Project leaders emphasize how diverse the Latinx community is, representing many nations and cultures, and yet, the Iowa Latinx Project was an opportunity to unify around a shared vision and to inspire changes that will increase opportunities for all Latino Iowans.

Alejandro Hernandez, Dean of Drake University’s College of Business and Public Administration, saw his involvement in the Central Iowa Latinx Project as furthering Drake’s mission to serve as an anchor within the community and to elevate Latinx leaders across the Drake community.  

“As the first Latino to serve as a dean in Drake’s history, in a primarily white institution, representation is still so powerful,” Hernandez said. “It speaks to Latinos’ opportunity to be a part of whatever solutions we seek to advocate for in all different parts of our community and society.”

Kenia Calderón Cerón, Vice President and Bilingual Business Development Director for GreenState Credit Union, joined as a leader in financial services. She saw an opportunity to not only offer a perspective from her experiences growing up in a family that was undocumented, but to also inspire changes within her sector to increase opportunities for the Latinx community.

“Having information about the disparities that currently exist in the community will hopefully encourage more financial institutions in Iowa to have a specific strategy for the Latino community,” she said.

The findings

Consultants Joel Huting and Dr. Darcie Vandegrift were selected because of their extensive work with the Latinx community already, their ties to Iowa, and their social justice lens on issues. “We didn’t have to educate them,” said Martinez Oropeza.

As the consultants met with the leadership team, they began to identify the goals of the project, topic areas for the report, and data to review and collect. Having the project led by the Latinx community ensured the community was shaping how the report was developed and presented.

In addition to analyzing data, leadership team members also hosted story sessions with Latinx high school students, college students, Spanish-speaking business owners, service workers, LGBTQ+ individuals, and others. These stories provided additional context and represented a diversity of experiences.

A dashboard, released in January 2022, shares these highlights from the Nuestro Iowa report focused on the central Iowa region:

Strengths:

  • 1,544 Latino businesses generating $159.6 million in annual revenue
  • 52,000 Latino residents in the metro, which will more than double by 2050 and drive overall metro population growth
  • 22,000 Latino workers collectively earning $1 billion in annual income, contributing significantly to the overall central Iowa economy
  • Latino community turned around over a decade of population decline in Marshall County

Disparities (compared with White Iowans)

  • Average household income is 33% lower
  • Poverty rates are 13 percentage points higher
  • Homeownership rates are 24 percentage points lower
  • 21 percentage point gap in health insurance coverage for those aged 19-64 years
  • 25 percentage point gap in Bachelor's degree or higher completion
  • 33 percentage point gap in high school completion

Root causes of disparities

  • Eliminating education disparities will largely close the income and poverty gap
  • Eliminating income and education disparities will mostly close the homeownership gap
  • Latino households face additional barriers to homeownership

The Central Iowa Latinx Project leaders identify many findings that stand out to them:

Coppola notes that differences in outcomes in most categories – educational attainment, poverty, homeownership, health – were widening even before the pandemic, and that all these issues are interconnected. The report includes data through 2019; a second report could paint a clearer picture of the pandemic’s impact.

The report specifically notes a lack of health data that can be examined by race and ethnicity. What is highlighted is that many Latinos (25% of the population) lack health insurance, impacting access to health care that influences overall well-being.

"A lack of health insurance at the beginning will affect you later. My mom was one of eight children. Her dad was a sanitation worker. She didn’t have dental insurance. Some people see that as a luxury. But now she has to pay a lot of money to get her teeth repaired all the time. Year after year. If she could have gone to the dentist younger, this could have been prevented." (College student, Drake University)

One root issue to address, according to the report, is educational disparities. While Iowa schools have reported higher graduation rates, many Latinx students are not graduating and many are not receiving postsecondary education, which can impact their ability to earn a living wage, own a home, and be healthy. The report points to many challenges, including a lack of access to resources and opportunities.

"If parents got a path to citizenship, we’d see a decrease in anxiety and depression in parents and students. We would see students do better academically. People don’t realize how much parents’ status can impact their children." (College student)

The ability to own a home in Central Iowa is also significant with just 50% of Latino households owning their home, compared with 73.7% of White individuals.

"We don’t have generational wealth. My dad couldn’t write a check to get money to buy the house." (Journalist)
"I have relatives who are undocumented who are buying a house. They buy on contract. They get taken advantage of. There are so many people who pay for years. When it’s paid off, there’s no paperwork. These are not recorded." (Sales representative)

Hearing stories that describe a similar journey to her parents’ experience especially impacted Calderón Cerón. “I remember sitting in the room and hearing the statistics and doing the math, and it took exactly 16 years for my immigrant parents to have a mortgage,” she said. “For me to be able to relate to that statistic, it was really overwhelming, because I know what my immigrant family had to go through.”

Latinx Project leaders are also interested in how Marshall County has closed the disparities gap in several areas. Martinez Oropeza says the data leads to questions, including the quality of housing Latinx families have access to and the kinds of supports they are receiving.

Hernandez points to the Latinx community’s strengths that are highlighted in the report. While assumptions are often made about where Latinos work, he notes that 40 percent work in office jobs in areas including management, business, sciences, arts, and sales. The more than 1,500 Latino-owned firms in the Des Moines region have generated nearly $160 million in sales.

“I think it’s important to say that our contributions are across the board and we’re a driver in the economic vitality of the state,” Hernandez said. “Sometimes our contributions are not as visible as [they] should be.”

Next Steps

Overall, leaders hope the report elevates the community and inspires action to address challenges.

“We want people to understand our community and how things are happening in our community and how the data is speaking to the community as a whole,” said Coppola.

kenia calderon ceron headshot
“What happens to our state when 12 percent of the population falls behind in so many different categories,” said Calderón Cerón. “Hopefully it communicates a sense of urgency across institutions with decision makers. From the Latino community standpoint, hopefully this helps people understand why their lives are the way that they are today. I feel like undocumented, low-income families have a lot of shame and guilt—I’m living this way because of my own wrongdoing—and, hopefully, they start to have conversations about how maybe I’m living this life because it’s been designed this way for me.”

The Central Iowa Latinx Project leadership team continues to meet monthly and is in the process of reviewing the report findings and working on a plan for next steps. While they have begun sharing the report with community groups and media, they also are preparing a public launch in May. The team recognizes the work will take several years and is working to secure funding to sustain it.

Coppola and Calderón Cerón are leading next steps in central Iowa, which will focus on building committees to work on actions around the topic areas in the report. Hernandez and Suzanna de Baca, President and CEO of Business Publications Corp., are engaging the business community, while Martinez Oropeza is building an additional statewide Iowa leadership team in six communities that will release an additional report and expand the dashboard.    

Leaders aim to engage more people in the work, as well as educate decision-makers on the findings. Martinez Oropeza says it’s especially important given recent policies that are harming Latinos and a lack of Latinx leader representation at decision-making tables.

“When we talk about DEI [(diversity, equity, and inclusion)] work, I want Latino representation to reflect the demographics of the community,” said Martinez Oropeza. “When the city is looking at redistricting, I want this report pulled out and leaders contacted. We need to be uplifted in a different way.”

“We can make the population and the community visible to people that make policy change,” said Coppola, “because they are the ones to help guide how to respond and to take action that directly addresses socio-economic factors that accelerate how disparities happen.”

Alejandro Hernandez headshot

Hernandez believes engaging business leaders will especially help build understanding of how the Latinx community impacts companies and can inspire more opportunities for Latinos to receive skills training and to move into leadership roles.

“We are able to lead with data, which lowers defenses with the majority to be able to discuss issues of inequities and other difficult, uncomfortable topics,” he said. “If you start from the point of agreement on data-driven information, you can have a more constructive conversation.”

New report highlights central Iowa Latinos contributions and disparities and elevates Latinx leaders

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