Welcoming Michigan

Michigan / Nov. 6, 2012 / by The Team

The once bustling city of Detroit, Michigan was hit very hard by the economic recession and the collapse of the auto industry. While suffering a loss of nearly one million jobs in a state of ten million people, there is no shortage of people who are working to reverse the downturn. 

Steven Tobocman is the Director at nonprofit Global Detroit and founder of the Michigan state chapter of Welcoming America. Global Detroit started in 2009 and is a “regional economic development initiative that looks at immigration as an economic growth engine for our region,” explains Tobocman. 

The nonprofit’s goal is to create and fund different initiatives that will create economic development across the Detroit. One such initiative is Welcoming Michigan, which as Tobocman explains, is “an effort to have local communities that are seeing large numbers of new immigrants welcome those immigrants and integrate them into the fabric of their community life.”

A study conducted by Global Detroit showed that immigrants in Michigan were seven times more likely to file for a patent and that a quarter of all public companies founded between the years 1990 and 2005 were founded by immigrants. 

The part immigrants play in the revitalization of neighborhoods in the Detroit area is undeniable. In the Chadsey Condon area of Southwest Detroit, the number of vacant and abandoned properties is staggering but these are often purchased and refurbished by the newly incoming immigrant population. 

Christine Sauve, the Southeast Communities Coordinator for Welcoming Michigan, says that, “the focus historically has always been on the immigrant, to say what can the immigrant do to better integrate into society, and we're trying to turn that around to say what can the community do ... folks that were born in America, grew up in that community.”

Welcoming Michigan’s goal is to bring the communities in which it works together. By involving long-term residents in creating a welcoming atmosphere for immigrants, Welcoming Michigan hopes to revitalize neighborhoods in grave need of attention. 

As well as including new immigrants, Welcoming Michigan’s goal is to bring together those different ethnicities already settled in the neighborhoods. Chadsey Condon is “actually a really diverse neighborhood and some folks don't know that because it's not always readily visible,” says Sauve, “but about 50% of the population is Latino or Hispanic.” 

“There's also a long-standing African-American community, and you'll see that reflected too. And then there's newer immigrants coming from Yemen so there's a smaller Arabic community and then we have some folks actually from Appalachia so we have Caucasian residents in the area too.”

Bringing together these many different cultures might seem challenging but Welcoming Michigan does so in ways that ensures people get to know each other in ways that go beyond any fears or misconceptions they might have. 

To encourage American-born members of community to gain a better understanding of the immigration process, Welcoming Michigan runs an “immigration 101 training”. This allows people “realize that there really isn't a simple line that folks can get in to get their paperwork to have proper status.” 

This helps people realize that the immigration process can take many years and that people have worked hard and waited a long time to get their documentation. 

To combat the segregation that occurs naturally in these urban neighborhoods, Suave explains that, “We try to bring folks together to realize that they actually have more in common than different.”

This means involving people in activities during which they can get to know each other in a relaxed setting. “So that usually happens at events like a pot-luck where everyone brings a different food and folks realize that we all care about the same kind of values. We enjoy cooking with our families and we want our neighborhoods to be safe and clean, we want our kids to get a good education.”

It really is about “connecting neighbors to neighbors” and challenging any preexisting stereotypes people might have as well as reviving the look and feel of the community. “We've done cleanup projects, grafitti projects, mural projects,” says Tobocman, “so whatever it is that a particular community brings people together.” 

From cutting grass and removing weeds to covering hateful graffiti with murals that are emblazoned with the word ‘welcome’ in English, Spanish, and Arabic, Welcoming Michigan helps people gain the momentum needed to change their neighborhoods.

Community Member Asmin Ilmaktary says that she’s seen a great difference. “It’s not only ‘I do the cleanup for me, for my community’ but for the others,” she explains. “Before they would say, ‘okay, maybe I only care about what’s happening in my community’ but after Welcoming Michigan, and I’ve been doing Welcoming Michigan, people step outside, people are just doing projects for others.” 

Tobocman explains that while “most Detroit neighborhoods are challenged by population loss ... with new immigrants, Chadsey Condon and other pockets of the city have become growth areas and actually have improved the quality of life.”

The area has “seen new businesses come in and seen houses that had been boarded up bought by immigrants, fixed up and stabilizing communities,” he continues. 

“Communities that can integrate global talent workforce, immigrants and investment from abroad, frankly, are going to be communities that are poised to lead in the 21st century.”

Another community member, Raquel Castrillon, explains that, “We have come a long way from what we used to be ... We communicate more with our neighbors, we know who they are, where they come from, what they eat, what church they go to ... so it’s being more open and interactive with our neighbors.”

By welcoming immigrants and creating a truly atmosphere of ownership in the community, in which both new arrivals and long-term residents begin to feel proud of their neighborhood, these areas are beginning to see economic and social improvements. 

“We want to see ... that immigrants feel this is a welcoming place. And when immigrants and international community investment feel that Michigan or Detroit neighborhoods are welcoming,” says Tobocman, “we're going to succeed in getting more of those kinds of immigrants, which will revitalize neighborhoods in Detroit.”

To learn more about Welcoming Michigan, please visit their website, and to find out more about Global Detroit, click here.