Finding common ground – effective messaging for promoting inclusion

By raising awareness in your community and countering negative narratives with effective messaging, you can help to make your community more inclusive.

diverse group at community gathering
Photo: iStock/SDI Productions

Your most challenging role as an advocate for newcomers will be among less welcoming members of your own community. One of the most effective ways to build inclusion and acceptance is to establish common ground between long-term residents and their new neighbors.

Give established residents a voice

Being a good advocate involves listening to the fears and worries of long-term and non-welcoming community members with respect. If you dismiss their concerns as prejudice or selfishness, you will not win hearts and minds.

Instead, acknowledge that things are different, and find out what their wishes are. Remind them that refugees and asylum seekers come because they are trying to get away from terror and conflict, not bring it with them, and that engaging people and making them feel welcome is the best prevention. Reminders of immigrant ancestors are also helpful with some groups as they encourage empathy and establish a bond.

Find common ground

You can also point to the positives that immigrants bring with them. Find common ground by identifying similar values that refugees have with long-term community members – work ethic and resilience, religious and traditional societies, family values – and build your advocacy around that. There are plenty of things some newcomer groups have in common with more conservative Americans, who may only resent newcomers because they don’t understand them.

Focus on economics

Sometimes redirecting people’s attitudes means giving them some hard information and statistics to counter the more vague negative narratives that are based around fears more than reality. These New American Economy reports offer some well-presented state-by-state information about the economic benefits brought by newcomers to the United States.

Effective messaging

This excerpt from The Receiving Communities Toolkit written by Susan Down-Karkos and published by Welcoming America offers some great tips for communicating with long-term community members facing the changes brought by new Americans.

messaging tips graphic

The following excerpt from the same Toolkit uses an example by psychologist and pollster Drew Westen of an effective message that utilizes a solidarity narrative:

Here is another powerful way that Westen begins a conversation with ambivalent groups: “In the military, there is a saying that you never leave anyone behind on the battlefield. Indeed, in today’s military, those who are white, black and brown fight alongside each other and know that they need to have each other’s back. They know they can count on each other in good and tough times. We need to bring this spirit into civilian life. We all need each other in this country as we move forward into the future. We’ve all got to have each other’s backs.” This messaging has worked well with people from all political backgrounds, including those who tend to be more negatively inclined towards immigrants. To an extent, it drapes diversity in the flag, and works because it touches on the country’s patriotic ideals.

Since publishing The Receiving Communities Toolkit, Welcoming America has more recently published America Needs All of Us, which has more great messaging tips and ideas.

Counter negative narratives

Hate groups are the most extreme example of negative narratives, but there are others that are more subtle. People will express fears about jobs being taken, crime increasing, violent extremism, foreign cultures, and disappearing traditions.

Negative narratives may appear in local media. You can counter these with positive ideas for stories and letters to the editor: hard-working people, community work done by immigrant groups, and images of citizenship. Church and civic group newsletters offer another good place for positive narratives.

Social media is a powerful tool, especially since it is home to much of the negative narrative. Partner with local organizations to offer positive messages about people, programs etc to project a positive image for your new neighbors and reach a wide audience for events promoting connection and awareness.

Give newcomers a voice

According to immigrant integration expert Suzette Brooks Masters, meaningful contact and deep listening are effective in changing opinions. Invite newcomers to speak at an event about their experiences. You can incorporate this into other community events rather than trying to attract a crowd to a stand-alone event: for example, a parents’ evening at a school, a church social event, or an open house at a civic group, such as the Rotary Club.

Another good option for giving immigrants and refugees a voice is to host a film screening. The New Immigrant and Refugee Visions film series is available for “Screen and Discuss” events, at which you can show a selection of the short films followed by an open discussion facilitated by one of the New American filmmakers or a community member.

Learn from the experts

Suzette Brooks Masters published a report in January 2020 entitled Change Is Hard: Managing Fear and Anxiety about Demographic Change and Immigration in Polarized Times. In it she says: “Use framing to inoculate rather than alienate. Immigration proponents may use narrative frames that unwittingly pit Americans against immigrants, thus alienating them. . . . It’s preferable to use approaches that inoculate long-term residents against fear-based narratives.”

Specifically, she suggests avoiding these approaches:

  • exalting immigrants as better than Americans (immigrant exceptionalism);
  • focusing too narrowly on immigrants rather than on shared identities or shared values (making it about “them” rather than “us”);
  • elevating the value of diversity as an inherent good (thereby promoting the notion that we are more different than the same);
  • making people who are immigrant agnostic or skeptical feel judged, irrelevant or ignored.

You can download the report or read it online.

In 2019, Welcoming America updated The Receiving Communities Toolkit referenced above with a new series of papers they named Building Cohesive Communities in an Era of Migration and Change. You can read and download the whole series.