Nashville, Tenn. -- One day this July, two dozen leaders from various immigrant communities here gathered in the Glencliff High School auditorium to learn how public education works in this fast-growing southern city.
They were from Bhutan, Colombia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Mexico and many other countries. And they had lots of questions. Why do some schools provide transportation but others don’t? What’s a “charter” school? Why are the results of students’ English-language assessments reported only in English? A man named Mamane, from Niger, asked what may be the most elemental but perplexing question in all of U.S. education: Why is it that two nearby schools teaching the same curriculum can show vastly different results?
VIP speakers, including the chairwoman of the Board of Education, were on hand to provide some answers. In five hours of presentations, they offered what added up to a beginner’s course on Nashville’s public schools, adult education and where to find resources. There were no tests to pass, but the pupils in the auditorium had an important job to do: to take this information back to their communities and serve as a go-to resource for other immigrants who may have the same questions.
The schools meeting was just one of seven sessions this year of a pioneering Nashville leadership training program known as MyCity Academy. Now in its fifth year, this free and first-of-its kind program in the U.S. is a signature initiative of the Mayor’s Office of New Americans. The idea is to identify leaders from within Nashville’s many immigrant communities and give them a solid overview of how city government works. They’re expected to communicate what they learn with friends, relatives and associates, helping to explain the rights and responsibilities of life in their new country.
In monthly sessions from March through September, they visit the courts for a session on the criminal justice system; they tour the water treatment and recycling plants to see how those work; they learn about social services, parks and libraries, and the history of the civil rights movement. The program has trained more than 130 people -- some of whom, Nashville city officials hope, will go on to serve on local boards and commissions, run for public office and build a generation of civic leaders that reflect the new demographics of a changing city.
Last week, the MyCity Academy Class of 2016 held its graduation ceremony, against the backdrop of anti-immigrant rhetoric from the incoming U.S. president, Donald Trump. While Trump has pledged to kick some immigrants out of the country and build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico, Nashville is one of many U.S. cities going out of its way to send the opposite message. The MyCity Academy is a big part of setting the inclusive tone city leaders are going for.
“Our New American community is a source of pride for the entire city,” Nashville Mayor Megan Barry said a few days after the election. “Regardless of what Mr. Trump does, I will continue to do whatever I can as mayor to ensure that Nashville remains a warm and welcoming community where we all treat each other with dignity and respect.”
Nashville’s experience with MyCity Academy carries lessons for any city in the world that is coping with the question of how to integrate immigrants and refugees. The members of this year’s class with whom I spoke called the course a valuable bridge between local authorities and immigrant communities who can otherwise become quite isolated.
“It’s a safe space where I can learn and ask questions,” said Patricia Tarquino, who works in family engagement at a local elementary school where 86 percent of the kids speak a language other than English at home. “It helps me to make families aware of all the opportunities there are in the city and demystifying them.”
She explained: “Some families think the public library charges a fee or you have to have citizenship status to participate. Now I’m organizing trips to the library with families so we can show them that the city has this awesome library system.”
Sirak Sebsebie, who’s active with the advisory board for the Ethiopian community in Nashville, heard about MyCity Academy from friends at church. “The government is opening their doors,” said Sebsebie. “I personally never knew that option was there until I joined this program. We can interface with officials directly and bring concerns to them directly. The city council -- you can actually talk to them.”
With a population of about 680,000, Nashville is better known to much of the rest of the world as the capital of country music than as a hub for immigrants. But for the past few decades, the demographics of what was once a quintessentially southern U.S. city have been changing dramatically.
Waves of people from Central and Southeast Asia, Latin America, East Africa and other parts of the world have settled here. About 12 percent of the residents of Nashville-Davidson County are foreign-born; more than 150 languages are spoken in the schools. Somali coffee shops, Turkish restaurants and halal meat markets can be found along the busy boulevards near the city’s airport.
A turning point came in 2009, when an anti-immigrant backlash kicked up in the form of a ballot initiative that would have declared English the city’s “official language.” Opposition to the proposal became a rallying point, not only for Nashville’s immigrant communities but also for a civic establishment forced to pick sides. Karl Dean, who was mayor at the time, led a coalition of business leaders, labor groups, churches, higher-ed institutions and others against the measure. Nashville voters said no to “official English” by a six-percent margin.
“Since then, Nashville has not looked back,” Dean told me in July. “We’ve really taken a position that Nashville is a welcoming city, that we embrace diversity, and that’s a core strength for the city.”
After the vote, Dean created a New Americans Advisory Council. Made up of leaders from various immigrant communities, it was an early attempt to open lines of communication between those groups and the mayor’s office. A couple of years later, Dean tasked this council with broadening and deepening the pool of immigrant leaders who could play that role.
As a model, they looked to a program called Leadership Nashville, which since 1976 has been putting leaders from the business, government, education and nonprofit sectors through nine-month crash courses on issues facing the city. They worked with managers of various city departments to develop a curriculum -- and pilot tested it in 2012 by putting themselves through the course.
This is what became MyCity Academy. Vanessa Lazón was part of that first iteration of the course. Now under Mayor Barry, she runs the program as the head of the Mayor’s Office of New Americans.
Lazón came to Nashville from Peru as a teenager, and finished high school at Glencliff. She remembers how poorly prepared the school was then to handle students like her. She knew some English and was eager to learn more quickly, but a counselor assigned her to two physical education classes and just one English class. Now fluent, and an American citizen, she’s committed to making it an easier path for the international students arriving in Nashville and their families.
There are several key components to MyCity Academy, Lazón said.
Graduates of the program are asked to recommend at least one or two people to apply for the next class -- so there’s a built-in growth model for identifying new leaders. People must apply to be part of the program, and thanks to local media attention, there are always many more applications than slots available. Applicants are assessed in part based on their connections in the community and their ability to disseminate what they learn at the academy within their networks.
“That’s the whole point,” Lazón said. “We identify people who maybe are not the known leaders in the community in the immigrant and refugee world, but they are some people already showing signs of leadership and they’re well connected within their community.”
The goal, she said, is that “they have the time to devote to this and come in and learn, and then go back to their places of worship or their communities or their schools and share this information. That’s one of the commitments.”
The results sometimes come quickly. A number of members of the Class of 2016 told me they had stopped buying bottled water -- and started telling all their family and friends it’s okay to drink tap water -- since the Academy visited the city water treatment plant.
“We got to see the different stages of how water gets filtered, and at the very end there was a pitcher of water with glasses for us to drink it,” recalled Karla Chavez, 25. “Never in my life had I tried water straight from the tap. You could get sick if you drank it in Mexico.”
The visit to Nashville’s waste-recycling plant also cleared up a lot of confusion about what trash can be recycled and how to use the city’s curbside pickup service. Jacky Gomez, who works as a counselor for college-bound high-schoolers, excitedly told me that she had just ordered three free recycling bins from the city that morning. “I told my mom, we’ve got to commit!” she said. Alfonso Nieto, who edits a local Spanish-language newspaper called Hola! Tennessee was inspired to publish a two-page how-to guide to recycling in Nashville.
But the outcomes are not always so direct. The Academy forges friendships that cross over invisible barriers between different immigrant communities. As a result of connections made through the Academy, youth from the Kurdish and Somali communities now play soccer together. The Class of 2016 has an active WhatsApp group, which buzzes with invitations to cultural events such as a dinner last month in honor of Muslims returning from their pilgrimage to Mecca. “The people I’ve met here I would not have met if not for this program,” Gomez said. “It’s done a great job of bringing together people who care, from all different walks of life, regardless of language barrier.”
The day after the Academy session on schools, I met with Mohamed-Shukri Hassan. He’s a 29-year-old Somali who came to the United States from a refugee camp in Kenya as a teenager. Like Lazón, he was part of the first MyCity Academy class in 2012.
Since then, he’s founded a nonprofit that runs workshops for refugees who want to start a business but don’t know where to start. Hassan helps them understand what rules and regulations they need to comply with to set up a business, works with them to find sources of capital to get ideas off the ground, and leverages his real-estate connections to find refugees space to set up their businesses. “Overseas, you want to sell something, you set up your table,” he said. “Here, it’s rocket science.”
Hassan took me to Crescent Plaza, a strip shopping center that not long ago had emptied of tenants and sold. Hassan connected the new owner with some of the entrepreneurs from his workshops. They struck a series of deals for space.
The result is an eclectic mix of retail: Honduras Restaurant sits next door to African Fashions, which abuts the Vinh-Long Vietnamese-Japanese restaurant. “A lot of migrants find it hard and pack up and leave,” Hassan said. “But the opportunities are there. It’s a matter of finding that connector who can break that barrier for them.”
Hassan broke another kind of barrier in January, when he was appointed to the Metro Nashville Arts Commission. It’s a community board that advises the city council on arts and culture issues, and has a budget to make grants to artists and community institutions. Hassan said he’s been able to bring an immigrant’s perspective to local debates around cultural equity. “If I didn’t get exposure to city government through MyCity Academy,” Hassan said, “I would not have seen the value of being on the board.”
That’s the outcome Nashville city leaders are rooting for. The notion that a former refugee could ascend into the official local power structure is exactly what leadership training is all about. “I’m confident we will have people elected to political office who will have started in MyCity Academy,” Dean said.
Dean’s successor, Mayor Barry, continued the program when she took office a year ago. It only costs about $5,000, which mostly covers supplies and ordering lunch for the group each time it meets. That cost is paid for through a sponsorship from Fifth Third Bank. “MyCity Academy is not funded with taxpayer dollars,” Mayor Barry told me.
What the program does cost is time, particularly to coordinate the sessions and line up speakers. It also represents a commitment from the department heads and other city workers who make time in their schedules to put on the sessions.
“You have to have everyone on board, and that has to come from leadership that it’s something they want from the mayor’s office,” Lazón said. “We’re lucky in this city that people recognize and like the diversity, and thrive on it.”