Social Capital Networking and Immigration Populations in Rural Minnesota
Mary Laeger-Hagemeister, Dissertation at University of Minnesota

Rural communities are facing huge shifts in demographics with an aging population of the dominant culture and an influx of immigrants who arrive with young families. These new populations will help rural communities survive and thrive through economic development, keeping schools vibrant, participating in community democracy, and taking on leadership roles. Two communities in rural southwest Minnesota were studied to learn how U.S. born community members have helped to create weak ties or linkages between immigrant populations and the established community as well as identify the characteristics of native-born residents who promote immigrant integration. While there is little research on network ties for immigrants, it is argued that there is a need for strong social networks to act as the linchpin enabling immigrants to develop primary relations with members of other racial and ethnic groups in their host community. In addition, the literature that exists on immigrant assimilation is focused on urban communities, bringing more attention to the lack of research on how networks are created between immigrants and host community members in rural areas.

Combining social capital theory and immigration history and theory a qualitative study was conducted using Critical Incident Technique. Twenty-eight individuals identified as key champions in the two communities were interviewed to determined, how they as formal or non-formal leaders sanctioned, promoted, supported, and encouraged others to engage in healthy behaviors relating to new immigrants. The study of these champions in rural communities identified what they did, how they did it, and their sources of motivation. The findings and recommendations provide insight and recommendations for weaving diversity into community development and leadership programs as well as implications for business leaders in rural communities.

Data analysis revealed three themes of what leaders did: 1) They faced the fear of change that was happening; 2) Collaboration was paramount; 3) Communities and schools recognized immigrants as a survival and economic necessity. Analysis also revealed two key components influencing leaders to intentionally work with immigrant integration: 1) An understanding of immigration history; and 2) a previous experience of caring for or being “the other.” These factors helped create the linking networks or weak ties between the host community and the immigrant communities.

This research sheds light on the need for community leadership programs to be intentional at providing cross-cultural education for participants. It needs to be woven into the curriculum with participants deliberating getting to know their own cultural values, cultural communication patterns, personal and national immigration history, and diverse ways of looking at the world. In addition they need opportunities to learn what it means to be the outsider.

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