Monday, April 15, 2024



For immigrants, civic engagement is essential to success

Artist Betsy Casañas’ mural "Sing Because it is Heard" in Mantua. January 2, 2018 Category: FeaturedLongMethod


This is a guest post by Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians' director of community engagement, Manuel Portillo.
For more than 20 years, I have been working in civic and community engagement in Philadelphia.

This experience has taught me much, but I want to share one critical lesson: For immigrants, civic engagement is more than an appendix to electoral politics and voting. It implies the participation of people creating change and improving the life of the community.

Civic participation is essential to success for immigrants

For newly arrived immigrants in our city, civic participation is an important success strategy. Participating in their new environment is often the only way immigrants have to get to know new people and develop the trusting relationships they need to access economic opportunities. Participation can also help them build language skills, advance the acculturation process and develop a sense of belonging in the city.

Non-immigrants don’t realize that this process is crucial. They don’t have to acculturate, and because of their relative familiarity with the city, they don’t always think in strategic ways about relationship-building and the sense of power that can and does result from those relationships. Attending networking events where people chit-chat over beer or wine, I have seen how networking has lost its meaning, becoming a cliché word that people use so casually.

For immigrants though, networking is a make-it-or-break-it kind of thing. In fact, their entire well-being depends on it. Because of the many barriers they face, building social capital goes above and beyond purely developing the instrumental relationships that can lead to a job. Networking then is a truly fundamental, life-building process that is better explained in civic participation and engagement terms than in the common and often useless lingo of social mingling.

When immigrants arrive in our city, they face overwhelming odds.

When immigrants arrive in our city, they face overwhelming odds. Unemployed or underemployed, lacking familiarity with a new culture, dealing with the hardship or trauma of their migration experience, and without the affective relationships that gave meaning to their lives, they can easily feel adrift.

No matter how or why immigrants come to Philadelphia, they often go through considerable life changes, feeling segregated into small semi-hermetic communities with limited opportunities for development. Just think of the strident anti-immigrant discourse we hear too often these days, that the media then reproduces — we have a situation where we can easily dismiss the unique talents, skills, wealth of knowledge and creative power immigrants bring with them.

From our Partners

How can we ensure that all of the good that immigrants bring and represent not go to waste and instead make it a great opportunity to strengthen the economic, cultural and social life of our city? At the Welcoming Center, we believe meeting this challenge requires developing creative strategies to accelerate immigrant integration, starting with engaging immigrants to realize their full potential.

Engagement is a deeply emotional process

In my years working as a community organizer, I learned that engagement is a deeply emotional process.  My work was about addressing local issues.  I saw how entire communities were dramatically affected by poor public safety strategies, or the lack of quality education, and how the city treated neighborhoods differently. Communities were having difficulty becoming organized and developing the power they needed to safeguard their values and everything that was important to them in the face of a non-responsive municipal government.

In the power struggles that typify our city, anger was a reflection that people knew best what was afflicting them, and therefore, they must have a say in the policy decisions that affected their lives. Organizers worked on developing solutions that were often found in people’s values and resources.

As an organizer, I knew well that because people are engaged through common values and emotion, rather than issues, we organizers had to create opportunities where people could put those values, their deep faith in God, and their cultural identity into action.  Now that I work more fully with immigrants, I know that engaging immigrants to join the decision-making processes in our city and country is nothing different than what non-immigrants experience when addressing local issues.

Civic engagement with immigrants does demand a comprehensive approach.

Civic engagement with immigrants does demand, however, a comprehensive approach. That approach includes meeting their immediate needs, but also requires an effort to help them build leadership skills, and to acknowledge the core emotions that motivate them, to navigate through the complex array of barriers they face, and to contribute their talents and vision for a more inclusive and participatory democracy.

This is rather a simple idea, but one that can be easily lost when we erroneously think what’s most important is to mobilize people around the issues we care about. Sometimes we don’t take the time to think carefully about the how because we maybe too preoccupied with the what. Many service providers are too consumed trying to produce numbers, outputs and outcomes, without the opportunity to think about how they think. Community engagement requires introspection and a constant effort to avoid falling for short-cuts that can make work “easier,” but perhaps produce false outcomes.

So if emotions are a powerful source of motivation, and that “fire in the belly” can lead to action, how does this emotional experience help inform the work we do?

Reflective practice at Welcoming Center

Our work on civic engagement and participation grew out of the lessons we learned through the International Professionals Program, which is a program designed to help foreign trained professionals with college degrees from their home countries, to connect to professional employment in Philadelphia.

We started the program three years ago by conducting individualized assessments to learn about the participants’ needs. During the initial screening interviews, we saw many of them break down in tears as they shared their stories and their feelings of loss, feeling unrecognized and unappreciated, and feeling profoundly disillusioned with the lack of understanding they found in the city. Many found themselves unemployed or underemployed, working in low-paying jobs and seeing their talents and skills go to waste.

International Professionals Program. (Photo via Facebook)

Realizing that their current reality did not match their original expectations was often a devastating blow. Many of them entered a sort of identity crisis that had a deep impact on their emotional wellbeing.

Listening to their stories, we realized that work-readiness and acculturation training alone was not a sufficient response to their needs. We needed to develop opportunities for them to meet and support each other, as they rebuild their lives in Philadelphia. We needed to engage with them in a deeper dialogue and reflect together about how to meet the challenges and how to help others experiencing the same situation.

We created a Participant Advisory Council as an effort to incorporate their observations and ideas into our work. The decision to listen and learn from the participants proved very helpful in better understanding issues of engagement, civic participation, opportunities to give back to the community, and also to remain engaged after finding professional employment.

Going a step further by launching Citizenship in Action

While we continue supporting immigrant professionals, this year we were able to move forward our civic engagement initiatives.  With help from a grant by the Knight Foundation, we started the Citizenship in Action Program, designed to study the barriers to naturalization such as cost, information and trust, and to devise strategies that can help increase citizenship applications and civic engagement among new Americans.

The Immigrant Leadership Institute is a key strategy in this project. The institute helps participants learn new leadership skills they can use to help their communities, meet the challenge of acculturation, gain access to resources, and strengthen their role in the city as community leaders.

We cannot wait until somebody becomes a new American to start working on their civic engagement.

As an immigrant myself, I feel my role promoting civic participation is about creating the spaces where we can come together in recognition of our common humanity and in honor of our constitutional rights and responsibilities.

But we cannot wait until somebody becomes a new American to start working on their civic engagement.  Furthermore, the naturalization process itself demands that those applying for citizenship be fully informed and be fully engaged throughout the application process.

Immigrants can be strong leaders in our city. The receiving communities, including nonprofit organizations, corporate business, the philanthropic sector and government, can help foster networks of collaboration across different ethnic identities and stakeholder sectors. Community leaders, if they are good, will be good for everybody in the city, not just for their own ethnic communities.

Moving forward into the new year 

A huge challenge to tackle is the pervasive levels of poverty and inequality we see in our city, a problem we can only address together.

The new year will certainly demand much of our creative power. During the last 22 years I have spent in Philadelphia, I have seen many positive changes. Our city has been recovering from the damaging population declines of recent decades. Even our state has now become the fifth largest state in the country thanks to a refreshing influx of immigrants. We have a city that is friendlier to immigrants and a mayor who is a champion of immigration. Immigrants are creating the vast majority of new businesses and becoming a true force in our economic recovery and well-being.

Let the new year be an opportunity to engage everyone in the city to figure out our common future and well-being.


Immigrant Leadership Institute

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