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Building Social Infrastructure to Create Communities of Belonging: An Interview with Welcoming America

Cambriae Lee, Rachel Perić|February 22, 2023

We sat down with Executive Director of Welcoming America Rachel Perić to talk about her organization's work to help communities foster inclusion, belonging, and trust by building social infrastructure that enables stronger cooperation.

One of the five principles of constructive dialogue is to “Share your story and invite others to do the same.” Can you tell us the story of Welcoming America?

Welcoming America’s origin story begins with the work of grassroots leaders working in Tennessee to help their community navigate demographic change in a more constructive way by creating a welcoming place for both new and longtime residents amidst growing racial and ethnic diversity.

The local organizers of this project, Welcoming Tennessee, discovered that their efforts to bring residents together and underscore the values they shared were a powerful antidote to counter the dangerous narratives scapegoating immigrants. Over time, they also learned that individual transformation could set the stage for structural change. Policies and practices that reinforce a welcoming environment could enable all Tennesseans — including those with immigrant and non-immigrant backgrounds — to participate and belong.

From these community-driven efforts, and others taking shape around the country, Welcoming America was founded more than a decade ago to learn from, support, reinforce, and champion the leadership of communities building a more welcoming society, one in which everyone can thrive, belong, and prosper — including people with migrant backgrounds.

Today, we support a network of 300+ members across the country, and an alliance of global partners through our Welcoming International program. In a world in which more people are on the move than ever — and dangerous narratives continue to stoke fear of the “other” — we remain committed to supporting local leaders as they help their communities navigate demographic change in healthy and productive ways, enabling all of us to belong in the place we call home, no matter where we’ve come from.

We also remain inspired by the many people and places that have embraced a welcoming ethos over the last decade, and who are leading the way toward a more inclusive democracy and greater shared prosperity.

Can you share more about what it means to be a “Welcoming Community?”

For us, being welcoming is much more than being a friendly or peaceful place to live; truly welcoming places have intentional policies, practices, and norms that enable all who live there to thrive, and contribute fully, particularly the newest among us.

This is best captured in the Welcoming Standard, a set of seven framework areas that we believe define truly welcoming places: Government & Community Leadership, Equitable Access, Civic Engagement, Connected Communities, Education, Economic Development, and Safe Communities.

By fulfilling the criteria set out in the Welcoming Standard, communities that consider themselves welcoming can demonstrate more concretely how they’re living out those welcoming values.

Educational institutions are essential community pillars that bring together residents from all walks of life. Do you have any advice or resources to help education leaders build welcoming cultures that promote inclusion and belonging?

Before jumping into the ‘how,’ I want to step back to consider the ‘why.’ There are so many demands today on educational institutions that it can be easy to operate on autopilot without revisiting their purpose.

Educational institutions can and should be a driving force for shared knowledge and experience, as well as challenge us to harness our diversity and engage across our differences. This sense of purpose isn’t always explicit, and I think we need to make it explicit, especially given current efforts to politicize public education by framing diversity as a threat to it. To the contrary, education that helps us understand a multitude of perspectives in an increasingly diverse society is a baseline value for our democracy and for our economy.

It’s also what enables students to thrive. Research clearly shows that when a student experiences a sense of belonging in an educational setting, it propels them to learn and contribute at their highest potential. Given that one in four kids in the U.S. today is an immigrant or child of immigrants, creating a welcoming environment is an imperative if we want to see this next generation thrive.

With this in mind, there’s no shortage of resources for education leaders to get started in this work. In K-12 settings, organizations like Reimagining Migration, I’m Your Neighbor, and ImmSchools offer incredible resources. For universities, we look to efforts like Every Campus a Refuge, the NASH Refugee Resettlement Initiative and the Community College Consortium for Immigrant Education as partners to create welcoming environments on campuses.

At the core, these and other community-based efforts are reinforcing a narrative of belonging, finding ways to bring immigrant and non-immigrant students and faculty together to strengthen relationships of trust and mutual respect, and developing policies that enable every student and parent to participate fully in the classroom and community.

Why is fostering a culture open to diverse perspectives and people important for our democracy?

Democracy is about people power, a system of government that represents and serves all people. Throughout American history, we’ve wrestled, and still wrestle, with the question of how we define “we the people”, constraining this “we” on the basis of all sorts of absurd ideas of racial superiority or views on women.

If we want to truly live as a democracy in which all people are equal and treated with inherent dignity, we need to recognize that our birthplace, accent, how we pray, or who we love should not determine our inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

But saying we believe in equality and actually practicing it in our culture — let alone our policies — is where things get sticky. Human nature makes us susceptible to bias and fear. This is especially true during periods of significant change, as we are seeing now in the massive demographic, technological, and environmental changes we’re experiencing. When conflict entrepreneurs hijack these anxieties to pit us against one another, that undermines democratic norms and can lead to authoritarianism and even genocide.

This isn’t an inevitable outcome. We have the tools to inoculate ourselves and strengthen our democratic muscle. Many flow from instincts we already have: to be open and curious, to take care of neighbors, to be fair and observe the golden rule. Whether we apply these instincts only to those in our in-group, or are able to experience and practice applying them universally, is a key question for democratic societies to wrestle with.

This is why we need to practice pluralism, as hundreds of welcoming communities are doing every day. If we want to strengthen our democracy, we need to be focused on the practices that make it possible for all of us to belong in it by creating intentional ways for us to see our neighbors as “us” rather than “them,” by reducing structural barriers to participation, especially for those who have been left out or excluded, and by reinforcing our common values and a future in which we all belong.

I call these the three Ns: narratives, neighbors, and norms. We can weave them into what we’re doing. By doing so, our democracy will not only be healthier, but will produce the basics for people to want to value it as a system worth investing in.

What is one larger problem that your organization aims to address, and what is one small initiative that Welcoming America is currently doing to move the needle?

One larger challenge we are seeing is that a lot of communities want to create a welcoming environment, but lack the infrastructure to put values into practice.

I call it infrastructure, because we tend to think a lot about investing in physical infrastructure — roads, sewers, power supply — but we think less about the infrastructure that enables us to cooperate and function as a community: our social capital, our sense of agency and voice, our ability to access information, navigate and trust the institutions we interact with daily.

That infrastructure becomes more critical when new people arrive, because it challenges communities to ask themselves, how can we be a more welcoming community for everyone? How can we build trust between neighbors, encourage civic participation, and make sure we share critical information that’s understood and acted on by everyone?

These building blocks are the basis for the Welcoming Standard, which we developed with hundreds of stakeholders and experts to identify the basic practices and policies for communities to build what we call welcoming infrastructure. The Welcoming Standard underpins an initiative we run called Certified Welcoming. Cities and counties that opt into it are audited as communities against the Welcoming Standard and take action to shore up elements of their infrastructure.

We have standards for our physical infrastructure; why not for the key behaviors needed for an inclusive democracy?

How can people engage with your organization?

We have a robust digital presence with our publications, toolkits, and other resources to help individuals and institutions become more welcoming. Visiting our resource library, signing up for our email list, and following us on social media are the best ways to hear about them: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Annually, we host a conference called the Welcoming Interactive where welcomers from our member network and partners convene to share best practices and exchange the expertise and passion that comes with fostering more welcoming communities. This year, it’s taking place in San José, California. Anyone is welcome to join!

Finally, we encourage people to connect with us and their local communities during Welcoming Week. This takes place each September through events across the country and world, and it’s the perfect opportunity to get plugged in locally to deepen welcoming efforts in the place(s) they call home.


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