A momentous shift is taking place in America’s former industrial heartland. The former powerhouse now known as the Rust Belt – stretching across Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin – suffered a disastrous economic and population collapse in the past decades as manufacturing jobs dried up or moved abroad. Today, however, Rust Belt cities such as Indianapolis, Colombus and especially Dayton, Ohio, are reinventing themselves as the places to be for new immigrants to the USA.
Between 2009 and 2014, the foreign-born population in Dayton jumped by an astonishing 62%. That is due in part to a pioneering city programme designed to integrate new Americans. Called ‘Welcome Dayton – Immigrant-Friendly City’, the scheme originated in concerns about housing discrimination and has gone on to win national awards for its imagination and effectiveness.
At a time when the national debate about immigration has become increasingly tense – and leading presidential candidate Donald Trump has advocated mass deportations – Dayton has continued to create its own on-the-ground solutions far beneath the high-level storms. Ohio is also one of the states where Republican voters did not choose Trump, selecting Ohio governor John Kasich instead.
The scheme combines legislation with practical support and, most strikingly, a unique use of storytelling. The legislation means that police do not ask victims or witnesses of crimes about their immigration status, nor do they arrest motorists for a first-time offence of driving without a licence. Previously, a traffic infringement could lead to arrest, jail and deportation.
The practical support includes finding equivalences for professional qualifications and developing language skills. The storytelling will be explained below. And to foster integration the scheme has also inaugurated a ‘World Soccer Games’, featuring teams from China, Mexico and ‘Africa United’.
This programme is run by Melissa Bertolo, a born-and-bred Daytonian who moved back from New Mexico in 2012 to become the scheme’s first employee. As well as giving Apolitical her top insights on how to engage a community (see bottom), she spoke to us about overcoming xenophobia, getting high-school students to eat lunch together and how the changes to her city sketch the shape of America’s future.
Where did ‘Welcome Dayton’ come from?
It grew out of civil rights work being done at the Human Relations Council, which found that immigrants and refugees were being discriminated against in housing. With the increase in foreign-born residents and housing discrimination occurring, we really wanted to ensure that our community was being treated fairly and had equitable access to services.
We’d noticed the increase in our foreign-born population and that, oh my gosh, immigrants are stabilising neighbourhoods, buying homes and renovating them, opening new businesses. This is incredible for a city that has had population decline for the past 50 years. The population decline has stabilised but in 1990 it was 182,000 and now we’re at 143,000. It used to be, back in the 60s, when we were at our peak, 252,000.
How did you reach out to native-born residents?
We had community conversations about becoming intentionally immigrant-friendly. What would that mean, what would your fears and hesitancies be – and that’s an important question to have out there, because people are fearful and tentative. And if they don’t have the opportunity to voice that, it doesn’t ever go away. At the time we had very anti-immigrant legislation coming in in other states. Arizona had a ‘show me your papers’ type law.
Aside from the legislative and educational elements, how do you try to integrate newcomers?
We’ve found that storytelling and personal connections are incredibly important. People who personally know an immigrant or a refugee have more welcoming attitudes. So any time that we’re able to make that personal connection, it’s an incredibly valuable tool to change the perception of who immigrants are.
How does that work in practice?
One of the projects is at a local high school, Belmont, that unfortunately has some inter-ethnic tension. And it’s a high school, right? It’s not always the best place to be. So we’ve created this programme with equal numbers of native-born American and foreign-born students. And they’re paired as cultural collaborators. We were very intentional in not calling it mentorship because we wanted it to be mutual learning.
The first project they did was a ropes course just to build trust and get to know each other a bit more. The second was to host the dignitaries for a school event. Then they got to see the dress rehearsal for the Nutcracker, by our local Dayton ballet and Dayton philharmonic, who perform it annually.
It sounds like a nice time, but how does it integrate people into the community?
It’s really all about building relationships. For me, the biggest measure of success is that they’re eating lunch together of their own accord. They have truly become friends through this programme. And the way for high school students to feel welcome and to be included and to truly be integrated into America is by having American friends. And for Americans to really understand why people are immigrating and to value that cultural diversity, they have to have friends from somewhere else.
You tell immigrants’ stories on a dedicated website and also at ‘Voices’ events hosted by schools, churches and other associations. What’s the purpose of those?
Again, it’s: how do we teach people to value different cultures? A lot of it comes simply through exposure and getting to know someone else. So the basic premise of Voices is that we have a panel of people to share their stories, because that’s how we change hearts and minds, through personal experience.
What has the response been to the Voices events?
It’s wonderful. It’s one of my favourite things to do. We’ll typically break for food and have small group conversations for people to talk. One of the things we always talk about is that migration is a human experience, it’s not just crossing political borders. We all have a migration story, even if it’s just moving two blocks away – which can still have a profound impact on the way you see your life – and that’s one of the things that comes up. People say: my gosh, I moved two blocks and wow, we have so much in common. I find that people respond very, very well.
What’s been the main difficulty?
One of the challenges is that we have a strong history of segregation in the city. Our river divides the city into east and west, with west being predominantly African-American and east being predominantly white. And that has profound impact. One challenge in particular is people asking: I’ve never felt welcomed in my own community, so why are we welcoming others now?
And in general, given where new residents are settling and where economic growth is happening, compared with the racial disparity, we have to look at what we’re doing to make sure the entire city is being lifted up, and not just certain segments.
How do you measure the programme’s success generally?
One is the naturalisation rate – people becoming US citizens – and we also look at ‘warmth of welcome’: media reports, how they’re portraying immigrants, what language they’re using. We haven’t evaluated the metrics yet, but in general, anecdotally, we’re doing pretty well. For example, the Dayton Business Journal, a local newspaper, ran a series profiling immigrant entrepreneurs, and that’s on their own that they did that.
Dayton has become a national leader in integration; why is it happening here?
I ask myself that a lot. I’m from Dayton – I was born and raised here. And I think part of it is to do with our economic and population decline, so we’re looking for innovative strategies to revitalise ourselves. I think you’ll find that across the Rust Belt, there’s a lot of cities actively involved. We have to recreate who we are. And in doing that there’s a whole lot of times where you have to change from what you’ve known in the past.
How do you think the present debate about immigration connects with America’s history, in which almost everyone has come from somewhere else?
If we’re really honest with ourselves in the US, we don’t actually have a great history of being welcoming. We’ve always been exclusionary. I think we feed ourselves a myth that we’re this great big melting pot, but when you look at the policies and practices we’ve had, we haven’t had a great track record. We hold up this value in the United States – that’s who we are as Americans – and I think now we really have an opportunity to act on that American value.
You’re a Daytonian yourself. How do you feel about the way your city is changing?
It’s such a different place from when I was growing up, and I love that aspect. There’s economic growth now and it’s such an exciting place to be. There’s a lot more diversity now. There are a couple of neighbourhoods that have really transformed – one in particular was known as a white Appalachian neighbourhood and now it’s one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in Dayton – African-American, Latino, Turkish, Iraqi. And they actually hosted an “Appalatin” dinner, it’s things like that that make me love it.
Top insights on community engagement:
- Let people express their fears. If you don’t give the community a platform to say why they’re worried about your programme, those worries will fester. After the community conversations in Dayton, when the Welcome programme was debated in City Hall, the only people who spoke against it were from out of town.
- Personal connections are everything. Abstract concepts – such as ‘migrants’ or ‘immigration’ – can easily be politicised or turned into objects of mistrust. Nothing overcomes that more simply than getting to know the people behind the headlines. For the city, that means lots of legwork bringing people into contact.
- Storytelling is incredibly powerful. When people hear the human stories that individualise a wider phenomenon, it engages their empathy and leads them to find comparisons with themselves. It also brings home in a way that nothing else can what these issues are really about. And as Bertolo says, we all have a migration story of our own.
- Welcome Dayton is part of the Welcoming America network
(Picture credit: Flickr/David Wilson)