CEDAR RAPIDS — “Diversity takes more than an open door,” said Molly Hilligoss, Midwest regional manager for Welcoming America.
It takes inviting diverse populations — especially immigrants and refugees — to step into conversations about housing, employment, the layers of government and other issues that will allow them to not only become part of their new communities but will prepare them to take on transformative leadership roles.
Hilligoss, based in La Crosse, Wis., traveled to Cedar Rapids for a panel discussion on “Welcoming Diverse Populations,” one of Friday’s final sessions in the two-day Iowa Ideas symposium in downtown Cedar Rapids.
“For everybody here, it all starts from us as individuals,” said panelist Rama Muzo, who emigrated from Tanzania nearly 20 years ago. He now is president of the Intercultural Center of Iowa and an intercultural specialist for the Cedar Rapids Community School District.
“If you’re a co-worker to somebody that you know is an immigrant, just treat them nice,” he said. “It makes a huge difference on them wanting to be there and even wanting to be in the community.
“As a community in general, I’m so pleased,” he said of Cedar Rapids. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, but I’m just happy we’re on the direction where we are heading.”
Patrick Taggart, regional director in the Iowa City office of Proteus Inc., a nonprofit serving migrant and seasonal farmworkers, pointed out the need for helping incoming workers find food, shelter and quality-of-life opportunities.
Then take it one step further, Muzo said, citing the example of teaching a person to fish, versus bringing that person a fish.
“At times we struggle figuring out which acts help, which acts hurt, even though the intention is helping,” Muzo said. “I think the best thing is for communities to recognize that those sustainable ways of helping will make more difference than those just immediate needs.”
Helping immigrants redefine “success” is one place to start, he said, noting that for people who come from refugee camps, success could be as simple as meeting basic needs.
But that isn’t enough to prepare them economically for their future or help them raise their children to be successful in this culture. Their mindset needs to be redirected, he said.
Bridging employment gaps is another huge hurdle, the panelists agreed.
Twenty years ago, Mazahir Salih came to Virginia from Sudan, where she was a civil engineer. But her credentials weren’t accepted by potential employers here, so she took a job as a cashier at a fast-food chain. She came to Iowa City in 2011 to further her education, and she and her husband and children stayed.
“The professional licensure issue is huge,” added John Stineman, executive director of the Iowa Chamber Alliance in Des Moines. “There are so many well-qualified individuals that come to the U.S. ready to do something — and can’t. They don’t just get knocked down a peg, they get knocked to the bottom of the ladder and have to climb their way back up and redo it, sometimes completely. That’s ridiculous.”
To fight for others in the workforce and her new community, Salih co-founded the Center for Worker Justice, and in 2018, became the first Sudanese-American elected to the Iowa City Council.
She said it’s not enough for employers to say they need to diversify their workforces and hire immigrants, they have to give those new workers the tools to succeed. Teach them the vocabulary and cultural ethos they’ll need and also educate their co-workers on how to break down barriers between them.
And community leaders need to invite immigrants to the table to give them a voice in addressing their needs.
“Don’t just advocate for them,” Salih said. “Empower them.”
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