Friday, 22 July 2016

‘Where the Rivers Meet’: Welcoming immigrants in Dayton, Ohio

Jacqueline Housel, Colleen Saxen and Tom Wahlrab

Compared to 1970, the size of the immigrant population in the United States quadrupled by 2014, growing from 9.6 million (4.7% of the population) to 42.4 million (13.3%) (Zong and Batalova 2016). With this surge in the immigrant share of the population, public attitudes towards immigrants have been mixed. In fact, the environment was largely unfavorable towards immigrants nation-wide in 2011 when the Human Relations Council in Dayton, Ohio discovered that some considerable numbers of immigrants to the area, as well as others, were being denied their rights for housing because of ethnicity or race. This discovery led to a community-wide effort to engage in conversations about local immigration.  This conversation centered on the question: “What is possible if Dayton became a city that intentionally welcomed immigrants?”  These conversations helped produce a consensus that Dayton “wanted” to be immigrant-friendly. After ninety days of work, the community completed a welcoming plan, “Welcome Dayton,” endorsed by the Dayton City Commission. This plan was an invitation to all – the receiving community and immigrants – to commence new welcoming initiatives and strengthen those already in place. 

Welcome Dayton immediately brought a great deal of attention to the city. National media outlets wrote stories about Dayton’s new policy, often characterizing Welcome Dayton as a laudable and strategic move by a post-industrial city to revitalize itself economically. Cities from around the country began looking to Dayton to learn how they could enact similar policies. Even The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (2013), a popular American television show featuring political satire, got in on the action, airing a spoof about US immigration policy featuring Dayton’s city manager. 

Meanwhile, we observed an outburst of home grown initiatives, many of which were never explicitly planned or sanctioned by the city, but seemed to emerge organically through the actions of individuals involved in the ongoing conversation within the nascent Welcome Dayton movement. Many spoke in emotional detail about how much it meant to them that their city would take a stand to support immigrants. We observed that Welcome Dayton reached out and advocated for all immigrants, not just those with the greatest promise for contributing rapidly and significantly to the local economy. Clearly, this initiative needed to be investigated so that the city could understand the mechanics of the process that led to Welcome Dayton, and we wanted to produce an understanding at a level that would allow these processes to “travel” successfully to other communities and to other potentially divisive issues.

Therefore, we formed a collective of researchers and practitioners – all previously involved and familiar with local immigration issues. Over the course of two years, we observed many Welcome Dayton initiatives, interviewed key stakeholders, and read materials from a variety of fields about immigration. In studying Welcome Dayton, the authors found the concept of resourcefulness (McKinnon and Derickson, 2012) to be most useful. While the success of immigrants is often attributed to their ‘resilience’ or their ability to adapt to local circumstances, in the case of Welcome Dayton, we observed a degree of resourcefulness in the community members to reflect on and ultimately change local circumstances. 

As we investigated emerging initiatives of Welcome Dayton in light of resourcefulness, we identified the presence of what we called intentional recognition which we defined as “individuals collaborating to create an environment that encourages, amplifies and sustains community resourcefulness” (Housel, Saxen, and Wahlrab 2016). In our paper, we describe the practice of intentional recognition in the context of the conversations that propelled Welcome Dayton and its subsequent initiatives. We investigated the qualities that characterize conversations as intentionally recognizing individuals as valued and connected through a shared humanity, as full partners with agency, and with inherent potential. We believe that the work of Welcome Dayton is more shareable as a process not only to cities leaning towards welcoming immigrants, but also to encourage communities to take on the hard work of entering difficult conversations about issues that most matter to our communities. 


Housel J, Saxen C and Walhrab T (2016) Experiencing intentional recognition: Welcoming immigrants in Dayton, Ohio.  Urban Studies Journal OnlineFirst (July 1, 2016): 1-22. 
McKinnon D and Derickson KD (2012) From resilience to resourcefulness: A critique of resilience polity and activism. Progress in Human Geography 37(2): 253-270.
Stewart J (Producer) (2013) The Two Faces of Illegal Immigration (10 Oct 2013) The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Comedy Central. 10 Oct 2013  Available at: (Accessed July 2016).
Zong J and Batalova J (2016)  Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigrants and Immigration in the United States. Migration Policy Institute Spotlight, 14 April. Available at:  (accessed June 2016).

  1. ‘Where The Rivers Meet’ is the title of a Playing for Change video (2014) created in Dayton, Ohio and produced by David Sherman, Michael J. Bashaw and Sandy Bashaw.  Available at: (accessed July 2016) 

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