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Local Governments Reach Out to Newcomer Communities


Greg Keidan is program coordinator of the Institute for Local Government’s Collaborative Governance Initiative and can be reached at gkeidan@ca-ilg.org.


Many cities and counties in California and throughout the nation are taking steps to include the voices of immigrants and their families in civic participation efforts and to develop civic leadership in these communities. Two recent examples of civic participation that bridge cultural divides and address community issues illustrate these efforts.

A Bold Effort in Santa Clara County

Santa Clara County is hosting a series of "Bold Dialogues" during the spring and summer of 2008, in which participants chose their own topics for a facilitated roundtable discussion. The idea of the Building Opportunities for Lasting Dialogue (BOLD) initiative is to cut through the prejudice and misunderstanding that can divide people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds who live in Santa Clara County.

The first in a series of four planned dialogues focused on the experiences of Vietnamese immigrants in the community. A dozen residents, half with roots in Vietnam, gathered for three hours after work in April 2008 to share a meal and learn about each other. In May, a dialogue involving 25 high-school students addressed the needs of Latino and Asian youth in the community.

According to a county staff member, these small dialogues have a big effect in terms of improved community relations and understanding: "People go from being embarrassed because they don’t know what the process is to feeling empowered to be a part of their own city and county government. This effect ripples throughout the community. We are trying to help people realize that they have the access and ability to participate actively
in government."

The county Office of Human Relations also houses Immigrant Relations and Integration Services (IRIS), a countywide program that has assisted more than 100,000 residents with the citizenship process over the past 10 years. IRIS provides training to raise the cultural proficiency of local leaders and service providers and helps to develop a county policy for immigrant cultural proficiency. For more information, visit www.sccgov.org/portal/site/ohr and click the "Immigrant Relations and Immigration Services" link on the left side of the page.

Lodi Reaches Out to Residents

The City of Lodi is home to a diverse population of 65,000 people, including many Latino and Pakistani immigrants and their families. When the FBI announced that it had discovered a terrorist cell in Lodi in June 2005, the resulting flurry of media attention and threats spurred city officials to work on establishing lines of communication with the formerly isolated 5 percent of residents who were Pakistani.

"There was no plan for outreach, other than let’s try to start communicating," says City Manager Blair King, who worked with a group of young Pakistanis to create a cricket field in 2006 and soon was invited to a homemade dinner with 100 Pakistani men. This meeting was the beginning of an ongoing dialogue between city officials and this group of constituents.

When Lodi officials looked into designating an area of the city for redevelopment in 2007, they realized that many of their Pakistani residents lived there. The city decided to have a town meeting to explain redevelopment and gauge residents’ reaction. King knew that conventional outreach approaches would not draw Pakistani residents. With translation assistance from the Institute for Local Government (ILG), the city produced and hand-delivered outreach materials in English, Spanish and Urdu.

About 200 people attended the first redevelopment meeting in a club near the local mosque. ILG provided translation of the materials and simultaneous translation equipment so that residents could speak and listen in English, Spanish or Urdu.

Lodi has continued to include its Spanish- and Urdu-speaking residents in more than 25 public meetings on the redevelopment plan and process. The city is cultivating civic leaders from these ethnic communities through leadership classes sponsored by the chamber of commerce. And Lodi is working to hire Spanish- and Urdu-speaking staff to help provide services to all segments of the community.

"I hope that there is a sense of greater comfort for immigrants to communicate with city officials now that this line of communication has been opened," says King.

To share an example of a local inclusive civic engagement effort, read more examples and strategies related to immigrant inclusive civic engagement or get contact information for the people interviewed in this article, visit www.ca-cities.org/cgi or e-mail Greg Keidan at gkeidan@ca-ilg.org.