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Tackling Digital Citizenship

Homa Naficy is being honored as a White House Champion of Change for her leadership and commitment to libraries and museums around the United States.

Homa Naficy is being honored as a White House Champion of Change for her leadership and commitment to libraries and museums around the United States.

Homa Naficy

Throughout my twenty-year career working in public libraries, I’ve always been drawn to serving disenfranchised populations and connecting them to information and services. I arrived in Hartford, Connecticut, in 2000 to collaborate with dedicated staff on establishing The American Place as a multiservice center designed to welcome immigrants and to facilitate their successful transition into their new home city.

Hartford’s immigrant residents respond so positively to our center that the ESL and citizenship classes are consistently over enrolled. To this day, we host a variety of annual events honoring the rich cultural backgrounds of Hartford’s immigrant communities – which today make up almost 25 percent of the city’s population.

Our scope of services has grown over the years, yet I was struck by the fact that although a high number of our students were learning English, gaining employment, and becoming citizens, many remained apprehensive about fully engaging with the broader community around them. We realized that while direct services significantly impact immigrant integration, such integration also depends greatly on institutions creating a welcoming environment that is receptive to their cultures and experiences. Additionally, these institutions must provide resources and targeted strategies that build up the know-how necessary to participate fully at the local level. 

In response, Hartford Public Library sought and received funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to develop and pilot such strategies. These strategies aggressively engage the receiving community (long-term residents) in support of immigrants to enhance their connection to the broader community. The two main initiatives include a Cultural Navigator model that trains volunteers to mentor new arrival families, and a Community Dialogue model that brings immigrants and long-term residents together in conversation around issues of mutual concern -- leading to action. Both strategies are designed to build relationships of trust which is noted in the field as one of the key practices for promoting immigrant civic integration. 

As government (federal, state, and municipal) moves increasingly towards communicating with constituents via an array of online media, that same know-how has an additional layer of complexity – in that it now requires immigrants to possess a level of technological literacy to participate effectively in our democracy. To begin addressing this gap, the Library was generously funded by U.S.  Citizenship and Immigration Services to develop immigrant peer support systems and e-learning opportunities for citizenship education.  In spite of the grant’s promising outcomes and success stories, the fact remains that the digital knowledge need is far greater than initially perceived.  As immigrants face this new, often daunting hurdle, it’s up to libraries to design technologically-rich educational programs that simultaneously promote online civic participation.

Being a Champion of Change is about being an agent of hope and opportunity. We are making progress and we are making a difference in many lives, but much remains to be done.

Homa Naficy is the Chief Adult Learning Officer at Hartford Public Library.