Case: Making Cities Welcoming to All Migrants.
Faced by a toxic and fearful sentiment against immigrants in Nashville in 2006, social entrepreneur David Lubell supported community and public leaders to change course and become a truly welcoming city. Welcoming America and Welcoming International emerged from this experience, providing support today to more than 300 city governments and their community leaders in eight countries on their way to operationalize a shared vision to welcome all types of immigrants.
This is the blog version of Cities and Social Entrepreneurs: A Playbook for Catalytic Change that I wrote in collaboration with Manmeet Mehta and David Lubell, published by Ashoka and Catalyst 2030.
Here is what happened in three Acts.
Act I — The Nashville Prototype
As the community rallied around the vision of “Welcoming”, it proved a practical recipe to overcome and deter anti-immigrant sentiment.
In 2006–7 it looked like Nashville, Tennessee, was at a crossroads. The Metro Council, the local government of Nashville City & County, had passed a bill to put English-language communication first and banned all official government communications in other languages. It looked like the city was turning against its immigrant community and their needs. Aligned with a broad coalition of business, faith and community leaders, Mayor Bill Purcell vetoed the adoption of the bill.
At the time, David Lubell was the executive director of the Immigrant Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC) which he had founded in 2002. He asked himself how to overcome the toxic atmosphere against immigrants in Nashville, the root cause that seemed to divide the community to the point where the ‘English First Bill” got passed. In his diagnostic, many residents in the city were fearful of newcomers, far from welcoming. What was needed was a culture change, brought about by changing the messages people would hear about immigrants. To achieve this, he helped build a coalition of over five hundred people that was committed to non-adversarial tactics, instead seeking dialogue with US born Tennesseans. They found community leaders who would speak up on behalf of immigrants, and bring immigrants and long-term residents together to build empathy and respect. The idea of building a Welcoming Nashville in a Welcoming Tennessee took hold.
By 2008, just two days after the inauguration of Barack Obama as the president, the referendum on “English Only” — no translation or interpretation would have been allowed for the municipal government, only services in English — was rejected by a large majority of residents. In 2009, Nashville installed the Mayor’s New Americans Advisory Board, followed in 2012 the MyCity Academy to help immigrants engage with, and participate in city government. In 2014, the Mayor’s Office of New Americans was created. By then, the city website was optimized to operate in ninety languages and the city had active outreach to the immigrant community offering internships, jobs and mentoring in city hall.
David describes the journey Nashville took as the prototyping of the Welcoming Process, developed in an acute crisis of community relations. Not knowing what would work, the coalition relied on being upfront in not pretending to know the answers, but with a strong belief that a non-confrontational approach could heal divisions. What emerged was a process anchored through community leaders with good reputation in the community, but also ties into the city council.
Over the course of two years, the movement succeeded in creating an environment in which political leaders felt safe to openly embrace the idea of becoming a welcoming community. As the formula began to emerge, Welcoming America was spun out of the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Coalition to support other cities in becoming Welcoming.
Act I — Take Aways
“You don’t have to have a solution to take on a problem. Offering your commitment and connecting with others who can move things in the community can be a start.”
“A commitment to non-adversarial tactics is a powerful principle in movement building that helps broaden your alliance over time.”
“Be mindful of allowing for different speeds and journeys to your cause by different stakeholders. It may be wise to wait, for example, for political commitments until there is a safe environment.”
Act II — The World
Taking the model national — and global, adhering to the principle of local leadership.
As the culture change in Nashville got traction, the Welcoming America network grew to 122 municipalities and 144 non-profits in the U.S. alone, collaborating on their journey to heal divisions, change mindsets and implement tangible policies to support the integration of immigrants. In 2017, the Welcoming International Initiative started to work with national partner organizations outside the U.S. to support non-profit and government partners to replicate and tailor the approach to their regional needs. As of 2021, forty cities in Germany, sixty-five in Australia, fifteen in New Zealand, 14 in the U.K. as well as cities in Spain, Mexico and Canada have signed up to the city network of Welcoming International partners.
David explains that cities initially came to join the network for a variety of reasons. In some cases, a local business or community leader with good ties to the municipal government will lead the initiative. Welcoming America actively looks out for such leaders, invests in them, and provides support to them. In other cases a city Mayor takes the lead, as was the case when Mayor Karim Reed of Atlanta decided to make Atlanta a welcoming city. Welcoming America will proactively look for both community leaders to build alliances as well as leaders in government, the intrapreneurs, who share their vision and values. This approach is of particular value when Mayor’s transition, as happened in Atlanta, where the new Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms continued and strengthened the Welcoming program.
Ze Min Xiao is a case in point. She connected to Welcoming America in 2015 in her position as community innovation manager in Salt Lake County, Utah. An immigrant herself, she had already applied innovative approaches to help refugees, in particular women, become part of the community and economy of Salt Lake County for fifteen years. She saw how time-limited government interventions left many refugees stranded in a cycle of inter-generational poverty and frustration. She liked that Welcoming America didn’t separate between immigrant types, but insisted on cities becoming welcoming to all. It resonated with her experience of the pitfalls of communication that elevates particular groups like refugees, often at the expense of others. The Welcoming America network helped her build momentum to expand the work. She soon got the Mayor to sign on to strengthen their efforts to bring people together and shift the focus on talking about New Americans. A grant from Welcoming America helped her publish reports in particular on the economic contributions of New Americans, in part to shift the old narrative from “immigrants are more affordable labor” to the full diversity of skills and contributions. In 2016, she was appointed the first Director of the Mayor’s Office of New Americans.
The first Welcoming America initiatives focused exclusively on culture change, but municipal governments like that of Dayton, Ohio, who in 2011 launched the Welcome Dayton initiative that focused on changing the policies of Dayton in order to make it the “most welcoming city in the midwest,” inspired a change in the organization’s theory of change. Instead of focusing on culture change alone, the network began to emphasize the importance of policy change also. As in Nashville, cities should implement tangible measures that made public services more accessible to immigrants, improving their experience. This meant that the work of becoming a Welcoming City could be housed in government, opening up new sources of funding beyond grants from foundations and making the programs more sustainable in the longer term.
In this period of rapid growth, Welcoming learned how critical it was to have full alignment on values with new member cities and their local leaders. In some cases, cities didn’t want to be welcoming to all (a principle of Welcoming America), but be open to particular groups like successful entrepreneurs or high-skilled people. As a result, the team had to learn to say no, or even end relationships where values didn’t align to protect and maintain the shared vision of the network. The second learning in this period was to find effective, trusted and passionate local champions. David explains that credibility comes from a combination of sharing Welcoming’s values, strong ties and influence in a key community like business leaders or faith groups, and good access to leaders in the municipal government. Welcoming developed a more robust screening process to invest in the right leaders. David also points out how important it became to show a real ‘win-win’ proposition for everyone, people on all sides of the issue. In Nashville, business leaders from global companies in the city became an important lobby for improvements to remain attractive to their diverse workforce, an experience echoed by business leaders in Salt Lake City. A Welcoming City leads to better staff retention, a higher willingness of sought after talent to consider offers in the location, as well as the reputational value to employees and customers of being associated with operating in communities that are open and friendly to all.
Act II — Take-aways
“Despite the nuances, maintain a strong compass for the values that underpin your work as well as the ways in which you can measure actual progress. After initial growth, new skills like learning to say ‘no’ may be critical to achieve real change.”
“Listen for the nuances in motivations people and organizations have to join your cause and work these to everyone’s advantage, e.g. through communications.”
“Understand your role in helping community changemakers like Ze Min Xiao succeed on their journey for change.”
Act III — Standards
Using common operational standards and certification to sustain the global Welcoming vision.
Over time, a variety of new challenges emerged in the Welcoming network. The alignment of values remained important to deliver not just political optics of being labelled Welcoming, but to achieve the kind of positive impact that is felt by all immigrants. Some communities also struggled to mobilize the resources to implement their Welcoming journey. Welcoming responded through operational improvements to formalize its research process before investing in communities, such as screening for the ability of partners to raise funding and pull other resources together. Welcoming also developed clearer selection criteria, backed by more explicit membership agreements.
In parallel, Welcoming undertook a more transformative effort to develop a common standard for U.S. cities in 2017. The goal was that a standard would provide both quality control across the network, but also provide direction to the community. The process of developing the standard involved the whole network, members of the public and experts. The standard measures themes like government leadership, equitable access to public services and information, civic engagement activities, access to education, economic development and safety. Welcoming America provides certification across the U.S., by offering a simple application for municipalities followed by a self-reporting stage and in-person audit by Welcoming America staff at a cost of $12,000.
Salt Lake County became the first county in the U.S. to be certified Welcoming in 2018, an important source of momentum for Ze Min Xiao’s efforts to institutionalize improvements to the experience of New Americans in her community. For Salt Lake, certification brought prestige and pride in collaboration, as well as attracting new partners and funding for work to support New Americans. It also provided direction for further efforts, by highlighting areas for future improvements.
In Dallas, certified in 2017, the process paid tangible benefits during the Covid-19 outbreak. To prepare for certification, the city had strengthened its community outreach to the city’s 24% foreign-born population, under the auspices of an 85 member Welcoming task force. During the pandemic, these collaborations and information tools proved invaluable to work closely with immigrant communities.
Internationally, Welcoming programs in different countries are developing their own standards to capture regional priorities. As the network began to operate at scale, new challenges emerged that led to Welcoming America sharpening its definitions and operations with a view to maintaining quality and providing direction to the community. This included a more structured selection process for partners, as well as a tightening of partnership terms.
A major step was to develop a common standard and certification process that provides communities a detailed set of expectations to meet, as well as an independent validation. Instead of directing the community to live up to the vision of the Welcoming America organization, the standard was co-created by the entire Welcoming community, with the help of experts and contributions from a variety of activists. Taken together, Welcoming has adhered to a clear vision and set of values whilst resisting the desire to be overly controlling, tightening the operational and standards carefully in sync with the maturity and experience of the partner cities. And now this idea of a Welcoming Standard has spread to countries all over the world through the work of Welcoming International’s member organizations, who have adapted the standard to be relevant to their national contexts.
Act III — Take-Aways
“Work with your movement to develop common standards and values. Note that whilst adhering to common principles like “Welcoming everyone”, these can be quite different across countries or regions.”
“Such standards should not just capture the minimum, but provide direction to what good looks like. Allow for the time, and expert input, to do this well.”
“Keep questioning how you can best balance your desire to control things with your trust in the different parts of your movement to do the right things. Trying to achieve impact by force can lead to rejection, but a lack of rules is also unlikely to yield any impact.”