Stephen Fotopulos: Making Nashville a City for All of Us

February 25th, 2014

Fotopulos, Stephen 2011By Stephen Fotopulos, Director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition 

Five years ago today, national anti-immigrant forces tested a proposition: Could they put misinformation and $100,000 into the hands of an opportunistic, local politician and convince a city to cast a vote against itself? The proposition proved false, Nashville passed a monumental test, and we declared to the world our intention to be a welcoming and inclusive city.

The truth is, not many people believed we could do it. English is such a vital, emotional part of our cultural identity, and the vote was seen simply as a referendum on its importance. Early polling suggested broad support for English-only across demographics. But the more community meetings we had, the more Nashvillians realized that we weren’t talking about the value of learning English. We were deciding whether to create artificial barriers between citizenry and government. We were deciding between excluding people from the public conversation or making more room at the table. And we chose wisely.

The victory against English-only is a testament to what can be accomplished when elected officials demonstrate true leadership, when business, labor and civic groups come together with universities and faith institutions of every creed. The victory showed the power of immigrants participating directly in the process, sharing their experience with friends and neighbors, making announcements at Sunday service and Friday prayer, knocking on doors and getting people involved. More than 10,000 new American voters were directly engaged during the campaign, greater even than the winning margin.

In the five years since the special election, our city has taken steps to further open the dialogue and promote immigrant integration. Mayor Karl Dean established a New Americans Advisory Council in 2009, creating formal channels of communication between his office and Nashville’s many immigrant communities. The Advisory Council partnered with the metropolitan clerk in 2012 to implement MyCity Academy, a program for immigrant leaders to see how government operates and to become effective ambassadors to their communities. In late 2012, Sheriff Daron Hall ended his devastating 287(g) deportation program, finally easing some tension between immigrant families and local law enforcement. And in 2013, Nashville for All of Us collaborated with NashvilleNext to chart a course for the next 25 years of our city’s growth, furthering the dialogue with immigrant community members and promoting equality and inclusion.

It’s human nature for people to move, and it’s a sign of great prosperity when immigrants choose our city as the place to invest energy and raise a family. Between 2000 and 2011, Tennessee had the fastest-growing foreign-born population of any state in the country, with Nashville clearly leading the way. And it’s no coincidence that every few months another national publication recognizes our city as one of the friendliest, most vibrant places to live. This wouldn’t be true if English-only had passed five years ago, and it won’t remain true without continued efforts to identify and remove barriers to full participation.

Strong communities, like relationships, are built on good communication, and our measure of success will be the degree to which everyone is engaged in the conversation.

Stephen Fotopulos is the director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition and the Welcoming Tennessee Initiative, the former co-chairman of the Mayor’s New Americans Advisory Council and a founding member of Nashville for All of Us.

This article was originally published in The Tennessean and is being reproduced here with permission.

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