STORM LAKE, Iowa (FOX 9) - One of the most racially diverse communities in the United States can be found just four hours south of the Twin Cities, in Storm Lake, Iowa, population 15,000.
Its local newspaper, The Storm Lake Times, has championed the changing demographics and has challenged local county officials, which led the paper to journalism’s most coveted award, the Pulitzer Prize in 2017.
“You get 30 miles outside of Storm Lake and they all think it’s some kind of crime-infested rat hole full of marauding Muslims and Mexicans. If you listen to our congressman,” he said.
Their Congressman is Rep. Steve King (Iowa-R), who was recently censured by Congress, and lost his committee assignments, after suggesting in an interview he doesn’t understand why terms like “white nationalist” and “white supremacist” are offensive. King contends he was misquoted.
Representative King was talking about building a wall long before President Trump, which is ironic, given the constituents who actually live in Storm Lake: Immigrants from dozens of countries.
IMMIGRANTS KEEPING TOWN ALIVE
The community, in northeast Iowa, is home to a massive Tyson Foods pork and chicken processing plant.
For 30 years, people have been coming there for jobs.
“If anything, some of our dreams are more American than many Americans here. We just want to do better,” said Matthew Marroquin,17, whose mother is from Honduras.
“When we live in a small town like this we are so happy. We see cattle goat, we see corn field,” said Steven Champion, who came to the U.S. 13 years ago from Sudan.
Few in Storm Lake put much stock in the last census (2010), which most believe dramatically undercounted the immigrant population. That census found nearly one-third the population (29%) were foreign born, with Whites accounting for 64% of the population, followed by Hispanic or Latino (39%), and Asian (17%).
A more accurate picture of Storm Lake’s present and future can be found in the school system, where 23 different languages are spoken.
Eight out ten kids in the school district, are a student of color. White students are the minority.
“Every day we get to learn about people who have different living experiences. It’s a challenge but it’s a great opportunity to grow as humans, said Stacy Cole, Superintendent of Storm Lake Schools. “In our community we know who our neighbors are so when you know who your neighbor is you don’t want other people talking ill of them.
Mark Prosser has been the police chief in the community for 30 years. He believes immigration works.
“We’ve never had one group that was disproportionally involved in criminal activity,” he said. “We are approaching our eleventh year now of record lows in our serious crime rate and we are more diverse in Storm Lake than we’ve ever been. So the myth that immigrants commit crimes at a higher rate both in national studies and Storm Lake studies show is broken.”
The Storm Lake Times has promoted the changing demographics, in its front pages and editorials, believing new immigrants will be the key to the town’s very survival.
“I think The Storm Lake Times does a good job of opening eyes of people. And they accept us,” said Topiz Martinez, who operates a restaurant downtown.
“If we’re not going to slide off the map, if Worthington, Minnesota isn’t going to slide off the map, then we need to accept new people. And that is what the real issue is, and the newspaper has to say to people ‘hey this reality and we need to cope with it,’” Cullen said.
TIMES CHALLENGES COUNTY OFFICIALS, WINS BIG
When Fox 9 asked Art if it was fair to say he was “an afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted kind of journalist,” he agreed.
These days Iowa has gotten comfortable with factory farming and big ag.
Along the Raccoon River, just outside of town, Cullen explained how fertilizer run off is polluting the waterway.
“That soil has nothing stopping it from flowing into the Raccoon River and making it to the Gulf of Mexico,” he said giving Fox 9 a tour of the area.
Art ran a series of scathing editorials a couple years ago about a secret legal defense slush fund for the county that had been set up by Monsanto and Koch Fertilizer.
Big ag was paying the county’s legal bills. The Times said it needed to be public and questioned what big ag was expecting in return.
“How can you defend this direct pollution of this river,” Cullen said.
He made a ruckus that would have made Mark Twain proud.
The editorials caught the attention of big media types, who usually consider places like Storm Lake flyover land. The paper won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.
Suddenly, the paper was not so small, after all.
“Only movie stars put more import on contests than journalists,” Cullen commented.
But movie stars have more fans than a free press these days. A county supervisor wrote a letter to say the Pulitzer had shamed itself.
Art published his letter, of course, and in a twisted way, loved every word.
“I can’t think of another business that does that, that allows you to rake that owner of the business over the coals in public and we consider it building readership. We love it when we get that letter, attacking us, because that means we’re making a difference,” said Cullen.
Cullen recently wrote a book, Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper. Cullen writes about his hometown, and the newspaper, which is a family affair: His brother, John, is the publisher, Art’s wife Dolores takes pictures, and son, Tom, is a reporter.
“As one of my publishers once told me if you don’t want to write editorials, why don’t you just go sell shoes, you will get paid better and he is right.”