When the people of Nashville rejected a divisive bill to exclude immigrants, activists took the Slow Lane. And sparked a global movement in cities around the world, to become welcoming to all.
I have learned a lot from my friend David Lubell and his journey to help cities that had turned their back on refugees, become truly welcoming to all. David's approach reveals a lot about the power of slow, determined action at times of acute crisis. Even in the most divisive moments, his movement avoided confrontation and instead nurtured inclusive communities and leaders to bring about real change. Change that would go on to make hundreds of cities around the world welcoming to all.
The Temptation of “English Only”
In 2006–7 things looked bad in Nashville, Tennessee. The Metro Council, the local government of Nashville City & County, had passed a bill to put English-language communication first and banned all official government communications in other languages. It looked like the city was turning against its immigrant community and their needs. But backed by a broad coalition of business, faith and community leaders, Mayor Bill Purcell vetoed the bill at the last turn.
David Lubell, at the time, was the executive director of the Immigrant Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC) which he had founded in 2002. He asked himself how to overcome the toxic atmosphere against immigrants in Nashville, the root cause that seemed to divide the community to the point where the “English First Bill” got passed. In David's diagnostic, many residents in the city were fearful of newcomers. Far from welcoming.
What was needed was a culture change. And David and his team had a plan: they would change the culture, by changing the messages people hear about immigrants. They built a new coalition of over five hundred people committed to starting a dialogue with US born Tennesseans. They found community leaders who would speak up on behalf of immigrants, and bring immigrants and long-term residents together to build empathy and respect. The idea of building a Welcoming Nashville in a Welcoming Tennessee took hold.
Then, in 2008, just two days after the inauguration of Barack Obama as the president, a referendum was called on “English Only”. If passed, the law would have forced Nashville to provide all municipal services in English only, making translation or interpretation of its municipal services illegal. “English Only” was rejected by a large majority. And what's more, Nashville went on to form the Mayor’s New Americans Advisory Board in 2009. In 2012, the city launched the MyCity Academy to help immigrants engage with, and participate in, city government. By 2014, Nashville had created the Mayor’s Office of New Americans. By then, the city website operated in ninety languages and had active outreach to the immigrant community offering internships, jobs and mentoring in city hall.
By 2014, Nashville had created the Mayor’s Office of New Americans and the city website operated in ninety languages.
Forget Fight Or Flight. Try Social Imagination Instead.
What happened in Nashville was a community practicing social imagination at a time of acute crisis. Not knowing what would work, David's coalition invited new ideas by being upfront about not knowing the answers. They shared the agency. The only certainty they had, David recalls, was a strong belief that they could heal divisions by using a non-confrontational approach. The coalition went on to focus on recruiting people who could build bridges: community leaders with good reputation in the community, and ties to the city council. It was their slow and patient work that created an environment in which political leaders felt safe to openly embrace the idea of becoming a community that welcomes all immigrants.
Watching these efforts unfold, David and his team saw a formula emerge. And as results became noticeable, other cities asked for help in becoming open to all immigrants. The Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Coalition created a spin-off organization: Welcoming America. Over the next decade, 122 cities in America started their collaborative journey to heal divisions, change mindsets and implement tangible policies to support the integration of immigrants. By 2017, the work had gone global: cities in Germany, Australia, New Zealand, the U.K., Spain, Mexico, and Canada signed up for the journey.
Behind Every Great Policy Lies A New Voice
As someone who cares deeply about city government, I wanted to hear what all this was like for leaders in a city. I called Ze Min Xiao, who was a community innovation manager in Salt Lake County, Utah, in 2015, when she connected to Welcoming America. An immigrant herself, she had already found new ways to help refugees, in particular women, become part of the community and economy. She had seen first-hand how short-sighted government interventions left many refugees stranded in a cycle of intergenerational poverty and frustration. What she liked about Welcoming America was that their first principle was not to separate between immigrant types, but instead insisted on communities becoming welcoming to all. It avoided the kind of communication that can elevate particular groups like refugees, often at the expense of others. Together, they shifted the old narrative in Salt Lake of “immigrants being more affordable labor” to a story of the full diversity of skills and contributions immigrants bring to communities. In 2016, she was appointed the first Director of the Mayor’s Office of New Americans.
Soon, communities around the country began to collaborate in new ways, sparking new ideas that upped the game for everyone. It was cities like Dayton, Ohio, that inspired David and Welcoming America to think beyond changing narratives and focus on changing policies, too. As a result, more cities began to make public services more accessible to immigrants, improving their experience and participation. And since each of these improvements involved immigrants themselves, they brought the voice and creativity of immigrants right into the heart of government.
“Community organizing is wonderful. But it becomes magic when, instead of simply insisting on a single issue, it sparks collective creativity.”
Share The Agency, Conjure Up The Spark Of Creativity.
Our Fast Lane world seems to become ever more divided. But as we look back on the story of hundreds of communities becoming truly welcoming, the Slow Lane once more revealed a better formula: Organize a group to develop shared values. Invest in relationships, by building bridges instead of using divisive practices. With time, this will build trust. And it is trust that will open hearts and minds, and allows new knowledge to enter the community. Over time, creative new ideas for the future will emerge.
David, himself a real expert in movement building and activism, puts it like this: “Community organizing is wonderful. But it becomes magic when, instead of simply insisting on a single issue, it sparks collective creativity.” Our best defense against the kind of divisive politics that sparked “English Only” in Nashville is precisely the kind of magic, a social imagination practiced openly and inclusively with a simple set of shared values.
David Lubell is an Ashoka Fellow and this story draws on research and conversations I did for “Cities and Social Entrepreneurs: A Playbook for Catalytic Collaborations”, published by Ashoka and Catalyst 2030.