Empowering immigrant leaders: A model from Nashville

Last week I wrote about how critical immigrant populations have been to those cities where a decades-long population decline has slowed or, in some cases, reversed. But fully harnessing the power of immigrants to contribute to the culture and economy involves integrating them into the community. As I suggested last week, one needed approach is cultural—the approach of “being welcoming.” But there is also room for an approach that is structural. In walks the example of Nashville’s MyCity Academy (featured in a timely article from Citiscope).

MyCity Academy, which launched in 2012 and recently graduated its fifth class, helps immigrants understand how to interact with and use city services and participate in civic life. Graduating classes of about two-dozen foreign-born residents attend seminars on topics including public schools, criminal justice, police and fire services, libraries, and even water, trash, and recycling. Applicants to the program are selected on their leadership and their connections. Each participant commits to serving as a liaison for the immigrant community to which they belong, easing community isolation.

The Citiscope article includes interviews with a participant from Mexico who didn’t know that tap water here is safe to drink, an Ethiopian immigrant who hadn’t understood that citizens can interface directly with their elected officials on City Council, a Somali refugee who has since started a nonprofit to help immigrants start businesses, and a family engagement specialist in a school who now organizes family trips to libraries—correcting common misperceptions among immigrants that you that you have pay a fee or be a citizen to use the city’s public libraries.

The program, which costs just $50,000 and is paid for through corporate sponsorship, is a model of how building a bridge between our immigrant and native-born communities can unleash their strengths. And by so doing, build more vibrant cities for all of us.



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