City: Aurora, CO (United States)
Role: Manager, Office of International and Immigrant Affairs
Aurora joined the Strong Cities Network in July 2016, building on rich experience in working to support a strong and cohesive community in which everybody has a stake. In this interview, we spoke to Ricardo Gambetta about his work to support immigrant communities in the area, develop outreach initiatives, and put inclusion and integration at the top of the agenda.
What’s special about Aurora’s approach?
Aurora is becoming a more international and diverse city – actually, it’s the most diverse and safest city in the state of Colorado. Over the past few years, the city has increased its commitment to including immigrants and refugees in civic and public life. We value the input and feedback from our newest residents. In order to identify the needs and priorities of the local immigrant and refugee communities, we asked the community for their ideas and recommendations during the development of our immigrant integration plan. As a result of this community engagement process, the Comprehensive Strategic Plan was completed and approved by the City Council in September 2015.
We’ve tried to use the assets we have here in Aurora to their best effect so that each part of the community has a stake and a contribution to make in helping immigrant communities feel part of our city. This makes us safer, more connected and more understanding of one another. Take small businesses as an example, or recreation and sports activities. These are all key tools for integration and can have such an important role to play, making a real impact on the community and the many different groups that live here.
What are some of your best programmes?
As a part of the implementation of the Comprehensive Strategic Plan, the Office of International and Immigrant Affairs (OIIA), in collaboration with the Aurora Police Department and the Aurora Welcome Center, launched a series of innovative programmes and efforts toward the local immigrant and refugee communities.
I think those I’m most proud of at the moment are our International and Immigrant Teen Police Academy, City Youth Academy and our Natural Helpers program.
What are the aims of the International Teen Police Academy?
This is about improving relationships between the community and the Police Department. It’s about building trust, which is essential in supporting law enforcement to keep us safe but also in helping communities – particularly those, like recent immigrants or refugees, who may be more vulnerable or disconnected from the services and agencies we have here – not to feel targeted, stigmatised or set apart from the police and the rest of the city.
Not only does the programme build these relationships, it also promotes careers and professional development in law enforcement among the youth and refugees.
How does it work and who’s involved?
Our focus is on young people, so schools are integral. At the moment, we have around 25 or 30 students drawn from local public schools. There is a selection process and there are always heaps of applicants. It’s essentially a series of introductory public safety training classes and many develop an interest in policing careers. It sits alongside our other two police academies, the Citizens’ Police Academy and the Teen Policy Academy, which go back to the early 1990s. Like these, the aim is to build partners in the community who can help us identify problems, while helping the community understand the jobs our police officers do.
What is a Natural Helper?
It’s basically an informal volunteer in the community, so they’re not professional social workers. But they can really help and assist others in their community. They are given training for 3 days and we’ve now trained over 60 across 3 classes. They come from over 30 different countries. When we first started this, we thought we’d maybe get 5 or 6 applications. We got 75. I think that speaks for itself, in terms of the appetite and the potential for this kind of work. This programme is an excellent way to empower immigrants and refugees in any city around the world.
I think a key issue that’s common to all refugee and immigrant groups, no matter where you are, is the challenge of getting to ‘know the system’. That’s something we really try and address proactively.
How does the programme work in practice? What happens if a helper thinks someone is at risk?
We have a programme manager based at the Welcome Center. Helpers report back on their activities and if there are concerns over individuals or particular groups, they flag it to the programme manager. We have additional liaison points within different groups who have helped us keep on top of developments within particular communities and there is also a dedicated police officer from the Chief’s office to offer support from the law enforcement side.
Ultimately, it’s really important that the Helpers are trusted by the communities they are working with. That’s a really important lesson and again it comes down to building bridges and reaching out.
When we talk about sharing best practice, it’s really helpful to talk about mistakes too. If you had to find mistakes, or if you had the opportunity to go back and start again, what would you change?
We – that is, the municipality – can’t be the face of these programmes. I worked on similar programmes before I came to Aurora and at first we tried to run every aspect of the project, doing it all by ourselves. But having these initiatives run by an NGO is so much more effective. Again, it’s about building that trust. Our Welcome Center has been central to that, hosting about 8 or 9 different NGOs.
We strongly believe in collaborations and partnerships and the role of the city is to bring everyone together; these are not immigrant or refugees’ issues, these are community issues and everyone plays a key role in the integration process. We do believe that working together we can achieve our goals and build a better community. Our office is looking for more private-public partnerships and opportunities in the near future.
Municipalities can’t do this work alone, but they can help support good local non-profits who are often effective in gaining the trust of the community and thus helping grow the programmes, recruit new volunteers and make sure that we know our own communities, we’re aware of challenges and issues, and people feel better connected to the system.