Austin takes step toward joining ‘Welcome America’

Published 10:44 am Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Austin City Council passed a motion at its work session Monday night to join an organization that would allow the city to be more welcoming toward minority populations and immigrants.

City Administrator Craig Clark heard about the Welcoming America program from the Southeast Minnesota Together group, which is an organization that looks at workforce shortages and who wanted to make southeast Minnesota a more welcoming region, he said.

“Essentially it’s an effort to be more welcoming to our immigrant population, minority populations, doing more to reach out to them [and] understanding their sort of frame of reference in being more inclusive as a community,” Clark said. “Obviously Austin is growing, the base of diversity is increasing. We certainly want to do that.”

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Welcoming America is an Atlanta, Georgia-based membership program of about 75 to 100 members offering tools, resources, webinars and toolkits from other communities who have tried and had success with becoming a more welcoming community.

If the city joined, it would be the first community in Minnesota to do so.

The city can choose from several different methods to participate in, Clark said. He said Apex Austin and the Human Rights Commission supported the idea of joining the program.

“I think they felt more strongly that we designate the city of Austin as a welcoming community and gear our efforts toward that, allowing the resources to flow through sort of that banner,” Clark said. “This effort is really intended to just strengthen the good works they’ve been doing and enhance that through a network of connections.”

Jason Baskin, chair of the Austin Human Rights Commission, suggested to try the program for a year and see how much the city gets out of it.

“Really the appeal to us is it fits with a lot of diversity and inclusion efforts we have and one of the challenges that we run into is it feels we are reinventing the wheel every time,” Baskin said. “And so if this gives us access to thought leaders and the best practices that other cities are doing, we think we can make more meaningful and positive change faster than having to necessarily kind of create something and learn the hard way every time, so I think that’s really a good deal for us.”

Baskin said at $200 a year for membership was a pretty low cost.

Council member David Hagen agreed and said the “idea and concept sounds perfect for Austin.”

Clark said he would be the “point person” to help Baskin, Apex Austin and others to find benefits from the program.

Austin Welcome Center Executive Director Jake Vela wrote in an email that he agreed with Baskin and said it would support what the Human Rights Commission already does.

“I see a really good fit for some of the material that seems to be available through that organization with some of the work we’re doing there as well,” Vela wrote in an email, which Clark read at the meeting. “I’m strongly in favor of it.”

YMCA Executive Director Tedd Maxfield said the national YMCA has been encouraging local Y’s to post Welcoming America events, such as National Welcoming Week. He said the Y would like to be involved.

Clark relayed Vela has already used some of Welcoming America’s materials and presentations.