Fostering a Welcoming Community: A Q&A with Rachel Peric, Executive Director, Welcoming America

A photo of Rachel Peric, the Executive Director of Welcoming America. [1]

“Public will is what ensures that people belong,” said Rachel Peric, Executive Director of Welcoming America during an interview with WENR. (Photo by: Karen Torrino\MCAEL).

In 2012, Welcoming America [2], a national nonprofit organization dedicated to creating communities where refugees and immigrants have the opportunity to participate, thrive and belong, held its first-ever Welcoming Week. Over seven days, the campaign featured a few events that fostering inclusion and forging connections among communities, governments and nonprofits in a handful of towns and cities across the United States.

This month, the nonprofit marked the 10-year anniversary of Welcoming Week [3] with more than 450 events in the U.S. and across the globe under the theme of “Where We Belong.” From September 9th to September 18th, Welcoming America members, partners, sponsors and groups held community forums and discussions, art exhibitions, picnics and even citizenship naturalization ceremonies to celebrate and foster the spirit of inclusion.

In honor of the occasion, WENR sat down with Rachel Peric, Welcoming America’s executive director, to discuss the importance of inclusion in communities, and how government and local leaders can work together effectively to make immigrants feel more welcome.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

In your view, what does it mean for a community to be “welcoming”?

I’ll start from the personal and then go into the professional. My family came to the U.S. as refugees in the late 1940s because they believed that they could be free to live without fear of persecution here. At a very basic level, “welcoming” is something deeply personal to me because of my own family’s history of being welcomed here and finding safety, and then ultimately a feeling of belonging, here.

This is what we do at Welcoming America. It’s all about ensuring that no matter where we’ve come from, all of us can belong in the place that we call home. Creating a welcoming environment means not only making sure that people experience the ability to shape policy decisions that impact them, and benefit from those policies, but also to simply feel and experience that sense of belonging in their everyday interactions with their neighbors.

What are the challenges to creating a welcoming community?

It’s not easy. We know from research and our own work that during periods of fast demographic change, it’s easy for tensions to arise as new people arrive. People who have lived in a community all their lives naturally ask why their community is changing. There’s a very strong political playbook right now for deliberately scapegoating immigrants and refugees. That can create an environment that consistently sends a message to newcomers that they don’t belong. At the same time, a lot of communities really haven’t put in place what we call “welcoming infrastructure,” which gives them the capacity to adapt and make sure that people aren’t left out of the system, whether that means access to jobs or health care.

Based on your experience, how can these challenges be overcome?

The most important thing is to center our values and then work deliberately to put resources and public will towards moving closer to them. Public will is what ensures that people belong. Our network of welcoming communities strives toward getting all kinds of different groups in a community that aren’t traditionally involved in making people feel at home to become part of that work. That’s encapsulated by what we call the “welcoming standard,” which looks at different domains of equitable access and government leadership, building trust across the community as the pillars of what it takes to build a truly welcoming place.

How and where can communities begin to build that trust?

One important step is forming an office within local government that’s tuned into this and dedicated to making sure that immigrants and refugees have a role in shaping the decisions that impact them across all different areas of public services. That means they have the ability to participate in boards and commissions as leaders in the community.

When I started at Welcoming America, there were just a handful of these local offices, maybe seven or eight of them. Now there’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 or 60 of them and the number is growing all the time. Symbolically, it carries so much weight, too, when a mayor or council person says, “This is something that we want to put resources toward. We know that it’s important that we prioritize fostering trust with immigrant residents,” whether it’s part of a broader racial equality agenda or just because it’s the right thing to do.

What are some opportunities to reach out to refugees and immigrants that communities might overlook?

Communities work best when everyone feels valued and is able to contribute at their fullest. Language can be a real barrier to that. Having a community liaison who can bridge the language gap can be so important to somebody who is an entrepreneur and seeking to open a business, for example, or a parent in a school who wants to advocate for their child, who wants to raise their voice and say the child is getting the message that they don’t belong.

When somebody is new to a community, racism and xenophobia may exist, and the degradations they bring about are difficult to overcome without communication. Beyond that, the language barrier can prevent people from accessing each other, and the valuable assets that exist inherently in all of us, including immigrants, can get overlooked. A lot of the welcoming communities that we work with are trying to tap into that treasure in their communities through programs that support entrepreneurs.

The theme of this year’s Welcoming Week was “Where We Belong.” Why did you choose that theme, and what does it mean to you?

Ten years ago, Welcoming Week began against the backdrop of some harsh anti-immigrant laws that were emerging at a state level in the U.S. Over the past decade, it has blossomed into an annual campaign and celebration that showcases this movement of communities that are striving to be more welcoming places for everyone, including immigrants, all over the world. Outside the U.S., we saw events in Australia, New Zealand and Mexico, and that list will only grow. We’re just at the tip of the iceberg.

This year, we chose “Where We Belong” as our theme not only to reinforce the idea of belonging but also to challenge people to think about what shapes our feeling of where we belong. How can each of us play an active role in making our communities places where we all belong? It has been beautiful to see how communities have run with that idea in so many different ways by bringing people together around sports, the arts, food, and even naturalization ceremonies.

You seem very proud of what Welcoming America has achieved, and rightly so. How does it feel to see the Welcoming movement growing despite so much anti-immigrant and refugee politicization?

Thank you for that question. I do feel proud. I’m proud of our members. They’re the heart and soul of this work.

In a moment when our ability to stand as a democracy hinges on whether everyone is able to participate in it, and whether we’re able to withstand the political forces that try to pit us against each other, it’s really important that we get this right. It’s easy to open the newspaper and fixate on the negative stories of turning back migrants at the border, but what I get to see, and what I feel so proud of, especially during Welcoming Week, are the powerful values expressed by, and growing through, this movement over the last ten years. It restores your faith in humanity.

Lastly, what’s next for Welcoming America?

One of the things that has been wonderful about Welcoming Week was seeing how it’s been a catalyst for communities to deepen the work that they’re doing year-round. For example, the city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which is also a certified Welcoming Community, used Welcoming Week to open a visitor’s center that’s been rebranded as a welcoming center. It’s a physical space that’s imbued with these values and a reflection of the city’s ongoing commitment to this work. It shows that this is not just a public relations exercise. It’s really about communities building this infrastructure for the long haul. What we’re excited about next is continuing to support communities as they work to become more welcoming. To that end, we have a goal of certifying 50 communities in the U.S. as Welcoming by 2026, and we’ll continue to grow this movement in other countries because we know that there’s a need for this work all over the world.