Diversity Driven by Jobs

Amna Millewa

"Majority minority" is the term used in Grand Island where more than half of school kids are minorities. And it's the case when looking at Lexington's population as a whole, where 60 percent of the town's resident's identify as Hispanic. In both cases, changing demographics are driven by jobs.
Sitting around the table, a diverse panel carried on a community conversation about the issue of diversity in Grand Island. So what brought Amna Millewa's family to Grand Island?
"Most of it is just a job because the Swift company – they were taking a lot of refugees," she explained.
That's what Cindy Johnson, head of the Grand Island Chamber of Commerce wants to hear.
"And isn't that the reason America exists, really, is looking for opportunity," she said.
The issue of immigration is nothing new in Grand Island, a community founded by German settlers. And influxes of people from Latin America are not new either.
City / County Planning Director Chad Nabity said, "Grand Island has had three waves of Hispanic immigrants, beginning in the 1910s and 1920s with the sugar beat factory."
It's not sugar beats now, it's meat packing. That's what brought Amna's mom and dad to Grand Island.
We asked what her dad does.
She answered, "I believe meat line – production, with my brother now who works there. He had to quit school to go help my father."
And what have you heard about the kind of work they do there? "Hard and dangerous," she says. But the pay is good. Amna answers, "Definitely. I'm very thankful for Swift company to give us the opportunity."
At that point in the conversation, Cindy Johnson jumped in. She asked Amna, "How old is your brother that had to quit school to go into the workforce?" "He's 18," she replied. "He graduated but couldn't continue college right now." This reporter said to Cindy, "You would love to go train up some of their kids – 15, 16, 17 year–olds and say, 'we'd love for you to stay in Grand Island and work at Chief or Standard Iron.'"
She responded, "That's one of the most exciting parts of this initiative, from my opinion. We've heard as we've gone out to businesses that they now have a vision of what they could do. They may have come here with family members for that job in that industry and perhaps were even of the belief that's all they could do. For many, this is an opportunity to grow beyond that."
Amna attends community college, and was the first in her family to graduate from high school. "I have two sisters and two brothers. I'm the oldest of them. Plus my dog," she said to a round of laughter from our panel.
JBS Swift, formerly known as ConAgra, Monfort, and Swift & Company employs an estimated 3,300 people.
Johnson said the economic impact is huge, and supports many more jobs beyond the plant walls.
And she said it has helped to create a bigger workforce. "But as Grand Island's needs have grown, we see individuals that come to Grand Island for one job at one company have moved into other jobs," she explained. Amna's dad and brother both work at the plant. She attends community college and works at a nursing home, where he enjoys singing.
They say education is the great equalizer. In part three of our special series, we'll look at how Grand Island Public Schools deals with diversity.