Bridging Divides, Creating Community: Arts, Culture, and Immigration

October 6, 2020

By: Rachel Perić, Executive Director, Welcoming America

ArtPlace America and Welcoming America are thrilled to announce the release of “Bridging Divides, Creating Community: Arts, Culture, and Immigration.” Researched and authored by John Arroyo, PhD, AICP, this report is the eighth in ArtPlace’s series of cross-sector field scans exploring how arts and cultural practitioners have long been and may increasingly be partners in helping to achieve community development goals. In her foreword to this report, excerpted below, Welcoming America’s Executive Director Rachel Perić shares her perspective on the power that creative placemaking holds for those working to create an America where everyone – including immigrants and refugees – can belong and thrive. 



As a young girl, I would often find myself sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen, the aroma of cooking onions and various confections filling the room.  A storyteller to her core, my grandmother would, in that small and intimate world, bring to life a past that could not have been more foreign to a little girl whose chief concerns did not include those my grandmother faced in her own youth – losing her family and home, surviving a genocide, emigrating to the U.S. to find safety and a new sense of belonging.  In those moments, my grandmother – just as humans have for all time – deployed the tools of culture: stories, food, and later, art – to achieve something both utterly common and absolutely extraordinary: to make the foreign become familiar, the frightening become safe, the “other” become “us.” 

Today, I lead an organization working to create a world where all people, including immigrants like my grandmother – and the 2.5 million people on the move today – can find belonging, opportunity and a place to call home.  After a decade of work, and in a moment of growing polarization, I am more convinced than ever that to create such a world, we need to summon this power – the power of arts and culture to shape the way we understand and are bound to one another, across even our largest divides.  

Amidst all the policy debates, white papers, and legal solutions, it can be easy to miss the simple things we are searching for today, and which either drive the “othering” that fuels immigrant backlash, or offer the solution to it – the desire among all of us, immigrant or not, to be seen, to be heard, to belong, and to find a sense of home and safety amidst so much uprooting. 

Despite our national climate, many communities have addressed these deeper needs – and are successfully making themselves places that feel like home to everyone who lives there – whether they just arrived or have lived there for generations. Where these welcoming efforts have been successful, artists, cultural organizations, and creative placemakers have not been at the periphery but at the center of such efforts. They are using their talents and assets to shape policies that weave newcomers into the civic, social, and economic fabric of communities. They are helping neighbors understand why such work is vitally important by coming to see one another not as “us” and “them,” but as “we.”  And they are also reaping the benefits of inclusion as they attract more diverse audiences, become more reflective of their changing communities, and contribute more to the vibrancy of communities. 

These examples – while on the rise – are not yet the norm.  If they were, our country would be in a very different place than it is today when it comes to our frayed civic fabric, patterns of exclusion and segregation, and experiences of racism and othering. 

For all these reasons, Welcoming America is deeply grateful to be partnering with ArtPlace to make the arts absolutely core to the work of creating an America where everyone – including immigrants and refugees – can belong and thrive. It is vital work, and we hope this scan, thanks to John Arroyo’s insightful research, sparks new ideas for every institution who cares about community and a sense of home for all Americans, to take up this call.  

To learn more, download the field scan or check out the key strategies and case studies excerpted on our website.