‘You can’t be silent about welcoming’: How Champaign, Illinois leads on immigrant inclusion

As the first Certified Welcoming city in Illinois, Champaign is embracing what it means to truly welcome and include newcomers. In 2023, Champaign announced its certification. We talked with the Equity and Engagement Department and the New American Welcome Center at the University YMCA to learn about how the city and its partners ensure that immigrant voices are represented and heard.

Local governments of all sizes and demographics have the potential to be leaders and partners in welcoming work. As a small city in the Midwest, the government of Champaign, Illinois hopes to be a model to other communities that are ready to take their inclusion work to the next level.

As a starting point, “Cities and counties [need] to acknowledge that government has been a part of systemic barriers to immigrant communities,” says Rachel Joy, director of the Equity and Engagement Department at the City of Champaign. Within local governments everywhere, exclusionary policies and practices — whether intentional or not — have had real-life impacts on newcomers’ ability to access the resources they need.

Being able to flip that script to create welcoming policies and work alongside the community to advance inclusion and equity for immigrants is a key part of the City of Champaign’s story. As the immigrant population has grown (by 15% between 2011 and 2016) and continues to grow, it’s imperative that the government has welcoming strategies in place.

The most recent milestone in Champaign’s work has been pursuing a Certified Welcoming designation. The New American Welcome Center (NAWC) at the University YMCA encouraged Champaign to seek the designation and has been an essential partner on the city’s welcoming journey.

“The government has been responsive to advocacy and the concerns of the community,” says Akua Forkuo-Sekyere, director of the NAWC. “It has been very rewarding to be a part of this process. It helps take the work to another level and connect it with the movement happening nationally.”

The City of Champaign’s responsiveness to the community has gone beyond words and acknowledgments. While positive communication lays the foundation for welcoming, Rachel recognizes that welcoming work requires more than just diverse flyers, welcome signs in multiple languages, or proclamations from leaders.

“A lot of times people want to be silent about being welcoming, which is sort of an oxymoron,” she reflects. “You can’t be silent about being welcoming. To really make sure that we’re loud about it, we felt that certification allowed that. Being able to have those benchmarks lets people know that we’re serious.”

By taking immigrant inclusion seriously, Champaign is setting the standard for inclusion and belonging in Central Illinois and beyond.

Community voices drive local change

Partnerships and listening are strategies that define Champaign’s leadership style. Among many important relationships, one partner shines: NAWC.

NAWC opened its doors in 2017. With collaboration between local government, immigrant agencies, and other social service organizations, the welcome center runs programs to meet immigrant community needs, including common resources like legal support and family services.

Group photo of people wearing YMCA shirts at an outdoor event

NAWC celebrates Welcoming Week. Photo credit: New American Welcome Center at the University YMCA via Facebook

One unique service that NAWC offers is a community navigator program. Staff at NAWC train local immigrants as educators and trusted connectors to help newcomers navigate all of the available resources in Champaign.

Currently, most community navigators come from Latine, Korean, Chinese, Congolese, and Indigenous Maya communities. Akua explains, “Folks from these communities have someone who is an expert in resources who also understands specific cultures and speaks specific languages.”

To shape community voices into reality with policy and action, NAWC, the city, and other partners have worked closely to assess resources and fill gaps for Champaign’s immigrant communities. This work included a Gateways for Growth award in 2018. Through the grant, Champaign received a report detailing the contributions of new Americans in Champaign County. With technical assistance from Welcoming America and the report findings to guide them, the community created the Champaign County Welcoming Plan.

The plan is organized around five themes — economic integration & employment, citizenship & civic engagement, health & well-being, language & education, and public safety. To put these values into action, Champaign established five communities of practice to work collaboratively toward implementing the plan. Each community of practice is made up of leadership from city departments, nonprofits, and other public service entities like hospitals and social service organizations.

According to Rachel, the communities of practice have been a huge highlight because they demonstrate that welcoming is “becoming a part of our organizational culture.” For example, Champaign’s city attorney and the chief of police participate in communities of practice where they contribute their expertise.

Collaboration between local organizations on the welcoming plan and communities of practice has been fruitful for everyone involved. “We recognize that each one of us may do certain work well, but we also have things that are out of our scope,” Akua reflects. “We can lean into each other to make sure that we are doing right by the immigrants in our community.”

Building prosperity for all with immigrants

Working directly with immigrants on entrepreneurship and business development has been an important strategy for inclusive economic development in the community. In particular, the Champaign County Economic Development Corporation (EDC) is a champion of economic inclusion.

As a primary partner in Champaign’s Gateways for Growth project, they helped showcase the ways immigrants support local economic growth and underscore the idea that welcoming communities are prosperous communities.

“The [EDC] have been supportive by creating grant opportunities for business owners to have chamber of commerce memberships, which opens the door to take their business to the next level,” says Akua. “It takes us back to our mission to help folks not just survive, but to really thrive and flourish.”

Additionally, during times of crisis, the EDC has stepped up to support immigrant business owners. When businesses were impacted in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, they worked with the local small business development center to offer grants for immigrant entrepreneurs who faced additional barriers to success. NAWC was able to act as a conduit to connect newcomers to their best-suited grant applications.

With the University of Illinois based in Champaign, over 43% of the immigrant population in the city were university students in 2016. Attracting and retaining talent and building a strong workforce ensures that the community — immigrants and beyond — will continue to prosper.

“You can’t be silent about being welcoming. To really make sure that we’re loud about it, we felt that certification allowed that. Being able to have those benchmarks lets people know that we’re serious.” — Rachel Joy

The next four years

With their Certified Welcoming certificate and report in hand, Champaign is hopeful about its future.

“We want to continue to strive for more,” says Rachel. “The process put things in perspective for us. Now we have some benchmarks where we can look at what we should be doing to become a better community together.”

What does striving for more look like? To start, the team will continue to make strides toward the goals of the Champaign County Welcoming Plan. Some highlights that they hope to achieve over the next four years of their certification and welcoming plan include:

  • Increased permanent funding streams from grants and the state to have meaningful allocations for welcoming work in the city budget.
  • Improving language access across city departments. The NAWC provides interpretation and translation services for its programs and services, so the local government is considering partnering with NAWC to enhance its translation services.
  • Creating more opportunities for civic engagement, in particular, encouraging newcomers to participate in public meetings.
  • Continue to build bridges between newcomers and long-time residents of Champaign. One way the community has been doing this is through Welcoming Week. Akua says, “We do Welcoming Week every year. We work with a lot of different organizations and community partners that highlight how our community is a welcoming one.”

Akua says, “To see what [will] be created at the end of these four years is going to be pretty remarkable.”

Champaign’s certification reinforced where they’re excelling and the next steps on their journey. Rachel emphasizes, “In a small community, it’s a big deal for people to understand that we do great work.”

More than anything, being Certified Welcoming is an accomplishment that highlights Champaign’s values and long-term strides toward immigrant inclusion.