GAITHERSBURG, Md. — Perched on the northside of the Nation's Capital, Montgomery County, Md., has long been as one of America's wealthiest jurisdictions. It might be one of the last places you'd look for breakthroughs in helping poor immigrants.
Yet it's happening. Montgomery, like many of its suburban counterparts nationwide, has turned into a great immigrant gateway. In 1980, only 12 percent of the its population (then 579,000) was foreign-born; today the figure's 30 percent of 950,000.
And fewer of these immigrants are from Mexico, which supplies the most to the United States; rather they're mostly from Asia (led by China and India), Central and South America (El Salvador first), Africa (Ethiopia), and Europe (Ukraine).
In normal times, many new immigrants struggle for a foothold; in a recession, high numbers are jobless, face eviction and other hardships. But in Montgomery County, a coalition has come together to break the typical shell of fear and alienation.
The idea: go to immigrants' homes, engage them through friendly door-knocking campaigns, speak their language, check on problems they face, let them know about neighborhood gatherings, help them tap available government and non-profit services. And even more–ask immigrant families about skills they might possess that may help their neighbors.
A cast of unusual players has created this remarkable experiment.
There's Uma Ahluwalia, the county's bold, Indian-born director of Health and Human Services. Ahluwalia found herself deeply dissatisfied with running static offices where people in need–assuming they know where or how–come in desperation when they face eviction, joblessness or hunger.
And she has a new partner: Frankie Blackburn, an indefatigable social activist in Montgomery's city of Silver Spring–a once sleepy suburb that's turned, in Blackburn's words, into "one of the most diverse communities on the planet." Her focus: to engage immigrants in self-awareness, so that they can deal more smartly with the "establishment" all around them.
Blackburn invented the "knocking on doors" approach for immigrant neighborhoods. And it appealed quickly to Ahluwalia, who felt the personalized, activist approach made "perfect sense" for government offices charged with helping people. The secret, she said, is prevention: putting up homeless families costs $110 a night in a hotel, it often takes 40 to 60 days to find them another place. "If I can stop that $5,000 bill by providing rental assistance and back rents, I have saved a lot of money." And, she adds, such help can save children the destructive experience of living without a real home or frequent school-to-school moves.
A first step of door knocking–after a warm-up conversation–is to ask if the family has a problem with health access, finances, jobs. The visitor tells about help available at a "Neighborhood Safety Net Center" –six to eight such centers are planned, targeted to the most vulnerable communities. And the family is invited to a "Neighbors Exchange" session– "dinner, childcare and translation provided."
I visited a pilot center, in what seemed a typical suburban office park, manned by clearly motivated social service workers and "community connectors" (hired locally, who speak the immigrants' language.) After necessary short-term services are provided, the goal is to help immigrants form into self-generating community networks of competent self-help–the polar opposite of the sense of defeat, blame and low self-esteem that too often flows out of social service worker-client relationships.
The new approach has partners–among them the Community Foundation of Montgomery County, Catholic Charities and others. And critically, strong county government interest sparked by Bruce Adams, director of Montgomery's Office of Community Partnerships.
Working in the office of County Executive Isiah Leggett (his colleague when both were on the county council), Adams' approach is sweeping and unconventional. "We aim," he says, "to reach out and empower the ethnic communities that are emerging– 'building bridges' so that people outside the government can better deal with us–helping them learn to 'speak bureaucrat,' as it were." Even while, he adds, "people inside government gain greater appreciation of partners outside."
And as if the enterprise needed more spirit, it's getting it from Timothy Warner, a research scientist turned Methodist clergyman and community organizer. Warner's vision: to persuade faith communities to join in the door-knocking and organization of often disconnected, distressed communities.
"It easy to knock on a door here, have it opened by a mom with three toddlers and scarcely any furniture behind her–even here in a verdant Montgomery County neighborhood," notes Warner.
He took me to a small church–the Mercy Seat Chapel of the Redeemed Christian Church of God–a largely West African congregation. He'd persuaded its pastor to join the Neighborhood Campaign, knocking on doors. The effort's just weeks old but really working, a young parishioner told us: "It's letting us carry a message of love, to let people know they are not alone."