About three dozen community members gathered at Spencer Community Theatre Tuesday to listen and participate with a panel discussing diversity and how to create a more welcoming, inclusive community for people of different cultures.
The documentary “Do We Belong?” was screened before the panel began its discussion.
The short film tells the story of Sunayana Dumala, the featured panel member that night, who was widowed after her husband, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, was shot and killed in a hate crime at a bar and grill in Olathe, Kansas, in 2017. In the documentary, Dumala shares her path toward finding healing and hope.
Both Dumala and her husband are originally from India. At the time of the incidnet, they were both working in the U.S. under his work visa.
“My husband was a very positive and an optimistic person,” Dumala said. “Any given day, (no matter) how much ever troubles she had or work stress he had or anything, he would find one positive reason to move him, get him going.
That’s why she is speaking at events like this and advocating for immigrant issues.
“For me, that was very important,” Dumala said. “I couldn’t let people forget him. I couldn’t let what happened to him or I could not just make him a hate crime statistic. I wanted to take his legacy forward – that most positive attitude, the caring nature, being respectful to everybody and I wanted to show people who he was.”
And that’s why she agreed to participate in the filming of the documentary.
“The director promised me that he would just focus it on Srinivas and our life, and who Srinivas was as a person, and how long we were there, and how this tragedy changed everything,” Dumala. “But the outpouring (of) love I received from the community, how I’m trying to move forward, that has been my 12-year journey in the United States.”
Dumala was joined on the theater stage by three other panelists: Jay Dahlhauser, founder and now youth advocate and operations director at The Bridge in Storm Lake; Tina Shaw with the Iowa Department of Human Rights Office of Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs and Francesca Yu, a lab technician at Spencer Hospital.
Sarika Bhakta, principal of Nikeya Diversity Counseling, moderated the panel. Bhakta was one of the leaders of diversity workshops held the next day offered through the Iowa Lakes Corridor Development Corporation.
Corridor President and CEO Kiley Miller welcomed community members before the documentary was shown. He said the event was held to start conversations, not to suggest that Spencer has a problem when it comes to diversity.
“We’re not here because of a problem,” Miller said. “We’re here because of an opportunity.”
That opportunity, he explained, includes learning how to create a more welcoming and engaging environment for all residents in the community. He added that the community must look at what they are doing well and what must improve.
Shaw said during the panel discussion that conversations like this must happen across the entire state.
“These types of community conversations are sorely needed throughout Iowa to bring enlightenment and awareness,” she said.
Shaw added that Iowa is “very naturally welcoming” and kind, but can go a step further in building relationships across different cultures.
That describes the work Dahlhauser has done through The Bridge in Storm Lake. Before he started the organization, he had started a construction business.
But as he was from rural Iowa, he knew how to get better connected with the community. These newcomers, mostly immigrants and refugees, did not know, he said, adding that organizations and churches in town wanted to get connected to those groups.
He and his wife talked about how much they appreciated the different cultures. They wondered whether that meant they should live abroad.
“We decided we were going to stay there and we started an organization called The Bridge,” Dahlhauser said. “And what we wanted to be is a relationship bridge – a connection, a meeting point – for people to be able to understand each other and get to know each other.”
The Bridge has neighborhood centers were people of the community get to know each other. They also have orientations for people wanting to get involved. One activity at these orientations is challenging volunteers to think about their own majority culture and what’s unique about it.
“There are unique things about our culture (in) independent farm communities,” Dahlhauser said. “I say ‘independent’ because we are fairly independent, right? We may give a farmer wave, but we usually try to have all the tools of our own and not have to borrow them too much, unless there’s a time of crisis, (then) we’ll maybe lean on our neighbor or something like that. We’re willing to help if we need to.”
He had moved into a diverse neighborhood in Storm Lake and realized he needed to be more dependent on the community, he said.
“So I purposefully didn’t buy a weed trimmer, you know, things like that,” Dahlhauser said. “And so we need to start leaning on each other and looking at gifts and talents of other people and kind of (depend) less on ourselves.”
He described neighborhood nights held throughout the summer that are potluck style get-togethers that The Bridge does.
“We go into a neighborhood and people bring their cultural food,” Dahlhauser said. “It’s just something where everybody brings something to the table and you sit around and have community. That’s a big thing for me.”
Gabriel Torres, an insurance agent in Spencer, said he has had a similar experience to what Dahlhauser shared.
“I’ve noticed that if I bring a plate of food over to somebody, they’re very welcoming,” Torres said.
On the other hand, he said he gets a lot of looks when he’s out in the community with his wife, who he said is not white but has a lighter skin complexion than he does.
“They kind of look and gotta see what’s going on there,” he said.
But as soon as he approaches them and speaks with them, that barrier comes down. He said that helps break any stereotypes people may hold against him.
“I’m not the gang member; I’m not the illegal immigrant that comes over here to take your job,” he said. “I’m just a normal guy in the society trying to make a difference not only for me, for the community but also for my family.”
Dumala said that Torres brought up an important point to make about seeing yourself in other people, opening up, ask questions and learn.
“Learning and educating yourself is how you bridge those gaps,” Dumala said.
From the Philippines to Spencer
Francesca Yu said she has had a great experience in meeting others and feeling more welcome in Spencer.
She had always wanted to work in the US, she said, but had never heard of Spencer before moving here.
Yu arrived in November 2017. She remembers it was very cold.
“The first thing I said to myself when I got here was, Why did I choose this place?” Yu said. “I really wanted to turn back.”
She called her family, told her dad she wanted to come home. Though she had come with a friend from the Philippines, she didn’t know anybody else.
They decided to change that.
“On weekends, we try to go out, have fun, listen to good music, have a beer” Yu said. “We didn’t realize that we made a lot of friends, let’s say at the bar. I think it’s a great way to meet people.”
She’s met many people from different races and ethnicities, she said.
“Here in Iowa, you just meet the nicest people,” Yu said. “They’ve never really looked at me differently. Everyone is very welcoming and I’m very thankful to actually be here.”
How to get more people interested in diversity
At one point, Ryan Odor, director of Arts on Grand, stood up to ask the panel a question. He said he has been to many diversity events and there’s one thing that he always notices: the other people there.
“I always leave very inspired, very excited, wanting to really dig into my community and how we can be welcoming,” Odor said. “But one thing that always hits me, as I look out into the crowd (here tonight), I see those that are already welcoming, already inclusive. How do we get those who are not welcoming and inclusive to partake in some of these events?”
“That’s a question I have, too,” Dumala said, recommending that others persevere and remain persistent in talking to others about the need to create welcoming communities for all cultures.
“The people who are here, I agree, because they believe in this, they are here,” she said. “But if we take it forward and we keep talking to our friends, our colleagues and everybody – that’s how we make those ripples. Out of 10, 15 people you might talk to, there might be one person who might be interested, who can take it forward and help us in creating those ripples of kindness. That’s the hope I have and that’s the hope that drives me every day.”
She said it’s a continuous effort to make communities diverse and inclusive.
Dahlhauser said having meals and inviting a broad range of people to the table, even those who may not be interested in immigration and diversity.
“Sit down, have them get to know the names of people and bring people together that way in small communities,” Dahlhauser said. “I think you start to know the names and that changes peoples’ hearts.”
Not living in ignorance
At the end of the event, Dumala said she wanted to highlight what she hoped would be a key takeaway for the audience: that everyone is ignorant in one way or another and it’s important to recognize that.
“For me it’s important that we don’t live in that ignorance,” Dumala said. “And that we make efforts in coming out of our efforts and educating ourselves. It’s OK to be ignorant, but it’s not OK to not come out of that.”
Her husband’s killer’s ignorance led to the incident, she said. That’s why she and her employer started Forever Welcome. The program, according to its about section on Facebook, “ generates empathy and understanding for people who immigrate to the U.S. by bringing their personal journey and contributions to light.”
She’s now balancing running that program with her job and advocacy activities. She is working to start a foundation for the program “to work with other immigrant communities and create that ripple of kindness.”
“That’s how I’m trying to move forward from the tragedy,” Dumala said. “And this is how I chose a way to continue my husband’s legacy and not let people forget him or who he was as a person and to make ourselves be more kind to each other.”