Detroit. Nashville. Los Angeles. Salt Lake City. Over the course of a whirlwind 10-day U.S. tour last spring, 25 German community leaders from Düsseldorf, Freiburg, Kreis Düren, Leipzig, and Münster learned firsthand about how American cities welcome and integrate immigrants and refugees as part of the Welcoming Communities Transatlantic Exchange (WCTE).
The visit was reciprocated later in the year, as 16 Americans from the aforementioned communities headed to Germany to learn firsthand about local approaches and challenges to reception and community integration.
For Stephanie Teatro, Co-Executive Director of the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition and part of a four-member team of professionals representing Nashville in the 2017 edition of the program, this U.S.-German exchange of information and ideas, has provided new inspiration and concrete strategies to implement at home.
As we prepare to kick off the 2018 WCTE program, Stephanie shared her experience with us.
In Her Own Words
The Welcoming Communities exchange was so incredibly valuable to my work in Tennessee. I was able to learn new approaches and strategies to both support refugee integration and to address tensions and anxiety within receiving communities in response to new waves of migration.
Nashville and Tennessee have one of the country’s fastest-growing immigrant populations. These quickly changing demographics have presented both opportunities and challenges. At first, many communities do not have the service infrastructure in place to meet the needs and support the successful integration of new immigrants. Similarly, many communities do not have the context to process these demographic shifts and are susceptible to far-right messages that increased immigration is something to be feared and stemmed.
In this context, Nashville and Tennessee have been on the frontlines of both anti-refugee and anti-immigrant movements, as well as some of the most innovative welcoming work in the country.
Showcasing Nashville’s Culture of Collaboration
We were so excited to host German practitioners from several communities in Nashville last May. During their three-day visit we hoped they would learn new models of collaboration, the importance of shifting culture and public narrative, and how to invest in the leadership and civic engagement of immigrant communities.
To highlight the innovative collaborations that have made integration in Nashville successful, we learned about initiatives between the Mayor’s Office, the public school system, and immigrant-serving organizations to identify and train “parent ambassadors,” more established immigrant parents who could connect with recently arrived parents to navigate the school system. We also visited Casa Azafran, a community center that is home to nine non-profits offering a diverse set of services and designed to be a one-stop shop for immigrant families.
We also created visits and panel discussions to show how we use arts and culture to transform our community. We learned how organizations are using traditional media, photography, documentary film, and other formats to tell the stories of immigrants. We took part in an initiative called “A Seat at the Table” that uses dinner parties to facilitate dialogue on race, religion, and migration. We even had a drumming lesson from the Global Education Center who uses arts and music to bring communities together.
We taught participants about initiatives like MyCity Academy, a program that trains immigrant leaders to be ambassadors between their communities and city government, about immigrant-led policy campaigns to improve the lives of immigrant families, about efforts to increase citizenship and voter registration, and the experience of immigrants running for office in Nashville.
We hope the German communities learned how powerful it can be when immigrants themselves are engaged in advancing integration and creating more welcoming and equitable communities.
Inspired by Germany’s Bold Vision
The Nashville team was eager to learn from German communities who had also recently experienced a much larger increase in migration. Through the exchange, we were able to learn how communities came together to offer critical services, promote integration, and bridge divides between migrants and receiving communities.
I was blown away at how bold of a vision the German government and communities had set for welcoming refugees. In community after community, we met leaders and organizations who responded to the arrival of thousands of new immigrants with a spirit of “anything is possible,” especially when it came to the challenge of securing housing. In each case, this bold vision was enabled by a huge amount of political will among civic leaders.
One of the most important perspective shifts I gained from this trip was thinking bigger and with a greater sense of possibility for my community.
— Mayor’s Office of New Americans (@MONA_Nashville) November 6, 2017
I was impressed and intrigued by the systemic responses that the German government and communities have created. The level of coordination and wrap-around services provided in local communities was really incredible. This was especially apparent in the systems designed for German language instruction. To create sufficient entry points and pipelines for migrants to quickly learn German, a robust system of language classes and certification was put in place in schools and adult education centers in every community we visited. More so than in the United States, learning German was the first and central focus for integration efforts.
Another perspective I gained from the program was of the diverse approaches to engaging receiving communities in the work of integration. Out of necessity, German communities responded to the influx of refugees by leveraging and aligning community resources and creating ways for receiving communities to offer strategic support and build relationships with refugees through volunteerism.
The team from Nashville identified several ways that a more intentional and scaled approach to volunteers could support integration services as well as deepen relationships and connections between communities.
We also picked up very concrete new ideas from the German communities we visited to support integration and build more welcoming communities. For example, the “welcome points” in Düsseldorf that created one-stop shops for immigrant communities to access resources, and the “welcome boxes” from Leipzig that offered new Leipzigers guides to the city, both to critical services and cultural activities.
The Nashville team also left Germany with new ideas for how to more directly engage receiving community members in “community consultations” at the neighborhood level where we could share about the refugee resettlement program and more directly address questions and concerns.
As a result of this experience, I am thinking bigger and bolder about transformative integration and the imperative to engage receiving communities in the process.