Posted Nov. 15, 2015 at 5:51 PM; Updated Nov 16, 2015 at 8:41 P
WORCESTER – U.S.- and foreign-born residents alike call Worcester home. But are they actually interacting with each other?
That’s the question behind a novel new study being conducted by researchers at Clark University. The study is being led by professor Anita Fabos and Cheryl Hamilton, who is director of Partner Engagement at the International Institute of New England.
The “Shared Worlds” project, which the university is backing with support from the Mosakowski Institute for Public Enterprise, aims to take an unprecedented glimpse into the kinds of relationships Worcester’s diverse inhabitants have with each other, and hopefully provide valuable new data to influence policy-making decisions in the city.
“While we sometimes look at Worcester in a nostalgic way, it’s really in a state of becoming,” Ms. Fabos said, as immigration continues to reshape neighborhoods, schools and business in the city. “In a large part, it’s a story of the United States.”
But existing data about Worcester’s foreign-born residents has focused primarily on how they are integrating into the city – the types of services they need, the kinds of occupations they have – rather than on how they are intermingling with the area’s U.S.-born residents. Nor is there much information about how immigrant groups are interacting with each other, the researchers said.
As a result, there isn’t much information about “the intangible of social belonging,” Ms. Fabos said, a factor that is often an important ingredient in the “recipe for long-term well-being of a community.”
While they didn’t want to taint the responses of future participants by revealing too much about what residents have said so far, Ms. Hamilton said, a variety of experiences have been relayed in the research team’s interview groups. Some foreign-born residents have become part of a rich network of connections with other immigrants as well as native residents, while others have remained mostly isolated.
“We’re not just measuring refugees’ sense of belonging,” she added. “How do U.S.-born residents feel?”
The breakdown of people being interviewed for the project is roughly 25 percent foreign-born – foreign-born people make up about 22 percent of Worcester’s population – and 75 percent U.S.-born, and it’s the U.S.-born whose experiences are often left out of studies on the impacts of immigration, Ms. Hamilton said.
“Yet there’s two populations who are being impacted” by immigration, she pointed out. “Our main goal is to make sure people are being heard.”
As of Thursday, the Shared Worlds researchers had interviewed around 30 groups of eight to 12 people; their goal is to talk to 1,000 residents. They expect interviews will extend into early January, and are still encouraging community groups to host a session by contacting them email@example.com.
Ms. Fabos said her team has already been working closely with local groups, especially those with close links to various foreign-born populations in the city, to draw in volunteers. That strategy has proven effective, she and Ms. Hamilton said, as evidenced by the fact they have already nearly met their quota for foreign-born interviews.
“It’s been a domino effect,” Ms. Hamilton said, as foreign-born residents who participated in the project have recommended it to friends and relatives. “What I’ve heard consistently is that participants felt like they were heard for the first time. I think that’s a really wonderful outcome so far.”
The interviews are being conducted by a team of graduate students such as Mikayla Bobrow, who are working through interpreters to ask questions to the study’s subjects. There is some nuance involved, she said, in getting an accurate sense of people’s experiences.
“I noticed the younger men were dominating a lot of conversation” in one of her sessions with Rwandan and Congolese refugees, for example, she said. “And I noticed it was really hard to get the women to speak.”
One of the primary aims of Shared Worlds, Ms. Hamilton said, is to avoid letting the testimony of spokespeople represent the experiences of an entire community or nationality.
“What’s unique about the project is we’re really going for the grass-roots level,” she said. “We’re trying to get the moms and dads and neighbors.”
Considering many of those people have never shared their viewpoints before in a study like Shared Worlds, Ms. Fabos said she and her fellow researchers “have no idea what the outcome will be” of their interviews.
“It could be really interesting to see if Iraqi refugees are starting to make contact with Hmong refugees or Vietnamese immigrants, for example,” she said.
It could be equally illuminating to see whether U.S.-born residents are still maintaining relationships with each other, Ms. Hamilton said.
“I’ve heard people who’ve said they don’t even know their neighbor,” she said. “Why is that, and is it the same for a Vietnamese refugee?”
One of the study’s questions to participants, both foreign- and U.S.-born, for instance, is where they most often sees U.S.-born residents in their daily lives. For some interviewees, their only interaction comes at work, while others have a greater variety of interactions at their children’s schools, their neighborhood churches and other social gathering places. Other residents may not feel there’s even a need for such interactions, and “it’s important to understand their experiences as well,” Ms. Hamilton said.
Once they have finished their interviews, the researchers hope to put the comprehensive summary report of their findings into the hands of Worcester’s decision-makers sometime next year. “This is not research that’s going to sit on a shelf here at Clark,” Ms. Hamilton said. They said they’ve received interest in particular from Mayor Joseph Petty’s office.
“The mayor has certainly made it a priority to make Worcester as welcoming as possible to all its residents, especially foreign-born residents,” said Mr. Petty’s chief of staff, Daniel Racicot. “I think we’re always looking for best practices, and looking for as much information as possible when we make policy decisions.”
Scott O’Connell can be reached at Scott.O’Connell@telegram.com. Follow him on Twitter@ScottOConnellTG
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