Does Blaine County need a center specific to the Hispanic community?
The answer was a resounding "yes" during a luncheon Tuesday at the Old County Courthouse in Hailey.
Wendy Ruiz, a Hispanic community activist, approached Blaine County Commissioner Sarah Michael last fall, expressing concern that there isn't a consolidated organization designed to meet the needs of the ever-growing Spanish-speaking population in the Wood River Valley.
The response was overwhelming.
"I'm still really surprised," Ruiz said after Tuesday's luncheon, which drew a veritable who's who of Hispanic activists and community organizations, including representatives from the Advocates for Survivors of Domestic Violence, the Blaine County Probation Department, the Blaine County School District and St. Luke's Center for Community Health.
"Everybody is so willing to help, which makes me feel so happy," Ruiz said.
The meeting's purpose was twofold: discuss the creation of a Hispanic community center and seek advice from Sam Byrd, one of the state's foremost experts on improving the educational, economic and social status of Hispanics, as well as on how that can be achieved.
Byrd, the president of DiversityWorks and the director of the Center for Community and Justice in Boise, has been promoting Hispanic rights and diversity his entire adult life.
"In my heart of hearts this is the right thing to do," he said about creating a center to meet the needs of the Hispanic community. "I'm a diversity dude."
But will a center specific to Hispanics really promote diversity?
Joseph Young, a Hispanic activist, doesn't think so.
"To segregate and separate it would take away the whole sense (of diversity)," Young, who is married to Ruiz, said. "We have more than just Spanish-speaking people here. This needs to be something that is open to everybody.
"We have the power to break down barriers and unify. We could make this the ultimate valley."
Byrd said he thought Young's statements were progressive and a "a good idea."
But he added that, "If you try to be all things to all people, it isn't going to work."
The Wood River Valley is home to all walks of life, and that is one of the reasons it's such a special place. But the fastest growing population is Hispanic, and as Ruiz noted, Hispanics don't always have the necessary means to address their needs.
The Blaine County School District is now about 20 percent Hispanic, a number that is a lot higher in mid-valley locations. It is estimated that Woodside Elementary School in southern Hailey is now about 65 percent Hispanic. The exact size of the Hispanic population in Blaine County is still unknown.
According to a survey of 42 Wood River Valley Hispanics that Ruiz and her sister, Lizbeth, conducted earlier this month, Hispanics often feel lost in the valley.
Sixty percent said they don't know where to go if they need help with issues such as legal aid, financial assistance, immigration, education, domestic violence and social services.
Ninety-six percent said they would like to receive information in Spanish from other Spanish-speaking people. About 70 percent said they have been discriminated against, and 98 percent said they think white people need to better understand Hispanic culture. On the flip side, 97 percent said they need to better understand American culture.
All 42 participants said they think now is the time to open a Hispanic center for all Spanish-speaking people, including Mexicans, Guatemalans and Peruvians.
Byrd stressed that opening the center will take countless hours of work and effort.
"It's not going to be easy," he said. "Are you in it for the long haul?"
He also cautioned that the center shouldn't step on any toes. "It should fill in the gaps, not replace what already exists," he said.
In the end, he applauded the group—about 20 people in all—for their vision and effort.
"This doesn't exist in most places in Idaho," Byrd said. "So you're way ahead of the game."
The county plans to apply for a grant to help fund the center later this month. Another meeting to discuss the project will be held March 7.