Survey reveals immigrant challenges


A group of community leaders is taking the next step for better immigrant inclusion in Kent County.

Nearly 800 people from 64 countries responded to a survey about their experiences as immigrants in Kent County, representing 27 ZIP codes.

The survey is the first step of a collaborative effort between the city of Grand Rapids, Samaritas, the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce and the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to develop a strategic plan to improve the experiences of immigrants and refugees in Kent County.

The efforts are part of the local Gateways for Growth Challenge, a national competitive opportunity for communities to receive financial assistance and other support from New American Economy and Welcoming America to develop multisector plans for integrating immigrants.

The final plan will focus on five key areas: economic development, education, safe and connected communities, civic engagement and equitable access to services.

The survey results are the first quantifiable pieces of information that will guide the creation of the strategic plan, which will be presented to the city, county, chambers of commerce and other leaders, said Elvira Kovachevich of Samaritas, who is the initiative’s project coordinator.

The survey results are being used to outline the top five priorities of immigrants in Kent County, as well as top barriers, issues and concerns.

Some common themes that immigrants reported include access to education and learning English.

Key barriers that the respondents indicated are causing these challenges include language issues, time, lack of insurance and how people get their information, she said.

The next phase of the initiative is meant to provide greater insight and a more nuanced understanding of the issues and why they are occurring.

The survey showed many immigrants get information about social and legal services from friends and family and online, rather than accessing resources from nonprofits and government agencies, for example. 

The next phase of the initiative involves community engagement through approximately 40 focus groups on the issues identified in the survey.

Each session will identify a couple of key issues, goals for solving those issues and how to start making that happen.

“This Welcome Plan is really a plan built by the New Americans in Kent County. Without them, it would be another top-down policy that wouldn't really get at the root issues of why these themes that we identified are a problem,” Kovachevich said. “We need their voices and we need to amplify their voices so that they feel valued and respected and like full members of society.”

Each of the organizations on the initiative’s task force will lead its own focus groups for its own clients.

The task force includes the four collaborating organizations, as well as the city of Grand Rapids’ Office of Diversity and Inclusion, The Right Place, the city of Wyoming and the Wyoming Public Safety Department, Justice for Our Neighbors, Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, Kent County Health Department, Kent ISD, Literacy Center of West Michigan, Kaufman Interfaith Institute at Grand Valley State University, Treetops Collective, Refugee Education Center, Bethany Christian Services, African Collaborative Network, African Resource Center, WGVU, Michigan Office for New Americans, Grand Rapids Community College, Welcoming Michigan, Fifth Third Bank, Grand Rapids Community Foundation, Kent County, Spectrum Health, Cascade Engineering, Hispanic Center of Western Michigan and Kentwood Public Schools.

Samaritas will provide the focus group facilitators with the tools for leading them appropriately, taking cultural and professional circumstances into account.

The focus groups will be various sizes, from one-on-one discussions when required to larger town hall discussions.

The facilitators will have general scripts to guide the sessions. Based on general themes that showed themselves in survey results, she said they will be a useful tool for people who have never done community engagement and for those who have.

Having the individual organizations facilitate the focus groups gives them a stronger part in the work and helps inform them about their own clients, Kovachevich said.

Kovachevich said she will attend all the focus groups to record and take notes.

The focus groups will last through the end of October.

From October to December, the community leaders will use the information learned to include 10 to 15 points into the final strategic plan, which will be launched January. 

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