Celebrate! Ten years of helping immigrants integrate into the United States

2020 marks 10 years that the Center for Immigrant Integration has highlighted promising initiatives across our network and communities around the United States. With 70 blogs and counting, the Center for Immigrant Integration demonstrates how communities create a way of life that is welcoming, diverse, inclusive and equal. We sat down with the mastermind behind the initiatives, Leya Speasmaker, integration program manager and field support coordinator, to learn more about her inspiration and hopes for the future. 

What prompted you to start highlighting initiatives around immigrant integration?
As a field support coordinator, I learned about integration initiatives that our affiliates offered in addition to legal immigration services. I wanted to highlight these so that others in the network could see program possibilities for their own locations. I also wanted to point out the different ways immigrant integration programming can take shape – it depends so much on local realities and the needs of the newcomer and receiving communities.

How do you think these initiatives make a positive impact in our network? Communities?
I hope these highlights serve as inspiration for what is possible. We have featured initiatives that range from simple to complex, those that need few resources to those that need extensive funding, and those that can work with one volunteer to those that need a handful of paid staff members. I also hope these highlights demonstrate that integration is a partnership between the newcomers and the receiving community and that everyone has a role to play.

How would you define successful integration?
Successful integration means that everyone living in a community feels included and is able to participate in activities, make use of public resources, and engage in decision-making activities. Integration does not mean that everyone has to be the best of friends. It does, however, mean that everyone feels respected for who he or she is, regardless of national origin.

What are some ways you have seen affiliates and organizations expand their integration efforts since starting these blogs?
I have seen growth in the understanding of the need for integration-related work versus a direct service-only model. Integration work is messy and often nonlinear. So it is a challenge to incorporate it into an agency’s program delivery model when there is need to produce outcomes. Successful integration is often hard to quantify. Increasingly however, programs are devoting time and resources to the work because of the direct impact it has on individuals’ lives.

What are some ways you have seen affiliates and organizations overcome barriers to successful integration? 
Many organizations involve all relevant stakeholders into their integration work. Both the newcomers and the receiving community decide together what the needs are, what can be done to address the needs, and how everyone can work together for a successful outcome.

What is one thing you wish everyone knew about immigrant integration?
The ordinary citizen has such power to make social change happen at the local level through engagement in integration work.

What is your favorite thing about immigrant integration?
Integration happens through interactions that occur in the places daily life is lived — the school, the place of worship, the library, and the public park. I love that integration work gives people the chance to meet their neighbors, learn more about others, and challenge themselves to be uncomfortable. I also like that a community can develop a program that directly addresses a stated need by a group of people. Integration work is flexible and fluid.

What is encouragement would you give to an organization or community that is in the beginning stages of promoting integration?
Ask people what they want and need. What would make their lives easier and better? What are their priorities? Design initiatives around these realities, versus making assumptions about what the community might need.

What are your goals in the next 10 years for these monthly highlights? 
It is important to me that people understand that immigrant integration is a partnership between newcomers and the receiving community. It is everyone’s responsibility to promote and encourage it, and it is a messy process. My goal is for programs to engage in planning efforts with local residents to design programs that bring neighbors together, united under a common desire to improve the daily life of all residents.