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"Where Do We Go From Here?"

September/October 1993 issue of Poverty & Race

by Julie Quiroz

Changing Relations is a breath of fresh air at a time when the media, Congress, and the Administration - egged on by a small group of racist xenophobes - are falling over themselves to proclaim their opposition to immigrants and refugees. At a minimum, the findings help remove "intergroup tensions" from the ever-growing list of social and economic problems that Americans are blaming on immigrants. Changing Relations concludes, after years of careful observations in eight different communities, that diversity is an opportunity, not a threat.

Nonetheless, Changing Relations recognizes that even opportunities present challenges. "Immigration has changed the racial and ethnic composition of community authority and power,? they find, and added "new complexity to inequality." While immigration by itself does not create class distinctions between race and ethnic groups, "it can add to and sometimes exacerbate them."

The Community Innovations Project

The National Immigration Forum began its Community Innovation project in response to these challenges. Community Innovations is a year-long effort to find out what we and others should do to address intergroup dynamics in high-immigration communities. Like the Changing Relations researchers, we believed that "it is not enough to simply try to negotiate group differences" and that "common projects should address community conditions, such as housing, education, and recreation." The question for us was, how?

We decided to start by seeking out "common projects" in communities in Washington, DC, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago. Our goal was to find out: (1) where immigrants and non-immigrants are joining forces in community action, (2) what issues and strategies such action involves, and (3) what these issues and strategies mean for other communities and for the development of programs and policies.

Promising Community Initiatives

Although we are only half-way through the project, we have discovered a variety of different community initiatives in which both immigrants and non-immigrants are participating. These include:

A coalition in Chicago in which two neighboring communities - one predominantly African American and one pre-dominantly Latino - organized to work with young gangs to decrease violent crime.

A women's organization in Los Angeles in which Chicanas held meetings and focus groups with recent immigrant Latinas to develop plans for a multi-service women's housing project.

A tenants group in suburban Washington, DC, in which African American and Latino residents organized to secure quality affordable housing in their area.

A Los Angeles project - co-sponsored by a Korean organization and an African American/Latino organization - in which Asian, Latino, and African American youth developed a graffiti-removal service.

Overall, we are finding that a broad range of issues - including economic development, housing, youth, and education - bring immigrants and non-immigrants together in action. Most of the initiatives we have found are coalitions or organizations in one geographic community. Although most of these groups are not seeking intergroup harmony as their goal, the vast majority are grappling with intergroup issues in the context of their work. Most of the initiatives we are looking at are quite grassroots, and while most of the leaders are people of color, only a small number are recent immigrants themselves.

-Questions and Conclusions

Through our observations and discussions with these local initiatives, we are uncovering important questions regarding resources, policies, coalitions, and leadership development. For example:

Resources: How do foundation grants designed to address particular community issues serve to ease/disrupt the ability of groups to work together?

Policies: How do the policies and programs of city government departments (housing, community development, recreation, human relations, etc.) serve to ease/disrupt the ability of groups to work together? Can these policies and programs be evaluated in terms of their intergroup impact?

Coalitions: What are the specific issues and concerns of immigrants that multi-group initiatives and agendas need to address? What opportunities do immigrant-focused organizations have to build bridges with other groups and reduce anti-immigrant sentiment?

Leadership: What support do the leaders of these local initiatives need?

How can their individual leadership be transformed into larger local and federal leadership?

Community Innovations is also forcing us to think about a broad range of domestic social policies - such as community economic development, housing, and health care - that fall outside the traditional realm of "immi-gration issues." In short, we are coming to believe that federal social policy re-forms will not work without an under-standing of immigrants and their communities.

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