This week, we are featuring one of our member cities. The City of Lincoln, NE has made welcoming immigrant communities a priority. This feature is a part of Welcoming America’s Welcoming Week, which is bringing together immigrants, refugees, and long-time residents to build strong connections and affirm the importance of welcoming and inclusive places in achieving collective prosperity. Read on for our interview with Mayor Leirion Gaylor-Baird of Lincoln, NE and more information on how you can make your city a place #WhereWeBelong.
What makes Lincoln a welcoming and inclusive city, and what efforts are underway to expand on that?
Lincoln has welcomed immigrants since its founding in the 1860s and with great focus for the past 50 years as an official refugee resettlement community. Lincoln is home to religious, non-profit, and community and cultural organizations which provide essential services to our resettled residents. Our public schools serve families from 152 countries who speak 100 different languages. We have thriving immigrant-owned businesses providing authentic cuisine, skilled labor, and cultural services.
To build on this tradition of inclusion, we released in 2022 a local Welcoming and Belonging Strategic Plan. We developed the plan in collaboration with over 500 stakeholders including immigrant and refugee residents, nonprofit organization staff members, elected officials, and philanthropic leaders. These thorough collaborations can produce transformative outcomes, like our Career Ladder program. Career Ladder’s goal is to assist internationally trained immigrants and refugees in returning to their professions in Lincoln, unlocking economic opportunity and self-fulfillment.
Why do you think this work is important?
The land we now call Lincoln was originally inhabited by the Ponca, Omaha, Winnebago, Dakota, and Otoe-Missouria people. As such, unless we are members of these tribal nations, we all are immigrants to Lincoln – the only difference is when we arrived. This reminds us that we are united by the reality that we came to Lincoln to seek the incredible quality of life that we enjoy with our great schools, beautiful parks and trails, economic opportunities, and safe and affordable housing.
My administration works every day to ensure that Lincoln continues to be a great place to live for all our residents. Our immigrant and refugee neighbors and friends are a vital part of our community, and the more they enjoy a true sense of welcoming and belonging, the more our community will thrive.
Are there any key partnerships that have supported the city in this work?
Our City team collaborates with many strong partners to make Lincoln a welcoming and inclusive city. Partners include elected officials, Lancaster County representatives, and an extensive network of nonprofit agencies. The New Americans Task Force is a key convener of stakeholders committed to ensuring that immigrants and refugees are welcomed and feel a sense of belonging in our community. A former mayor of Lincoln, Helen Boosalis, initiated the creation of this task force in 1985. She charged community leaders with making sure our new neighbors received the services, opportunities, and supports they needed to be successful.
This relatively small group first convened 37 years ago now includes some 100 nonprofit leaders, immigrants and refugees, elected officials, K-12 representatives, law enforcement officials, resettlement agencies, cultural center leaders, and housing program staff. All work collaboratively with and on behalf of our new neighbors.
What learning lessons would you offer to other mayors on successful and effective leadership around this issue?
Key to Lincoln’s success has been our practice of bringing stakeholders together to create an environment where immigrants and refugees can share their experiences, strengths, and needs. Only by listening to our new neighbors and those who work with them every day are we truly able to understand how city resources, programs, and services can be leveraged in a way that welcomes newcomers to our community.
Above all, being present and available to support our community’s immigrant and refugees matters. I recently helped cut the ribbon for the new home of the Karen Society of Nebraska. This amazing organization provides support to over 500 immigrant and refugee families from Burma. Attendees shared that my presence meant a great deal to them, but it meant even more to me – because at the heart of this work lies the understanding that we create transformed, inclusive new realities by becoming transformed, inclusive people.
Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird was elected the 52nd mayor of Lincoln, Nebraska in May 2019. Mayor Gaylor Baird believes that city government, at its best, helps people coexist and reach their full human potential. The mayor’s vision of leading Lincoln toward a more successful, secure, and shared future drives her administration’s agenda. Learn more.