Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Rolls Out Welcome Mat for Immigrants
Gateways for Growth initiative enabled city to identify concrete measures to support immigrant community.
Unlike many cities, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, doesn’t just tout the term welcoming, it marries it with actions. For more than 150 years, foreign-born citizens have played a role in shaping and growing this eastern Iowa community and, today, area leaders are committed to ensuring current and future immigrants and refugees are able to thrive.
Here’s just a glimpse at what Cedar Rapids has accomplished and where it’s headed.
Program shaped by input from immigrants
While Cedar Rapids has long been welcoming to all, true advancement began in the fall of 2018. The city, along with several partners, decided to apply to participate in the Gateways for Growth challenge, a program where communities receive research support and technical assistance from the American Immigration Council and a nonprofit called Welcoming America to improve immigrant inclusion.
“Gateways for Growth helped us evaluate, adapt and evolve our community’s welcoming strategy in a way that matched various partners’ vision and values,” says Jasmine Almoayyed, former economic development manager for the city who is now vice president of continuing education and training services at Kirkwood Community College. “And it helped us realize our unique position as a destination that is welcoming to new Iowans hoping to make our community and state their home.”
During the process, a steering committee and three working groups — all filled with local leaders — studied how the community could best help immigrants acclimate and thrive here. To do this, they went straight to the source, talking with immigrants who live and work in Cedar Rapids, among other things.
“Our demographically diverse communities provided some of the most helpful information to guide our plan,” Almoayyed says. “The intention of the plan was to not be prescriptive or make assumptions. Instead, intentional emphasis was placed on implementing ideas from those who benefit or would have benefitted from the proposed welcoming efforts.”
After much discussion, brainstorming and research, the group found that work needed to be done in the following areas: welcoming immigrants, addressing challenges they face in education and the workforce, and assisting them in their entrepreneurial endeavors.
The group didn’t stop there. Instead, they created actions the city could take to ensure they were moving forward in each category. Here’s what they came up with:
- Make local resources accessible in multiple languages.
- Develop a Welcoming Week Committee.
- Help immigrants increase their social ties through volunteering.
- Support them in their postsecondary education and training pursuits.
- Provide access to resources to find, secure and maintain employment.
- Share with employers legal best practices associated with hiring and recruiting immigrants.
- Promote immigrant entrepreneur participation at resource fairs and conferences.
- Provide immigrant entrepreneurs with ongoing business support.
Resources shine a light on diversity
The city wasted no time creating initiatives to meet its goals and since then, they’ve seen an abundance of success.
For example, the Cedar Rapids Public Library launched a resource-rich website — think contact information for housing assistance, child care and employment — to help new residents better adjust to their community. The site can be translated into multiple languages.
Plus, in addition to starting a Welcoming Week Committee, the city went a step further and created a communitywide campaign called Welcome Is Our Language, which celebrates the heritage, innovation and progression of the city. It takes everything wonderful and welcoming about Cedar Rapids, including its diverse people and places, and showcases it through videos, photos, logos and more, which businesses, residents and tourists can use to shine a light on the area and all it has to offer.
“Welcome Is Our Language sends a message that Cedar Rapids is a community where all can thrive and feel valued,” says Cedar Rapids Mayor Tiffany O’Donnell, whose voice can be heard in the campaign videos. “The American Dream comes to life here for our residents, businesses and visitors.”
As for improving education, workforce and entrepreneurial opportunities, nonprofits are helping immigrant and refugee students identify next steps for higher education or employment, the local community college increased its ESL program capacity, and the city has provided scholarships for immigrant entrepreneurs to attend EntreFEST, a local entrepreneur conference, among many other things.
“Since starting the Gateways for Growth initiative in Cedar Rapids, significant progress has been made in responding to the needs of our immigrant and refugee communities,” Almoayyed says. “It is clear that Cedar Rapids is working hard to truly make welcome the language of our entire community.”