When David Lubell moved to Tennessee, he saw the immigration population grow quickly in the state in a matter of years.
"It doesn't take long to watch the news or listen to the radio and see there were people talking about immigrants and it was really negative," said Lubell, the former executive director and founder of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRCC). Lubell is now the executive director of Welcoming America.
Working closely with the immigrant community, he felt there was a huge gap in the conversation. He often heard of the "one bad apple of every 50,000."
"There's no one to tell the story of the majority who are contributing, who are working hard, to build a livelihood for their family and making their community better overall," he said. "It's a gap that happens whenever there's a new community who comes to town."
Historically, immigrants flocked to America's largest cities, among them Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. But as Lubell's experience attests, demographics are shifting in even the unlikeliest of places, such as Nashville, Boise, and Omaha.
These population changes have prompted some communities to screen our film Not In Our Town: Light in the Darkness. For example, groups in Newport, Ore. and Charleston, W.V. screened the film, partially to raise discussion about the area's growing Latino population. In Novato, Calif. the film was screened amid controversy over high-density affordable housing and legal status of employees.
Not In Our Town has partnered with Lubell's organization, Welcoming America. While at TIRRC, Lubell founded Welcoming Tennessee, which became the model for other welcoming campaigns and his organization. Welcoming America is a national, grassroots collaborative based on the premise that most Americans value their relationships with their neighbors. While many organizations work with immigrant populations, Welcoming America works with the communities that receive them.
Through their 19 affiliates across the U.S., Welcoming America aims to engage receiving communities, change perspectives on their new neighbors and provide alternate messages to the negative ones. Specifically, they support local leaders, communications and public engagement. Like Not In Our Town, Welcoming America Lubell believes that change occurs at the local level.
Online Action to Local Action
In addition to its affiliate work, Welcoming America has developed "Friends of Welcoming," an online platform that leads players through activities that will help make their community a more welcoming place. Players can participate individually, with a team or as an organization, and earn points and prizes.
For Rachel Steinhardt, who works on Friends of Welcoming, the online portal helps those who either want to start an affiliate or don't have one in their state. It's also a way for faith communities, classrooms and work places to get involved.
Welcoming America created Not In Our Town Actions that invite players to host a screening and watch one short Not In Our Town film, "Joselo's Journey, Part 1" and one Not In Our School film, "Embracing Differences." These story-based tools can be particularly powerful, Steinhardt said.
"I think that people really respond to personal story and experience," she said. "You're stepping into someone's life and experience pain first hand or seeing how kids are interacting."
As a whole, these actions on Friends of Welcoming are field-tested tools that can help communities get started. "It'll motivate them to make their community more welcoming, help motivate each other," Lubell said. "It's all there for you."