Model 2: Engaging municipal and community leaders to make cities welcoming to immigrants and refugees
“If you want a seed to flourish into a plant that’s going to bear fruit for everybody, you need to make sure the soil is fertile.” –David Lubell, Founder and Executive Director, Welcoming America
As unlikely as it seems, a major movement to promote cities and towns across America as “welcoming cities” for immigrants and refugees began in Tennessee at the height of anti-immigrant backlash. In 2006, Nashville had been dubbed the epicenter of American “nativist” thinking: anti-Muslim attacks were frequent, and the city council was developing an English-only referendum to make English the only language used in government, which would have made it the largest city in America to do so. The backlash bothered David Lubell, an American who had lived in Ecuador as a young man and was warmly welcomed by a family there:
“The immigrant population had grown very quickly in Tennessee like in a lot of the country in the 90s, and there was a backlash happening…. People were not being welcomed, and that didn’t sit well with me to see that happening after being so welcomed by a family in Ecuador. It didn’t fit with my upbringing. It didn’t fit with my belief in what America was where I as a Jewish American could feel welcomed and a Mexican American could feel welcomed and a Muslim American could feel welcomed.”
Lubell understood that efforts to make American communities more welcoming would need to focus on changing the attitudes and perceptions of long-term residents in places where newcomers were arriving. Describing his approach of supporting long-term residents to understand the value that refugees and immigrants bring to communities, he provides the following analogy: “if you think of immigrants and refugees as a seed being put into a garden, a lot of organizations were out there putting water on the seed—providing English classes, job training, doing advocacy to get these types of things for immigrants—but there’s no focus on the soil. [The soil] is the long-term residents in those communities, the receiving community; there was no focus on the change that they were struggling through.”
The methodology, begun in Tennessee as a project of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition—first in Nashville as well as a smaller town called Shelbyville—reached out to civic leaders, community leaders, and everyday Tennesseans to try and create fertile soil for welcoming newcomers, to help communities not simply to tolerate immigrants and refugees but also to welcome and openly embrace them. The methodology engages local leaders and brings immigrants and long-term residents together in direct contact. The approach includes a strong focus on creating new messages about immigrants and refugees: “the messages that people were hearing were usually so negative,” explains Lubell. “They weren’t hearing about the contributions that immigrants were making 99.9% of the time.”
This leadership development and direct contact approach bore fruit. In 2009, the people of Nashville voted via referendum to defeat the English-only proposal, a successful move for the economy of the city and a signal to the immigrants and refugees of the city that the long-term residents of the city stood with them. The mayor of Nashville and other city leaders began to ask, “How do we go beyond being just a tolerant place to becoming a truly welcoming city?” Nashville even went on to design a training initiative called the “My City Academy,” a program that empowers immigrant leaders to understand the city government and how to become leaders within it.
Lubell founded the non-profit organization Welcoming America to provide guidance and inspiration for city leaders and local advocates working to create welcoming communities. One of the organization’s core tools is the Stronger Together Toolkit, which helps advocates to make the case for immigrant-inclusive policies and programs while the Community Planning Process Guide provides lessons learned in fostering greater refugee welcome. Everyday citizens seeking proactive ways to engage their neighbors, family members, and others in conversations about Islam, about refugees, and about immigration will find helpful guides in the Neighbors Together Toolkit, which shares promising practices for strengthening relationships with refugees and with Muslims, and the Stand Together Toolkit, which provides key messages for addressing backlash against such groups. The organization also creates a network of local governments and non-profit organizations committed to creating shared futures between long-term residents, immigrants, and refugees.
In 2012, Nashville had the fastest job growth of any city in the country. Working with the Nashville Chamber of Commerce, Welcoming America undertook research to understand why, and the results demonstrated that Nashville’s decision to be open and welcoming to immigrants was a factor contributing to this growth. More recent explorations have also indicated that immigrant and refugee inclusion contributes to the health of local economies, indicating that Welcoming America’s inclusive approach is not only the right thing to do but also the economically sound one. With such evidence accumulating—and the Welcoming America network growing like wildfire—there is an awful lot of soil fertilizing going on, a hopeful harbinger for the millions of metaphorical sunflowers that are surely coming to bloom. ▪
About the 7 Kinds of Kindness series
Many of us are wondering how to make positive, concrete contributions to a society that seems increasingly fractured and polarized. As someone who has worked overseas with refugees and displaced populations for many years, I have been dismayed to see many Americans choose to adopt an anti-refugee, anti-immigrant stance that does not represent the best and the strongest of who we, as Americans, are and can be. That disappointment is why I am writing this series, “7 Kinds of Kindness,” which highlights ways that Americans and others are choosing to take concrete pro-refugee and pro-immigrant action. The first article in the series highlighted the work of teaching artists using drama, dance, and the visual arts to communicate with refugee children and youth who are integrating the American education system.