Finding Hope in Welcoming Communities

By: Rachel Peric

March 2, 2020

Finding Hope in Humanitarian Crisis

In 2008, Boise, Idaho, became the site of a pivotal experiment among community leaders to manage an emerging challenge—a growing backlash around the city’s resettlement of refugees. While Boise had a long history of incorporating people with refugee status and other immigrants, an economic downturn provoked concerns about how the community could incorporate new people while also caring for longer-term residents. It would have been easy to approach this challenge as a zero-sum endeavor, but Boise leaders, in their own words, chose to “meet scarcity with an attitude of abundance.” This resilient thinking helped them frame a better question: What can we do to increase our capacity to make migration and demographic change work better for everyone? Boise’s civic leaders turned outward to the community to involve them in this choice point, through a planning process that helped people across the community wrestle with the difficult questions and consider the role they could play in the solutions.

The outcome of this process was a living action plan for the city that identified ways to make life better for all Boise residents, whether they had recently arrived or lived in the community all their lives. By looking at issues of participation and access for newer refugee residents in particular, they were able to uncover barriers to participation that affected all residents—such as bus routes that bypassed major segments of the community—and work to remedy them. From shifts around public transportation that make it easier for all residents to get to work or take a child to the doctor, to creating better pathways to volunteering, utilizing one’s talents in the workforce, and discovering common values through shared projects that strengthen bonds among increasingly diverse neighbors, Boise has succeeded in creating a more inclusive community for all. This virtuous cycle has in turn boosted economic contributions and created a dynamic place for families, investors, and businesses who want to know that—no matter where they come from—they will feel at home. 

Today, a vision of Boise as a diverse, inclusive, and equitable city in which all residents have an equal voice is carried out by a collaborative of over 50 organizations called Neighbors United. Boise’s efforts earned it the first Certified Welcoming designation in the state, and its work makes it a positive role model for other communities grappling with similar challenges. Outgoing Mayor David Bieter identified the work as among his greatest legacies in his 16-year term as mayor.

This approach may sound unique in a time when many political leaders in the United States and globally are stoking fear and restricting migration through every channel possible. Yet, it is part of a trend of positive role models that is only growing. In fact, in the United States alone, more than 50 communities —large and small, rural and urban, Republic and Democratic-led—have developed similar plans, and leaders in more than 200 have committed themselves to the task of building more welcoming places. Cities like Dayton, Ohio, through its Welcome Dayton plan, have seen their economies rebound as a result of stemming population decline, while regions like northwest Arkansas, the Atlanta metro, and many others are better positioned to attract and retain talent, ensuring that young people of all backgrounds grow up hearing that they belong and have a place at the table as the next generation of leaders. 

On the other side of the globe, the City of Greater Bendigo, Australia faced their own choice point in 2013, when a planning application for the Bendigo Islamic Community Centre was met with opposition and became a divisive community issue. As with Boise, Greater Bendigo’s community leaders came together in a number of ways, including forming a community-driven effort to rally residents around a shared vision and set of approaches to improve inclusion and cohesion. The multi-faceted initiative is today laying strong foundations so all residents, regardless of cultural background, have equal opportunities to participate in the community free from discrimination and fulfill their cultural and religious human rights. Greater Bendigo has gone from conflict to cohesion, and is today reaping the benefits. 

The significance of these success stories is that they demonstrate—in an era of growing global migration and forced displacement—that it is possible to respond more resiliently by seeing migration not as a threat but as an opportunity to remove the barriers that stand in the way of participation and cooperation. It is possible to build an infrastructure for shared belonging and prosperity, one that addresses the tensions of “othering,” inequality, and zero-sum thinking that are operating on both sides of the migration equation—on the one hand, driving so many to flee, and on the other, creating the fuel for the rise of authoritarianism in the places where immigrants and refugees arrive. 

By addressing these tensions proactively and intentionally, we can create more cohesive societies that can better weather the formidable challenges of our era. At a time when some leaders are intentionally seeing fault lines of race, religion, and ethnicity as vulnerabilities to be exploited for political gain, others are taking the opposite path—one that recognizes that our greatest national security asset is our ability to cohere and reduce inequality for all in a time of rapid demographic change. Welcoming community leaders are inoculating their communities against dangerous narratives that pit people against one another and are replacing them with a sense of agency and possibility for a future in which all of us can belong and thrive.

They are also serving as proof points for our ideals, demonstrating that a thriving multi-ethnic democracy is not only possible but a superior business model. I can imagine no more singularly important ingredient for our ability to find hope in an era of so much suffering due to division and othering than the simple knowledge that an alternative not only exists but is being lived out every day, across the globe. Whether it can grow from being the exception to the rule is up to us.

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