Margie McHugh: Talking E Pluribus Unum Prizes

November 21st, 2011

Margie McHugh is the Co-Director of the Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy. The Centre coordinates the E Pluribus Unum Prizes, an American awards program that provides four $50,000 prizes annually to exceptional initiatives that promote immigrant integration.

Tell us about the development of the E Pluribus Unum Prizes?

The Migration Policy Institute’s National Centre on Immigrant Integration Policy opened in February 2007 and we announced the prizes in 2008. We created the Centre with the idea of building a more knowledge-driven field. We realized that part of the work is to create a more public profile for immigrant integration policies and practices. We need to provide people with concrete examples of what we are talking about when we even use the words immigrant integration, because in the US it really had not been a term or a concept used outside of academic circles

To create a more coherent and knowledge driven field, we have to popularize the idea of immigrant integration. The E Pluribus Unum Prize is a means of accomplishing several goals at once: raise the profile of immigrant integration issues on a national stage; provide people with an image and practical sense of what integration means; and help us convey the diversity of the field. The truth is that immigrant integration is not one unified policy field but a sub-field across several dozen existing policy fields. It’s a great challenge to convey all of that diversity. The prizes, through the generosity of the JM Kaplan Fund, allow us to honor several organizations each year and then build out the public profile of the extent of the issues and policy that immigrant integration touches on.

Why does showcasing practice matter?

At its most basic, showcasing practice matters because people learn most quickly by hearing stories and seeing real-world examples. Sharing a story about people in an organization is a much more effective way of conveying a package of information than asking people to read a series of reports. It creates an ‘a-ha’ moment where people say, ‘So, that’s what we need to be thinking about!’

The prizes are a component of a much larger set of policy and program efforts at our Center on Immigration Integration Policy. The prizes program sits within a larger body of comparative research and policy analysis that simultaneously is building knowledge about immigrant integration policy and practices. It contributes immensely to our other work – it makes it more real, it gives people ideas, it engages other stakeholders, but it’s not meant to be a shortcut to a policy prescription. It’s meant to highlight implications for policy and practice.

What can policy-makers learn from this work?

In undertaking the awards, we’ve been cautious about suggesting that winning practices can simply be parachuted in to address a similar need in other parts of the country. Some practices may sound similar and be vastly different. As a research and policy organization, we know it is not as simple process. But we hope that elements of the winning initiatives – the thinking around creative solutions – will be exciting, relevant, and be a guide to better integration practice.

Look at the terrific practices happening in New York, Toronto, and Berlin for example,. These cities have more of a history with migration and may have a more organized social service sector. They often have funding streams that can be leveraged over a period of time. This may not be the case for new migration destinations. Infrastructure cannot be developed overnight in newer areas. It’s a learning process that each locality has to undertake on its own. What we’re doing with the prizes can be a key contributor to the learning.

What have you learned after three years of the E Pluribus Unum Prizes?

What we are most impressed with is the breadth of activity all across the country. At the national level in the US, there has not been enough appreciation of just how much integration work is going on, how many mainstream organizations or systems are actively learning and being very entrepreneurial about how to adapt old ways of doing things to new populations, and the different challenges and opportunities this all presents.

People may expect integration projects in places like Chicago or San Francisco, Los Angeles or Miami, but when they hear it is happening in Portland, Maine and Omaha, Nebraska or Nashville, Tennessee, that paints a very different picture of who we are as a country.

There’s still an enormous amount of energy and work to be done to help people learn English, but the prizes are also showing that this isn’t just about teaching people English. For example, it’s about teaching English that will help immigrants earn a college degree or English that puts them on a pathway to a lifetime of supporting their family. It’s not just learning survival English for shopping at grocery stores.

What has been the impact of the awards?

We’re delighted that the awards have become so prestigious so quickly. It has helped the winners open doors to new funders, receive greater media interest and to be taken more seriously as spokespeople within the community of integration providers and sources of training and information on these issues.

Within the field of immigrant integration, whether it touches on early childhood education, elementary, post-secondary education, or healthy care access, all those areas have a life of their own in terms of their leaders, policies, and sense of practice. The prizes are helping create recognition for those fields of work and the population with which they are engaged. This transition is accelerated by recognizing exceptional practice. For example, immigrant children are now 25% of children who are in the US – their education is no longer a boutique issue. The work recognized by the E Pluribus Unum Prizes is affecting the children at the heart of the discussion and raising the profile of the winners as leaders in the field.

Without a doubt, one of the great unexpected impacts has been how quickly the prizes program has raised up immigrant integration issues in federal policy circles. Our 2011 winners were invited to speak with members of a task force on immigrant integration created by the Obama administration, and were featured by the White House as “Champions of Change.” It has helped set in motion a structured approach to these issues within the White House and federal agencies. We’ve are delighted to see this kind of effect in such a short period of time.

José Ramón Fernández-Peña of the Welcome Back Initiative speaks as a Champion of Change

Is there a gap that needs to be filled?

One area is family and community asset building and that’s a bit of a puzzle for us. This field includes financial literary, access to banking, and community economic development efforts. A part of that may stem from the idea that it’s riskier, or higher stakes work, because of the dollars that are involved in creating those services. It is an area where a lot of good things are happening, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a system in place to share those learnings among organizations working on these issues, or to get groups doing immigrant community building work to feel confident to take on those issues.

It’s especially relevant now when we look at what has happened with the mortgage crisis in the US and the like. We would like to help stakeholders in the immigrant integration field move into this work more quickly.

Another issue that stands out is the question of who is responsible for what. What is the responsibility of immigrants when it comes to immigrant integration and achieving self-sufficiency? What is the responsibility of different levels of government? The federal government sets immigration policy – how much of immigrant integration then should it be responsible for? We can see that conversation happening all over the country, between the federal, state and local governments, and then between state and local governments and their immigrant community leaders and organizations. We see different approaches being taken all over the country depending on the issue or area.

We are very eager to share more of the thinking and action on these issues in the writing that we are beginning to do about the prizes and the applicants.

What are some of the lessons for the field?

One of the most fundamental lessons from this work is how important it is to actors in the field to have a sophisticated analysis of their local community’s profile, its history and the strengths of the community. We see our work as providing a roadmap that makes it easier for people to engage and deal with the complexity of these issues and really see themselves as leaders. We are helping to develop the thinking around this work – building on the examples set by these winning organizations to learn how to do this work better. So we encourage them to become leaders and thinkers on these issues rather than expecting that somebody else might have a solution for a problem they are facing. There will always be lots of relevant information, but the solution has to be homegrown.

Margie McHugh is the Co-Director of the Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy. Prior to joining MPI, Ms. McHugh served for 15 years as Executive Director of The New York Immigration Coalition, an umbrella organization for over 150 groups in New York that uses research, policy development, and community mobilization efforts to achieve landmark integration policy and program initiatives. She is the recipient of dozens of awards recognizing her efforts to bring diverse constituencies together and tackle tough problems, including the prestigious Leadership for a Changing World award. She has served as a member and officer on the boards of directors for both the National Immigration Forum and Working Today; on the editorial board of Migration World Magazine; and has held appointive positions in a variety of New York city and state commissions.

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