By Tom Wahlrab

On September 19, in honor of Citizenship Day and National Welcoming Week, the White House highlighted the accomplishments of ten individuals as Champions of Change. “The program was created as an opportunity for the White House to feature individuals, businesses, and organizations doing extraordinary things to empower and inspire members of their communities.” (White House Press Release)

These individuals came from cities throughout the country, people who have been instrumental in initiating welcoming actions for immigrants. Visit www.whitehouse.gov/champions/welcoming-america for a list of all of the Champions and their bios.

I was the Executive Director of the Dayton Human Relations Council (HRC) when we launched the Welcome Dayton immigrant friendly city initiative. Going to the White House was a lifetime event for me. I felt a deep honor being there and being asked to speak with others on the panel. You can see a  brief video of the White House event here.

I asked the other selected panelists if it wasn’t them but their respective communities that should be commended. All agreed. They also mentioned that welcoming work existed prior to their initiatives. Just like other cities, Dayton was welcoming immigrants before Welcome Dayton. The AFSC’s own Dayton Director, Migwe Kimemia, is just one example of a person who was working to help immigrants have a better life. He also tapped me on the shoulder and helped me notice what the HRC might do to contribute.

Welcome Dayton started when we noticed that immigrants were being marginalized, denied their rights and impeded in ways that hampered their ability to make their unique contributions to our community. The Dayton community noticed that despite these restrictions, immigrants were making a positive difference. We wondered what immigrants were capable of in a more welcoming environment. Such conversations ultimately led to the creation of Welcome Dayton.

How is that the process that engendered Welcome Dayton continues to grow new partnerships and initiatives and even emerging ideas? Below I have advanced some tenets that I believe characterize the process we used. I invite you to help me clarify these ideas.

The process that produced Welcome Dayton is its motivating force. The process that supported Welcome Dayton was designed to: bring people together; help them connect with each other; postpone any consideration of solving a problem; and foster the consideration of what was possible or exciting about a distinct and alternate future.

Welcome Dayton is an inclusive, bottom-up process, shaped by the community. The conversations that engendered Welcome Dayton were not panels, and no one gave speeches. In this civic engagement process, everyone had opportunities to talk and be heard.

Welcome Dayton focuses on “process,” not measuring results.   Welcome Dayton was designed to help people connect with each other and consider together what is possible in a distinct and alternate future. Welcome Dayton continues to promote formal and informal collaborations.

Welcome Dayton is a community initiative not defined by government or experts. 150 people engaged in a conversation, and 50 people volunteered to self-organize and write a plan. The Dayton City Commission then endorsed the plan.

Welcome Dayton challenged the national agenda. Dayton took it upon itself to engage in a dialogue, not about our immigration law, but about whether we wanted to be intentionally “friendly” to our new neighbors. Welcome Dayton showed our capacity to engage in a deliberative dialogue that changed the agenda from being about a national immigration policy to a conversation about being friendly and welcoming to immigrants.

Tom Wahlrab, chair of Dayton’s Immigrant-Friendly Core Team, is the former Executive Director of the City of Dayton (Ohio) Human Relations Council and the Dayton Mediation Center.