This guest post appears via an underwritten partnership with Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians. It was reviewed by Welcoming Center before publication.
At a time where it seems the immigrant fabric that is American society could unravel, hateful rhetoric pulling at its threads, I look to where I know change is possible — new leaders.
Over the past three years, through my work at the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, I have seen the potential for transformative change in our city. I have questioned my own assumptions about democracy and what it means to be inclusive. I see my hometown through new eyes and realize that the best solutions, the only solutions, are those that are constructed together.
After five months of intensive training to gain the skills, knowledge and tools necessary to engage in the civic life of our region, this past week, 25 new leaders graduated from our Immigrant Leadership Institute. This marked a milestone for Welcoming Center in our Citizenship in Action project as one of three cohorts to graduate this year.
These leaders stand poised and ready. Many of the participants have already begun action projects as part of this program, but a larger question looms:
How can we, as a city, engage these change makers?
Across the country, there is a concerted effort to increase the number of lawful permanent residents (LPRs) who apply for citizenship each year. In Philadelphia alone, there remain more than 40,000 individuals who could qualify and collectively they represent an increase of 3.1 percent to the citizen voting age population, if naturalized.
This is not an insignificant number and programs like Citizenship in Action, Take Action Philly and many other organizations are bringing people and resources to help accomplish this task. However, even with added capacity, the gap will continue to grow.
This is not the challenge.
If naturalization is the only answer, then the question we are asking is flawed. Necessary, but insufficient. To paint the full picture of the change that needs to happen, and who leads the charge, we must broaden our framework for civic participation and “citizenship.”
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For those who are eligible, becoming a U.S. citizen can open the door to many new economic and political opportunities. What about those for whom this is not yet, or may ever, be an option? Are they then excluded from the change-making process? Only if we choose to perpetuate a civic participation framework that seeks to foster change only through the political process.
Real change starts at the local level, with local solutions, by those ready to make it happen. It is not enough to ensure that everyone has “a seat at the table.” We must question, “Who is building the table?” and how can all communities be engaged to bring their respective toolboxes?
The challenge is to redefine civic participation.
Cities grow stronger when its residents are given the opportunity to engage. Thus, increasing the substantive participation of immigrant communities in decision-making processes is crucial for our collective wellbeing. When communities are engaged to not only define the solution, but to frame the problem, we advance towards equity.
Projects like the City’s Rebuild initiative represent an opportunity for neighborhood communities to engage around shaping the future of how public spaces and civic assets are valued at the local level. The greater learning opportunity, however, comes from building a framework for inclusive civic participation that moves the needle from community-shaped to community-driven.
We stand at a time where power dynamics are shifting, the local is shaping the national, and cities that thrive will do so because they have harnessed the innovative solutions being developed from the ground up. As Jeremy Nowak and Bruce Katz note in their book “The New Localism,” a greater responsibility then rests on cities to “grow new sets of leaders” to guide and align with this important shift. Citizenship in Action is only one small contribution to this effort.
So, I ask again: What will you do to engage these change makers?
Take action. The Citizenship in Action Project is about raising new voices, increasing social connectivity and bridging communities. So, how can you get involved?
- Broaden your notions about civic participation — Civic engagement is more than volunteering and voting — it’s shaping the dialogue. Make sure you’re doing your part to foster an inclusive process.
- Are you looking to empower your community by amplifying their voice? — Connect with a graduate of our Immigrant Leadership Institute and build a project together.
- Volunteer — Find an organization that could use your time, skills and experience to help someone register to vote, become a U.S. citizen or exercise their voice.
- Partner with the Welcoming Center and the Immigrant Leadership Institute — Join us as a presenter, a mentor or a trainer. Sponsor our participant-driven events or host us in your space.
- If you are in a position to hire, understand that immigrants and refugees are eager to support themselves and their families by applying their education, skills and work experience — Take time to understand the value of an immigrant’s credentials and promote diversity, equity and inclusion in your company.
- Meet new leaders — Invite Immigrant Leadership Institute participants to lead a discussion on immigration, leadership or civic engagement within your organization, with your staff or to your partners.
- Donate to an organization working with immigrants and refugees in your community — Financial support in these uncertain times is needed more than ever.
- Support media that tells the real, local stories of the people coming to the U.S., not echoing hateful national rhetoric.
- If you know someone eligible to naturalize, talk to them, and encourage them to apply — Even better, send them to one of our information and eligibility screening sessions.
- If you are an employer, one great way to support your workforce is to encourage citizenship and sponsor a naturalization clinic.
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