Want Your Community to be More Welcoming? Here’s how.

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By Rachel Peric

In 2018, a magnitude 7.1 earthquake rocked Anchorage, Alaska. As leaders turned to the task of keeping residents safe, they knew it would be important to reach a growing community of new Alaskans.   Fortunately, the city was prepared. As part of its Welcoming Anchorage initiative, the city had invested in building relationships and fostering leadership with its burgeoning immigrant and refugee community, had devoted resources to translating and interpreting key documents, and as a result, was able to get the message out quickly to protect people.

Says Anchorage First Lady Mara Kimmel, who has worked with city leaders to shape the initiative, “The earthquake demonstrated how critical it is that all of us know that we can rely on each other during times of shocks and stresses. This resilience is important for our city, and our success requires creating an inclusive culture and equitable community. During and after the quake, we were able to quickly communicate with all our residents, keeping people safe. The work we’re doing through our Welcoming initiative helps to create trust and belonging, and we feel safe and more comfortable coming together as neighbors to get things done.”

In a hyper-polarized environment, developing trust among neighbors and ensuring that all residents feel at home and are able to fully participate in their communities is critical. In communities with growing immigrant and refugee populations, the task of managing demographic change so that all residents feel included can often be a daunting one. But fortunately, cities like Anchorage—and many more around the country—are demonstrating that the work of building a welcoming environment is not only possible, but is in the self-interest of all residents who want to live in safer and more economically vibrant communities.

Over the last decade, my organization, Welcoming America, has supported civic leaders across the country who are navigating sweeping demographic changes—some recent, others decades old.  In some cases, this demographic change is aspirational, such as in rural communities or the nation’s “rust belt,” where aging or declining populations mean a need to attract and retain newcomers, including those with immigrant backgrounds.

Despite their vastly different contexts and starting points, all of these communities have a strategic interest in fostering a more inclusive environment where people of all backgrounds can put down roots, thrive, and belong. More than a feel-good value, being welcoming is about creating a sense of home in changing communities and reducing the barriers to full social, civic, and economic participation that all residents face, particularly those with immigrant or refugee backgrounds.

A core strategy behind Welcoming efforts is the creation of bridging capital—relationships across lines of difference and between newcomers and longtime residents that foster a greater sense of trust and social cohesion. “A resilient, equitable Dallas must have the trust of its residents,” says T.C. Broadnax, City Manager of Dallas. Dallas’ Office of Welcoming Communities and Immigrant Affairs has been among those working actively to strengthen these ties and also to ensure that more residents, especially those with immigrant backgrounds who have existing ties and trust within their communities, can play a role as civic leaders. 

In cities like Boise, Idaho, which recently became the first city in the state to be Certified Welcoming, these efforts have long helped to ensure that a growing refugee community feels at home in the city. More recently, Boise became a pilot site for a new initiative in partnership with the Walmart Foundation (and others) that is exploring new approaches for Americans of all backgrounds to come together around common projects—to rebuild their communities and their social fabric. Recently, a first-of-its kind Family Field Day event brought together residents from all walks of life to enjoy each other’s company, participate in outdoor activities, break (Iraqi) bread, and develop new relationships. Many came who didn’t have meaningful connections with newcomers, but through a positive, shared experience, new relationships began to take shape. Boise has moved forward with a number of other key features to build community such as a restaurant week that features refugee chefs and a speakers bureau that offers diverse residents an opportunity to share their stories and their experiences of living in Boise.

These efforts are not just nice to have; they are the foundation for a resilient and thriving democracy, where local economies can attract and retain talent. Creating a welcoming environment has helped reverse population decline and strengthen community resiliency in states such as Ohio. It has also helped employers in regions such as Northwest Arkansas attract and retain talent by ensuring that people of all backgrounds can put down roots and thrive. In smaller towns like Austin, Minnesota, creating a community agenda for inclusion has meant renewed energy around public service and the role of new leaders, as well as new investments in immigrant entrepreneurship that are helping to grow local business.

Here are a few ways your community can become a more welcoming one:

  1. Start by listening. Both newcomers and longtime residents can feel alienated by change and unwelcome in their community. Understanding the concerns and interests of a diversity of residents and asking what more could be done to make everyone feel like they belong, can be a valuable starting point.
  2. Create “Do It Together” opportunities. Bring residents together to foster bridging capital and social cohesion through common projects. Welcoming Week can be a great time to host an event in partnership with arts, education, and community partners. It’s an opportunity to bring people together through the arts, sports, volunteering, or myriad other ways that provide a chance for neighbors to find common ground.

    April 20, 2017. Atlanta, GA. Afternoon sessions of Welcoming Interactive 2017. Photo by Michael A. Schwarz

  3. Build a community-wide Welcoming agenda. To date, dozens of communities have created their own Welcoming plans, bringing together different sectors—government, business, community, faith, etc., along with diverse residents—to create a vision and plan for inclusion and equity. Use the Welcoming Standard as a roadmap to help chart your course.
  4. Institutionalize efforts in local government. As municipalities play a more active role, a growing trend has been the creation of offices or staff positions dedicated to fostering a welcoming environment, with more than 40 offices and many more staff leading this work around the country. Welcoming America’s Welcoming Network is a resource for those looking to establish this infrastructure, or connect with hundreds of peers leading similar work inside and outside of local government.
  5. Become Certified Welcoming. Certification is a resource for those who want to be recognized for their achievements and audited for their results in order to support continuous learning and improvement. The Seal of Certification can also be used to promote your city or county as an inclusive place for trade, tourism, and investment.

Lancaster, Pennsylvania became Certified Welcoming in 2019 through the support of more than two dozen local organizations, including the financial support of the Lancaster County Community Foundation. “This is about building a welcoming community for everybody,” said Mayor Danene Sorace, who noted that the certification has the potential to make the city eligible for other grant opportunities.

Today, Welcoming communities around the country—and increasingly, globally—are demonstrating that our communities work best when everyone who lives in them feels like they belong and can contribute at their greatest potential. And at a time of growing political division and “othering,” they remind the American public of the values and pragmatism that make for stronger communities for everyone.

Rachel Peric is Executive Director of Welcoming America.

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