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Q and A with Bill Garcia

by Mark Peres

January 7,2008

What is the mission of International House?

Our mission is to promote international understanding by serving as a center for diversity, advocating for people of diverse national backgrounds and facilitating professional and cultural exchange programs. Our service area covers the Charlotte-Mecklenburg region.

Why would someone with an international background and who is multicultural want to live in Charlotte?

For the same reasons that anyone else would want to live in Charlotte. The city is an attractive and affordable place. We have an exceptional quality of life; the amenities of the region are tremendous; our cultural establishments are growing; we have a major airport; and there are ample opportunities for work. That attracts internationals just as it attracts citizens from other American states. Thirteen percent of our population is now foreign born, with 1/3 of these having arrived since 2000. Of the foreign born population, 51% are Latin Americans, 26% are from Asia, 12% from Europe, 7% from Africa and 2% from North America. We are becoming more diverse by the day.

How do you see that change in demographic shaping the city?

Charlotte has the opportunity to build a climate that promotes the successful integration of immigrant communities into the social and culture fabric of the city. I arrived in Charlotte in 1994 at a time when the Latino population was just starting to grow rapidly. Using the Latino immersion experience as an example, successful integration of immigrant groups happens in stages.

In the first stage of integration, new internationals seek out others from their countries of origin or who share a common culture or language. Informal groups are formed to support individuals with unique heritages and who face similar cultural or social challenges in their new environment. The groups that come to mind are the Latin American Coalition and Latin American Women’s Association, both formed in the 90’s and housed at International House for a period of time. In the second stage, these groups develop solid organizational structures through stronger leadership and stable funding. They begin to narrow their scope and improve their effectiveness. In the third stage, there is a growing emphasis on promoting economic and professional development opportunities due to the increased buying power and growth in numbers of small business owners and foreign-born professionals. We now have a thriving Latin American Chamber of Commerce of Charlotte. The community also becomes a market for national organizations to establish chapters, such as the Charlotte Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting. Amenities are built to target and serve internationals, and businesses and social service providers build their cultural competence to better serve the new population. Additionally, there is an opportunity for support groups to collaborate and to demonstrate impact by coming together on a regional basis to address common concerns. Organizations like enlace (formerly called the Latin American Council of Charlotte, which received organizational support from I.H.) and the Hispanics in Philanthropy initiative come to mind. In the last stage of a successful integration process, individuals with diverse backgrounds are simply part of the fabric of the community, at the table, able to shape policy and events.

What work is International House engaged in?

We host a variety of activities that bring internationals and local Charlotteans together to celebrate international cultures and languages, and to promote understanding and acceptance. We help internationals increase civic participation through legal consultation, representation and referral services, civics education and English language training. We improve access to healthcare and social services through our affordable language interpretation services. We serve as an incubator to emergent immigrant community groups. Lastly, we facilitate international visitor exchange programs, which offer volunteer cultural and professional hosting opportunities. Our work is divided into three main areas: the Center for International Diversity, our Citizen Diplomacy Programs, and our Immigrant Advocacy Programs.

What are some of the programs of the Center for International Diversity?

The Center for International Diversity serves as a meeting place and community resource center for internationals and locals to establish and strengthen relationships. The Center hosts language conversation hours in Italian, English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese and Russian. The Center offers the following programs: a ‘Doorways’ women’s program which brings international women and locals together for educational and social activities; an International House Book Club that recently merged with the Charlotte World Book Club; lecture series, like the recent one on ‘African Identity in the 21st Century’; and other periodic cultural events that explore arts, culture and language. Recently, in collaboration with the North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, we hosted a workshop on Hindu classical music. We are presently incubating the African and Middle Eastern Councils, which provide forums for sharing information about different cultures and fostering important dialogue.

Tell us about your Citizen Diplomacy and Immigrant Advocacy Programs.

Our Citizen Diplomacy programs encompass two United States Department of State programs: the ‘International Visitors Leadership Program’ that facilitates the training of future foreign leaders for professional exchange opportunities in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg region (we hosted 118 visitors from 44 countries), and ‘Community Connections,’ which is a 3-6 week training program for participants from the republics of the former Soviet Union. Our Immigrant Advocacy Programs include three semesters of citizenship classes (five classes per semester, involving 86 people in 2007), English language individualized and classroom tutoring (serving 120 people), and an Immigration Law Clinic, including a staff attorney, paralegal and legal assistant, who together helped over 500 low-income immigrants with consultation, advice and/or representation. We help educate low-income immigrants about their legal rights, reducing their chances of being victimized by unscrupulous practitioners, and make the American Dream come true for eligible immigrants.

How can internationals and local citizens learn more?

Whether you were born in the States or abroad, if you want to share unique cultural experiences and build lasting friendships, we welcome you to make International House your “home away from home.” We’re located in a beautiful neoclassical house in the Elizabeth neighborhood on 322 Hawthorne Lane. Our website is  Volunteer opportunities are available.

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