Nashville, United States

Shelbyville’s Ambassadors of Welcome

Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition

October 18, 2011

Community ambassadors use traditional American values of hospitality to improve perceptions of immigration

In May 2011, PBS aired a unique documentary, Welcome to Shelbyville. It examines the challenges immigrants to Shelbyville, Tennessee have faced, and takes a look at this small town’s efforts to build a new, broader community that welcomes these new immigrants and helps them adjust to life in the United States. Made in collaboration with The Welcoming Tennessee Initiative (WTI), the film was part of a strategy to bridge the gaps between old and new Tennessee residents.

Shelbyville is a small town in the middle of Tennessee—approximately 16,000 people southeast of Nashville Like many smaller cities in the United States, it’s seen a drastic increase in the diversity of its population over recent years: first substantial growth in the Hispanic community, followed by a wave of Somali immigrants brought in to work at a local meat processing facility.

By the end of the film, which is a portrait of the town over the course of a year, many longtime Shelbyville residents have clearly come to recognize the valuable contributions new immigrants make to their community, and have made the transition from fear to curiosity about and appreciation of those immigrants’ cultural backgrounds. So how did the Welcoming Tennessee Initiative (WTI) bring these changes about?

The Power of Language

The Welcoming Tennessee Initiative (WTI) was created in 2005 to counter the overwhelming growth in anti-immigrant sentiment and rhetoric circulating the state: “The current reactionary and at times hateful rhetoric about immigrants fails to recognize the economic and cultural contributions that they make to our state along with the rich immigrant traditions of the past which have made Tennessee what it is today.”

One of WTI great insights is that language is a powerful tool for shaping perception. The organization has developed a Welcoming Tennessee Pledge which actively work to overcome the sense of the “other” – the “us vs. them” dynamic which can negatively affect public discourse about immigration. The pledge identifies traditional Tennessee values and connects them directly to immigrant integration.

For instance, the second item on the pledge reads “Welcoming Tennessee members believe Tennessee residents are hospitable, welcoming and inclusive of diversity and that we have a shared responsibility to treat all our neighbors with respect and decency.” Since hospitality is the hallmark value of the American south, WTI shows how welcoming immigrants can be an expression of a distinctly Tennessean value—one that local residents already embrace.

Welcoming Ambassadors

To help accomplish a shift to a more positive view of immigration, WTI has trained dozens of “Welcoming Ambassadors.” These are volunteer leaders within their local communities who facilitate discussions about immigration amongst both existing residents and newcomers, and act as advocates for immigrants who are still finding their way in their new homes. Ambassadors use public forums to provide information and answer questions about immigration, immigrant communities, and to build bridges between older and more recent residents. WTI put its ambassadors on the road through Welcoming Committees, groups of ambassadors who work collaboratively to share their work with other Tennessee communities.

In the larger city of Nashville, WTI created a billboard campaign to help support a shift to a more positive dialogue around immigration, installing 50 signs across the city.


These efforts have already shown great results. The local paper, The Tennessean, reported that in 2008, 63 percent of Tennesseans were in favour of allowing illegal immigrants to gain citizenship via a guest worker program, up from 54 percent in 2004.

In 2009, The Welcoming Tennessee Initiative was recognized with an E Pluribus Unum Prize, which honours exceptional immigration integration projects while the film, Welcome to Shelbyville was aired in May 2011 on PBS. Potions of the documentary were also adapted for inclusion in Building a Nation of Neighbors, a video tool to facilitate greater understanding between existing American communities and their new immigrant residents.

WTI’s Welcoming model has been replicated across the United States by Welcoming America, a nationwide organization dedicated to immigrant integration.

This Good Idea will be featured in “Marketplace of Good Ideas” at the 2014 Cities of Migration conference in Berlin. Learn more about the conference.

Making it Work for You:

  • Introducing new ideas requires innovative strategies (video stories, creative partnerships), but also a thoughtful appreciation of audience culture and interests.
  • A positive approach that builds on community or organizational strengths is more likely to meet with approval and result in better outcomes.
  • Use the power of language and community voice and participation to increase the effectiveness of your advocacy

For this Good Idea contact:

Stephen Fotopulos, Executive Director
Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC)
Nashville, United States,

Interview with Stephen Fotopulos, Executive Director, Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition