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Are ‘culturally insensitive’ incidents hampering Idaho recruitment efforts?

photo of aryan nations compound

This peace park in Northern Idaho is located on the site of the former Aryan Nations compound. File photo.

In a time when Idaho’s job growth is increasingly dependent on in-migration, to what degree do reports perceived as racist, such as the recent Middleton teacher costume incident, affect business’ ability to recruit out-of-state workers?

Though the Aryan Nations compound in Hayden was shut down and then burned in 2000, more recent incidents, such as the groups of teachers who dressed up as the proposed US-Mexico border wall and used Mexican stereotypes, the Redoubt movement, and isolated incidents of flyers promoting racist ideas, have reportedly concerned some ethnic and sexual minorities looking at Idaho. With Idaho’s unemployment rate and college graduation rate so low, and with the state looking to newcomers to fill jobs, anything that discourages potential new residents is a problem, according to some local business leaders.

For example, when a group of businesspeople from Lexington, Kentucky, visited Boise in May, questions about Idaho’s white supremacist history, including the Redoubt movement, arose among the participants, about 10 percent of whom were minorities. Even without those incidents, the lack of “people who look like me,” both in employment and in personal issues such as dating, led to concerns about attracting out-of-state workers to Idaho, participants said.

photo of shawn barigar

Shawn Barigar

“When controversial or negative incidents happen in Idaho – particularly if they ‘go viral’ with national and online media coverage – it has a definite impact on our collective reputation,” said Shawn Barigar, mayor of Twin Falls, which had to deal with this issue in 2017 in connection with anti-Muslim incidents. “Unfortunately, these types of incidents tend to reinforce negative (and typically incorrect) stereotypes of our state and the people who live here.”

The Middleton teachers’ costumes and the ensuing controversy were covered by major national media outlets, including the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today and CNN.

That can cost Idaho jobs, Barigar warned.

“I suspect there are many businesses and individuals who have chosen not to pursue a move to Idaho because of information they’ve found online,” he said. “And those negative impressions can overshadow the positive aspects of our state in an online search.”

And a single incident can not only rankle for decades, but smear the entire state with the same brush.

“Sandpoint was always getting pegged for the Aryan Nation, when in fact they were located in Hayden,” said Kate McCallister, executive director for the Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce. “Up here in North Idaho, it is something we continually strive to improve upon, to make our community a place that welcomes diversity in all forms.”

A press release from the Idaho Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Click to enlarge.

Social media also amplifies incidents, added Hyrum Johnson, mayor of Driggs. “Whether it be fringe politicians seeking media attention, the questionable judgement of teachers in Halloween costume selection, or wacky and outdated laws – all of these contribute to the outside perception that Idaho is backwards and bigoted,” he said. “We leaders must be more proactive in promoting the many positive aspects of our community. We must amplify the message that Idaho is a fantastic state to do business in, that the City of Driggs presents the greatest economic opportunity in the northern Rockies.”

Exactly how many jobs and workers such incidents might cost Idaho is hard to determine, said Sam Byrd, director of Centro de Comunidad y Justicia, in Boise.

“To my knowledge, there is no empirical evidence of how these incidences affect Idaho’s business reputation,” he said. “Obviously the Middleton teacher incident doesn’t help and in fact may serve to ‘confirm’ that their perception of Idaho is true. Most folks, including those from business and industry, already tend to have a ‘pre-established’ image (accurate or not) of Idaho long before they consider relocating here. It is because of this very thinking/belief that we need to be much more proactive in clearly demonstrating our commitment to diversity and inclusiveness in our schools, communities and workplaces.”

Barigar agreed.

“We all have a role – as Idahoans – to preserve our reputation and celebrate the positive aspects of living, working, and playing in Idaho,” he said. “To me, that includes being honest when we’re posting our own impressions of Idaho on our own social media outlets. And we should all do what we can to condemn actions that don’t align with our shared values – standing up against hate, negativity, ignorance and intolerance.”

Diane Bevan, president and CEO of the Idaho Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, told the IBR that incidents like the recent Middleton costume controversy can create opportunities for conversations about diversity and inclusion.

“If new policies and procedures as well as accountability are the result of the investigation and if because of this publicity other organizations take a closer look at their own policies and procedures and implement change, then I would say that in the long term this will undoubtedly improve the perception of Idaho,” Bevan said.

She applauded Middleton School District for taking swift action and said she will “continue to wait for the investigation to conclude.”

“I believe that in the short term, that any national news coverage which is negative in nature can hurt the perception of a state,” Bevan said. “It is unfortunate when a story causes contention between communities and cultures. I do believe that the teachers involved used poor judgment and I do not condone their behavior. As to the thought process behind it, that is for the investigation committee to discover. Our children are our future leaders and deserve the opportunity to learn in an environment that is free from any kind of judgement or bias.”

On Nov. 5, the Idaho Hispanic Chamber of Commerce executive committee released a statement denouncing “any kind of behavior that is not inclusive or respectful to our community members, our children and particularly our Latinx community.”

“Last week 14 educators at Middleton Heights Elementary School engaged in culturally insensitive activity,” the executive committee said. “All educators and learning institutions must avoid any display of any actions that could be viewed as discriminatory or racially biased even if the intent is not so. … We hold our concern for the Latinx community and we feel this is a great opportunity for proactive action by the Middleton School District and trust they will seize this opportunity to do better.”

About Sharon Fisher