In 2006, the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee
Rights Coalition launched a public education and communications
campaign to foster constructive public dialoguein
a state facing profound demographic change with a more than 300 percent growth in
its immigrant population over 15 years. The Welcoming Tennessee Initiative
creates opportunities for Tennessee residents, native-born and immigrant
alike, to discuss the effects of immigration, its historical and
national contexts, and how to develop strategies for strong, inclusive
The Initiative has created welcoming committees in Nashville
and Shelbyville (a small community that has experienced a large influx
of Latino and Somali immigrants) to facilitate conversations about
immigration; recruited and trained more than 70 "ambassadors" around
the state to organize welcoming committees and facilitate discussions;
launched public education campaigns through billboard ads; and held
community forums and presentations at churches, universities, civic
clubs, and other sites. The Welcoming Tennessee initiative has inspired
similar efforts in 13 other states.
In a new destination state like Tennessee,
which faces a significant policy and public debate about immigration
and its impacts, the Welcoming Tennessee Initiative (WTI) plays
a proactive role in increasing public understanding of the realities
of immigration, situating recent demographic changes in a broader
historical context and constructively engaging the public in
areas where they have concerns.
The WTI has created a mutually
enriching dialogue between native Tennesseans and new residents,
which is in turn creating a shared understanding of immigration's
challenges and opportunities and more cohesion in communities
that are taking these issues on.
"ambassadors" and welcoming committees serve a powerful educational
role and help to raise the level of public discourse surrounding
immigration and immigrants so that public policies can be built
on a solid analysis and mutual respect for the concerns of native
residents and of newcomers.
WTI, which was an effort conceived
outside of government and joined by a wide range of actors, serves
as a strong example that while government can be a pro-active
player, sometimes communities and civic leaders can step into
that role with great success.
About Stephen Fotopulos,
Stephen Fotopulos is the Executive Director of the Tennessee Immigrant
and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC), in Nashville, Tennessee.
Before becoming Executive Director in 2008, Mr. Fotopulos served
as TIRRC Policy Director for four years, joining the organization in
served for five years as a logistics officer in the United States Navy,
living and working in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf.
sits on several boards and advisory councils dealing with immigration,
including the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services where he is co-chair
of the Task Force on Immigrants and Refugees.