"Answering the Voices" will connect individuals from the refugee and immigrant community with established residents and local decision-makers to explore community issues and develop innovative solutions for identified needs.
What has been most instrumental to your progress?:
Outreach has been a key component for this project and we tailored our outreach activities to engage refugees and
immigrants specifically. We know that newcomers have many needs and it can be overwhelming to sort out what will be
activities and programs will be beneficial. To encourage participation, we chose a face-to-face, personal approach to
outreach instead of digital or media-centered outreach. Our first program activity was a large-scale meeting to share
program information and goals. Prior to the meeting, we went door-to-door to invite people, which resulted in over 100
people attending the meeting (exceeding our goal of 80). During this meeting, we collected information from those
interested in attending leadership training. Staff and interpreters conducted home visits with these individuals to share
further information. These 60 visits were crucial to the program’s success to-date because they established a trusting relationship with leaders. As a result, leaders were more vested in the project and now just need phone call reminders for
Incorporating cultural relevancy has been one of the most effective aspects of the Answering the Voices program. In the
planning and initial phases of the project, we relied heavily on input from cultural consultants to ensure that activities would
be appropriate and effective for different groups of refugees and immigrants. Cultural consultants were also highly involved
in the development of leadership training topics and activities, providing insight into things that may be taboo or make
participants uncomfortable. This culturally relevant approach was especially evident during one of the first training
sessions, when the group discussed how conflicts or issues are handled in their traditional culture. The leaders soon
discovered that some cultures used a hierarchical approach while others were more social or family based. Participants
then learned about the formal decision making process in the United States, as well as modes of creating grassroots
change among communities or groups of people.
Meeting regularly with the leadership group also contributed to the success of this project. Following the initial home visits,
the leadership group met on a monthly basis, studying various topics including personal styles, problem solving, the
importance of collaboration, how to organize and facilitate meetings and strategies to engage the community. These
sessions were developed to both share information and encourage dialogue and interaction. Following the training
sessions, the leaders met several times to prepare for their first community dialogue, which focused on a conversation with
representatives from the criminal justice system. The leaders prepared letters of invitation, made arrangements for meeting
space, format and layout and used various engagement strategies to encourage people to attend the dialogue. Having a
large scale project and a clear goal, as well as consistent and meaningful interactions led to the development of strong
bonds between the leaders that cross the barriers of culture, language and age.
Key lessons learned:
One of the greatest challenges of this project was empowering community members to see themselves as leaders. Many
refugees and immigrants feel isolated and feel that because of the differences in culture, language and understanding they
don’t have anything of value to contribute. During our first leadership training session, we focused on working together to
make positive change. We issued a challenge – breaking a single pencil, which snapped easily. Then another challenge –
break a group of 10 pencils banded together, illustrating the power of unity. Throughout the training, we continued to foster
their role as leaders. One of the most challenging moments for our staff came after 8 months of training, when one of the
leaders said “I am not well educated and don’t know much about how things work here, so I don’t think I am the best person
to be a leader.” Each leader embraced their role differently and it was very difficult for some to see their value or potential.
By the time the leaders were ready for their first community dialogue, they were confident and prepared.
Another key lesson learned is the power of unity and the beauty of community participation. Over the course of the training,
the leaders became true collaborators and partners. Through the dialogue planning process, it was amazing to watch the
group assess potential problems or conflicts and structure the meeting to ensure that the dialogue was successful. As a
result of their careful planning, the dialogue between representatives from law enforcement, courts and corrections that
could have been hostile or intimidating was informative, friendly and productive. About a week after the event, the
leadership group met for a time of reflection and conversation. The importance of the program was summed up simply and
beautifully by one of our leaders, a Hmong gentleman. Through an interpreter, he told the group “I used to feel alone and I
only knew Hmong people in Winona. Now, when I go to the store I see you (the other leaders) and even though we speak
different languages I know you are my friend.” Working together as friends, these leaders will continue to widen their circle
of influence and create positive change in their families, neighborhoods and community.
Reflections on inclusive, collaborative or resourceful problem-solving:
The element of inclusivity has affected our work the most because of our focus on empowering refugees and immigrants to play
an active role in the community. Involving newcomers in innovation or problem solving can be very difficult because they often
don’t feel that they have anything to contribute. Answering the Voices project activities were designed to engage refugees and
immigrants as key stakeholders and develop their skills and confidence as leaders. Without this focus, we do not believe that this
project would be successful and we are confident that the community as a whole will benefit from the participation of more
residents in the process of change and innovation.
Other key elements of Community Innovation:
Empowerment is another key element, as providing a foundation through leadership training helped participants to both learn
about themselves and the important role that they can have in community change. While this was a long process, those who
have completed the training will need only moderate to minimal support to continue a culture of innovation.
Engagement across cultures was also key to the success and impact of this project, as activities engaged a broader number of
people and greater diversity. In addition to Hmong and Hispanic participants, the Laotian community in the St. Charles area has
been highly involved in this project. One of our leaders is Laotian and his involvement has led to greater and broader
collaboration. Through the training process, the leaders have grown to respect the cultures and traditions of their neighbors. This
culture of inclusion will be a long-term benefit for our community.
Understanding the problem:
Both the process and the needs addressed have been effective and relevant. Prior to submitting our grant application, we
intentionally designed activities and processes that would meet the needs we were aware of and also be a catalyst for change.
One surprising observation has been the amount of time needed to change the mindset of those in the leadership group. It took
many, many months of constant encouragement and training for them to feel capable of leading a community dialogue. It also
took time for the leaders, the community, and those from the criminal justice system to process the information shared and
discover potential outcomes from the dialogue. The first dialogue was over a month ago we are still receiving feedback and
suggestions. The representatives from the criminal justice system responded to the dialogue even more positively than we expected and are currently exploring several ways to promote better relationships, especially between law enforcement and nonEnglish speaking community members.
If you could do it all over again...:
We would have developed an intentional approach to reach out to young adults to participate as leaders. When we began the
leadership training, most of our participants were 40+ years old. Throughout the course of the training, several younger relatives
of the leaders who were in their 20’s joined the group and became highly involved. This has been a great addition, as these
younger leaders lead to a diversity of perspectives and approaches. The balance of youthful enthusiasm and mature experience
has been very successful. For those leaders who are related, working on a common project with shared goals has strengthened
relationships between families and across generations.
One last thought:
We are proud to share that as a result of our first community dialogue, the leaders and community have developed an action plan to support the passage of a bill to issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. This is a major concern for our leaders, as it is a community safety issue. During the dialogue, representatives from law enforcement and the justice system brainstormed together with the refugee and immigrant community to see what can be done to provide an avenue for everyone over 16 to receive driver’s education and fully understand the rules of the road. Following the dialogue, H.F. 97 and S.F. 224 were introduced in the legislature. One of the ways the dialogue group chose to support this bill is through writing letters to their representatives. Our local Criminal Justice Coordinating Council also expressed their support in writing to the state. For most of the refugees and immigrants involved, this is their first experience with how laws are made and it has been a great learning experience. For those in the justice system, this is also the first time that they had an avenue to communicate with newcomers on this issue and develop a truly collaborative effort.