Five Questions With: Michelle DePlante

Director of community relations at Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island talks about the Welcoming Rhode Island program. More

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Five Questions With: Michelle DePlante

"OVER THE last few years, in collaboration with the Global Studies department at Providence College, we interviewed 60 immigrants and refugees around the state who hail from 45 different countries."
Posted 5/30/14

Michelle DePlante is director of community relations and Welcoming Rhode Island at the Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island. She directs community engagement and advocacy work related to immigrant and refugee integration. The daughter of a Cuban immigrant, she graduated in 2008 with a degree in Global Studies from Providence College, where she now is a community faculty member. She compiled the data and interviews for “Global Rhode Island,” a yearlong project aimed at enhancing inclusive policies, programs and practices for immigrants in the state. Here she discusses the value of that project, future plans and her role in it.

PBN: What is Welcoming Rhode Island and how is Dorcas engaged with it?

DEPLANTE: Welcoming Rhode Island’s mission is to bridge the divide between foreign-born newcomers and U.S. born Rhode Islanders to foster a more inclusive and welcoming atmosphere. Hosted by Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island to complement our direct-service programs, Welcoming Rhode Island is a community-based initiative that seeks to affirm our state as a welcoming place for all and continues to build strong, vibrant, and more cohesive communities across the state.

Welcoming Rhode Island was launched in September of 2011 as an affiliate of Welcoming America, a national, grassroots-driven collaborative seeking to create a welcoming atmosphere, community by community, in which immigrants are more likely to integrate into the social fabric of their adopted hometowns. There are roughly 20 states that have welcoming affiliate programs across the country, and a growing number of municipal governments who have signed on to the Welcoming Cities and Counties cohort, including the city of Central Falls.

There are many things that Rhode Islanders can disagree on. One thing that brings us all together is our common values and shared future. Welcoming Rhode Island recognizes how new Rhode Islanders contribute to our economy, enhance our combined culture and strengthen our communities.

PBN: How was “Global Rhode Island” conceived, and how long was it in the making?

DEPLANTE: At Dorcas International we often receive requests for information about the foreign born community – from high school students to medical students, social service providers and companies trying to do outreach due to changing demographics. While we have tracked basic data in the past, I have always thought it would be valuable to provide the community with a comprehensive data set about our state’s immigrant and refugee population.

Over the last few years, in collaboration with the Global Studies department at Providence College, we interviewed 60 immigrants and refugees around the state who hail from 45 different countries. As studies came to light showing the low-self esteem and negativity that many Rhode Islanders held toward our state, we heard of the optimism and excitement that immigrants and refugees had for our state through the interviews.

From experience, I knew that if we looked at who was “in our backyard” we would find folks from more than half the world. If Rhode Island was having discussions around “making it happen” in a 21st century globalized economy, we could ill-afford to leave out our newest neighbors who bring fresh ideas, skill sets, and are extremely adaptable and entrepreneurial. More than ever, we decided now was the opportunity to provide the hard numbers in the “Global Rhode Island” report to compliment the human stories we collected and move Rhode Island towards becoming the first welcoming state.

PBN: The data in your report is a bit outdated, chiefly covering 2011 and 2012. Is there any data you can provide that is more recent?

DEPLANTE: The data in the “Global Rhode Island” report consisted of the latest data that we had access to. In most cases that was 2012 data from the American Community Survey, but for other indicators that data went back to earlier years in 2010 and 2011. At Dorcas International Institute, we are not a research center or a think tank, and thus hope to further partner with our institutions of higher education to further collect and analyze the data. As new data emerges we hope that we can provide that to the community as well.

PBN: What were the major common findings revealed by the 60 interviews of foreign-born Rhode Islanders?

DEPLANTE: Nestled in the cozy corner of New England, Rhode Island is a hopeful state for everyone who calls it home. Native Americans and immigrants from many nations have settled in the Ocean State for hundreds of years. From an industrial mill area to an increasingly 21st century global hub, Rhode Island has a history of welcoming diverse waves of immigrants and refugees to its shores.

From the 60 interviews we found that regardless of what decade immigrants and refugees arrived to Rhode Island, or what country they came from, they all faced similar struggles. Most were separated from immediate relatives at some point and some struggled with language barriers. Many experienced the bitterness of the winter cold and snow for the first time. Yet, all knew that they had risked everything to rebuild in “Little Rhody” and were determined to make it regardless of the barriers to achieve the American Dream.

Of all the places they could have settled in the world, they choose Rhode Island for many of the same reasons why U.S. born folks have stayed here – to be close with family, relax at the ocean, experience the four seasons, enjoy diverse cultures and the close-knit community feel. As much as job opportunities were important, so was quality of life.

All Rhode Islanders have an interesting story to tell. As a small state, we are only one degree of separation away from someone whom we presume ourselves to be completely different from. Welcoming Rhode Island encourages neighbors to exchange stories with the aim of breaking down barriers, improving cultural understanding and strengthening relationships.

PBN: What are the long-term goals for “Global Rhode Island” and how can people who are interested get involved?

DEPLANTE: While often perceived as a federal issue, the impact of migration is felt primarily at the local level where policies, programs and practices shape the day-to-day lives of immigrants and refugees. Informed by the “Global Rhode Island” report data and the collection of interviews, Welcoming Rhode Island will launch the development of a cross-sector, statewide welcoming plan.

In the years ahead, we look forward to collaborating with partners in the public, private and nonprofit sectors to document existing best practices, current barriers, and provide recommendations to build more inclusive policies, programs and practices that will improve the lives of immigrants and refugees while contributing to the economic success of Rhode Island as a whole.

We have already started reaching out to our community partners and we look forward to developing new partnerships throughout the rest of the year. In January of 2015 we will begin convening forums related to economic development, educational attainment, access to public services and spaces, and law enforcement relations, to name a few topics.

Forward thinking leaders around the country are redesigning cities and towns in the race to the top – leveraging immigrants and refugees as contributors and as an essential part of our economic and community development. It is time that Rhode Island gets on board.

To join us, interested parties can contact Michelle DePlante at mdeplante@diiri.org or 401-784-8644.

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