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Reflecting on Welcoming Interactive 2016

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Emily Hackerson

American Dream Fellow 2015 - 2016

This is only the second conference I've attended in the rising field of immigrant integration, but I had the distinct sense of being amidst familiar and friendly folk this past week in Atlanta, as if it were a reunion of our 200 closest and most diverse friends and family.

For three days, the Cisneros Center Fellows and Research and Evaluation Specialist attended the Welcoming Interactive 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia, hosted by Welcoming America. The term "Interactive" implies a less traditional conference, where you generally listen to experts on panels and iron out your professional clothes. This gathering didn't have a panel in sight, but boasted round-table discussions, team learning activities and even group morning stretches to get the ideas flowing. Representatives from numerous states and several countries rallied to share and learn from international perspectives on creating more welcoming communities.

While I could speak to the many lessons learned and ideas sprung from rooms of experience offered up by academics, practitioners, teachers and students, what struck me most was the tenor of this conference. Below the hard facts and tough realities of many elements of this work, there are hundreds of hard working and courageous people who bring to their communities unrivaled amounts of heart. Non-profit work generally gives one the joy of knowing she is working towards an acknowledged ideal, but the field of immigrant integration strikes me as having the added challenge and beauty of trying to change the culture and conception around change. We're practitioners who praise change, but also must teach and show its benefits to our communities, friends and colleagues.

In her opening remarks, author Isabel Wilkerson said, "the laws can only take you so far if the heart isn't willing to follow." She was referring to the unutterable barriers African Americans faced before and during their years of Great Migration from the south to the north of the United States in the early 20th century. However, her words echo into our work now; we can make all the progressive laws we want that empower new Americans, but we must work even harder to change hearts.

Zessna and I ended our final day in Atlanta at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, sitting on the front steps of Dr. King's childhood home. We watched rain clouds shift rapidly towards the metro skyline jutting up just beyond the preserved spaces of civil rights history on Auburn Ave. It was getting late, rush hour traffic barked at us from a short distance, and we felt ready to go home. If anyone could send us off with a final lesson in heart, it was that great city of change and that great leader of love.

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