Written by Katie Higgs, CEDAM Community Development Fellow
I moved to Coldwater from Chicago, landing my position as a community development fellow in 2021. As part of my orientation, I read documents and met with community leaders to truly get acclimated with the town. I was alerted to a recurring theme as part of past community visioning processes: participants in surveys and focus groups recognized the diversity in their community but noticed an opportunity to improve inclusion in community planning.
Coldwater is a small city in south-central Michigan, near the Indiana border, with a population of about 13,000. According to census data, about 7% of the population in Coldwater identifies as Latine*. Based on the number of people who attend our local mosque, it’s estimated that 20% of the population of Coldwater is of Yemeni descent.
I love to give anecdotal evidence of the diverse groups of people that call this part of Michigan home. There’s a common misconception about rural America, that racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity is minimal. However, multiculturalism isn’t an experience unique to urban communities. When I go to the grocery store, I am often shopping alongside Yemeni and Amish members of our community. I watched the Latine and Arab children on my street become friends and play soccer together over this past summer. My partner recently started working as an English-language support staff, teaching in Coldwater Community Schools, where he has full conversations in Arabic with students daily.
I knew right away that as a Fellow I could have an important role to play to support Coldwater’s efforts to further their inclusion in community planning efforts. Excitingly, there was already a network in place ready to embrace this work.
The Branch County Community Network
The Branch County Community Network is run by the Branch County Community Foundation. It is a monthly roundtable of community organizations and nonprofits to share upcoming events and get the word out about programs available to people who live in Branch County. I have been attending the meetings as the representative from the City of Coldwater.
I was excited when the Branch County Community Foundation asked our community network to assist in planning a series of events around Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). I felt this could be an opportunity to directly respond to the feedback Coldwater has already gathered.
We moved forward with planning the “Cultivating Community” series, which was a huge success. We were able to offer a wide variety of events throughout the month of October that created meaningful opportunities to celebrate the wide range of cultural identities throughout the county.
The network wanted to ensure we reached community members who may be less familiar with or committed to DEI work. Therefore, it was important to the group for this first series to include community-led events. We also wanted to provide cross-cultural learning opportunities without alienating people. This approach has been met with fairly broad community support. As a result, both the City of Coldwater and Branch County passed proclamations declaring October as “Cultivating Community Month”.
Cultivating Community Series highlights
- The Tibbits Opera House hosted Celestina Y Los Sanchez, a Tejano Band from Battle Creek as a part of the event series celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month. Tejano is a music style originating in Texas and takes influences from Mexican, Spanish, Czech, and German traditions and rhythms. Daniel Oropeza, the emcee for the event, noted the importance of taking pride in our local cultural assets, saying we don’t have to look much further than our own backyard for this kind of entertainment—the talent exists here in Michigan already, we just need to support it.
- Yemeni community members hosted an event at Tibbits, sharing information about their experiences in Yemen and as immigrants in the US. The hosts provided delicious traditional Yemeni cuisine and beverages and wore traditional attire you’d see attending a Yemeni wedding. Many of those involved in hosting the event were women and younger students in the community. It was by far the most attended event in the series so far. I think this speaks to a true desire for people to learn about their neighbors and show them they are valued members of this community.
- We also hosted a professional development day for educators, which was hosted by the Branch Intermediate School District and featured a presentation by Petra Alsoofy (who grew up in Coldwater schools) of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. The event also included a panel of current students speaking about their experience in the district as members of the Muslim community. The student panel was really impactful and highlighted the need to do more of this type of work in the community.
Other events in the series included:
- Branch County Pride
- Book Tastings at the Library branches
- Pow Wow Exhibition put on by the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi
This first Cultivating Community series went well, was generally positively embraced by the community, and offered many opportunities for people to get involved. Moving forward, the planning group is ready for more. It’s clear there is a desire for future events to facilitate cross-cultural understanding. The planning group wants to focus more on strengthening partnerships with existing community organizations, pulling in more diverse voices to the planning team, and building a sustainable cultural engagement program for the county.
This sort of work has the power to shape how people experience their community, and I am really proud to have been a part of building a coalition of people in Branch County who recognize the strength of diversity and want it to be part of their community’s story.
Learn more about CEDAM’s Community Development Fellowship.
*Latine is a gender neutral alternative to Latino or Latina