Fatima Shama: Blueprints for Immigrant Integration

May 29th, 2013

After years of modeling immigrant integration success to other cities, the City of New York has launched Blueprints for Immigrant Integration, a set of open source tools and shareable strategies that any local government can use “to integrate and ensure the success of their immigrant communities.”

Cities of Migration spoke with Fatima Shama, Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, about this important project and its place within Mayor Bloomberg’s legacy to New York.

Tell us about the Blueprints for Immigrant Integration series and your plans for a network of  cities across the US committed to making immigrant integration a success?

After Mayor Bloomberg launched the Partnership for a New American Economy, we had a lot of cities and mayors who were signing up to be members of the partnership and starting to ask: “Yes, we want comprehensive immigration reform, but what can we be doing now?” And my colleagues doing the national work on immigration reform would say, “Well, you should talk to our office in New York.”

As we started to talk to cities, the conversation inevitably was about what we have done in New York, showcasing specific policy and programs that were quite innovative. It seemed like a great opportunity for us to capture what we’ve done well in New York and give other cities a little step-by-step guide on how to meet the challenges and opportunities. Mayor Bloomberg has not only supported immigration reform but also advocated for the role that cities can play in innovation, in community development and in really supporting economic vitality.

This is also our last year in office as an administration. The amazing leadership that Mayor Bloomberg has demonstrated over the past eleven and half years is unparalleled. New York has always been an immigrant-friendly city with a history of immigrant integration, but the policy and programs that were implemented during Mayor Bloomberg’s time have been landmark. We want to share what we have been able to accomplish with the rest of the country. Hopefully, we’ll energize other cities to do the right thing when they realize that immigrant communities are true assets.

What has working with other cities taught you about immigrant integration?

It’s taught me that immigrant integration is something city leaders want –although some cities don’t realize that it’s also their responsibility. It’s been interesting to hear from cities that have been struggling about what to do. We have also been contacted by advocates in cities where the municipal leaders are not ready to have that conversation. Other cities want to engage in thoughtful immigration integration, but don’t want to leave it to a not-for-profit community-based network. They see it as the responsibility of a local government.

It’s taught us a lot about different strategies and approaches that work in cities. It has also taught us that cities have to be ready, otherwise it is not going to end well. It is great when the folks on the other end of the conversation are committed to thinking innovatively, to pushing the envelope or, honestly, are just ready to change some of the work that they have done. There are many places that recognize that the future of their cities needs to include these immigrants. These folks really do want to build a diverse beautiful rich city that has respect for all communities that call the city their home.

What have international cities learned from New York and what has New York learned from them?

I think international cities are struck by the vastnesss of the diversity that we have and the fact that we really do allow people to celebrate where they are from and where they are today. We have a lot of people who say, “You think it’s okay for someone to go into a pool wearing a head scarf?” And the answer is yes. There are rules depending on where that is, but if that’s the way that someone is most comfortable, the answer is yes.

It has been interesting to witness reactions to our openness and commitment to inclusivity, integration and not assimilation. Mayor Bloomberg likes to say that New York is a place that people look different, dress differently and … as he says: “Go to different houses to worship, eat different cuisine and speak different languages.” That is normal for us and we don’t want to change it. But there are many places where all that uniqueness has never been welcomed, where people are expected to change and conform. I hope we are helping others understand that you don’t need to do that. In fact, the richness of these communities and their ability to thrive in your city is strongest if you just let them be.

Learning to look through a different lens is good. In Spain and the city of Valencia they are working hard to make sure that everyone speaks Spanish. I was really struck by their commitment to provide language instruction. Because encouraging the success of new communities means giving them the ability to navigate and feel more comfortable. I think there is something very rich about that.

I was recently in Turin and had a chance to meet the city’s Deputy Mayor. Turin has a large North African Muslim community. When city leadership realized that Muslims needed a place for communal prayer around the religious holidays, they said, “We’re going to make this very large park available to you and it’s going to be your day and you can have the park.” The Mayor, the Deputy Mayor and many thousands of residents came out to support this community on their day of celebration and to congratulate them. “We come out to wish you an Eid Mubarak [a blessed Eid],” as the Deputy Mayor said. In this way, it becomes a festival for the whole community, not just something the government has facilitated. That’s really important. The reality is that you must create a place where people are welcomed. The only way you create immigrant-friendly cities is through examples like this.

The NYC Blueprint series offers city managers a rich menu of options they can tailor to their specific needs. Where do you suggest a new gateway city get started?

I think there are two things that need to happen. One is understanding what the city wants to accomplish. In some cities it’s about the economy and in some cities it’s about public safety and police community relations. So first you need to sit down and figure out what the focus is going to be. Creating some form of an agenda or action plan is really important –and it will look different in every city.

Next, city managers need to understand their new communities. It is more than a needs assessment; it’s also a kind of asset assessment. What does this community have to offer? Also, remember to ask: How can existing services be slightly altered? How can they be enhanced to better support the communities?

What are some of the challenges facing cities that want to implement the strategies in the Blueprints?

We hear that money is a challenge. The reality is that there are lots of opportunities to leverage existing resources once cities understand community assets and can anticipate their needs. Strategic partnerships can leverage existing dollars. There’s also the reality of local philanthropy and the role it can play as a source of support, depending on the economic realities and vitality of the immigrant communities.

Communities tend to react to change, that can be a challenge. Leadership can help communities understand that change is a reality and isn’t always bad. There is an opportunity for leadership to utilize its voice to say, “Here’s how it’s done, here is what we need to do.” A fundamental American value for many communities is that Americans always take care of each other. We have always done that and we will always do that in the times of crisis. It shouldn’t take a crisis for people to take care of each other.

During our convening, the Mayor of Atlanta said, “I want to get ahead of this before it’s too late.” This was his chance to build one united Atlanta and to help people understand that “one Atlanta” was just as beautiful. The tone that leaders set and the language they use make a huge difference. Silence actually instigates controversy! Being able to talk comfortably and responsibly about diversity as an asset is really critical.

Partnerships are an important part of the strategies listed. What do suggest that other cities do if there is no private foundation support?

There are always these larger entities around with an ability to impact change, whether it’s a Wal-Mart or a Target store or local banks. All these corporate entities have dollars that they put towards community development and are looking for ‘consumers.’ That includes the immigrant communities we are talking about. When a city recognizes the value of that consumer base, it can persuade local institutions with access to private capital to share. Sometimes it’s money; sometimes in-kind support; sometimes a sponsor for an ad in a community paper with their logo on the bottom.

Groups across America love volunteerism and situations that help carve out a space for community engagement. For example, community gardening, a community clean up or beautification project is a great way to engage the whole community in that process.

What’s really important about partnerships is not the money, but the relationships – creating and cultivating relationships with immigrant community leaders or with faith-based leaders, for example. As those relationships develop, they will provide access to philanthropic networks and other new forms of capital that may not have been used before.

You have already published six blueprints online and held a convening of city mayors in New York City. What is next in the short term and long term?

The response to our convening was phenomenal: over 20 cities and ten mayors attended. We’ve had wonderful feedback from everyone with a whole lot of “we want more” – so that was very promising. More blueprints will come out in the coming months, on education, health care, public health, the roles that libraries can play, financial empowerment and on domestic violence prevention.

The plan is to release each blueprint with a webinar to reconvene the cities that we have met so far and to add the ones that are contacting us now. In the long term we’d like to help make cities more open to learning about immigrant integration. We’ve got the website, the blueprints and we really want other cities to take advantage of these resources and put their own spin on how to develop integration strategies. When we hear “but we don’t know how?” we can say, “Well, take a look at this and see if this helps you.” Then trust that they’re off to a good start.

Tell us about your favourite city.

My mom is from Rio and so Rio has always been a very special place for me because it always feels like I’m going back. It’s beautiful. I can be with my grandmother in the mountains and my aunt by the beach. It’s just such a happy place. Rio is my childhood, the equivalent of what comfort food is. But from the perspective of food and beauty, I love Florence.

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Fatima A. Shama has been the Commissioner of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs since August, 2009. Commissioner Shama had previously served as Senior Education Policy Advisor at the Mayor’s Office. Prior to joining the Bloomberg Administration in 2006, Ms. Shama served for four years as Executive Director of the Greater Brooklyn Health Coalition. Ms. Shama earned a Bachelor of Arts from Binghamton University and a Masters of Public Administration from Baruch College’s School of Public Affairs Executive Program.

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