RISE Summary: Assets & Challenges
The RISE project was designed to solicit personal opinions and perceptions from ethnic groups in Rochester to determine what issues they are facing.
Nine ethnic groups were contacted and seven participated in the project: African-Americans, Bosnians, Cambodians, Hmong, Somalis, Sudanese, and Vietnamese. In most cases, participant selection was aided by a volunteer within each community - an elder, church leader, or community advocate.
The participants were asked questions about their first impressions of Rochester, what information or help was most useful in getting settled in Rochester, what makes members of their community stay in Rochester or leave, what skills and assets their people bring to Rochester, what would they like others to know about their traditions and culture and what is misunderstood, what are the biggest challenges to living in Rochester, and what could be improved.
For the most part, participants shared very favorable first impressions of Rochester. Although many of the refugees fleeing civil war were simply assigned to Rochester, their satisfaction with a city that is safe, clean, and quiet comes as no surprise. Many groups cited education opportunities and a safe environment for children as major benefits of coming to the city.
Family and friends assisted most in helping people relocate and adjust to life in Rochester. Many participants cited strong bonds with their families and others in their local ethnic communities as important reasons to remain in Rochester. Also credited for providing assistance to their relocation efforts were local churches and the Intercultural Mutual Assistance Association (IMAA), which offers emplyment assistance, cultural admustment, immigration assistance, and information and referral.
When participants were asked to outline the assets they bring to the Rochester community, shared themes emerged among the groups. They included a strong work ethic, caring families, and strong religious values.
All seven focus groups cited a strong work ethic in their communities and all emphasized their ability to learn on the job. Where language acquisition poses a barrier, individuals are able to learn by demonstration and imitation. Many newcomers had substantial education or professional degrees in their country or city of origin, and they also bring different ideas and a global perspective to Rochester.
Although the groups bring different religious traditions to Rochester, the core values inherent in their religious beliefs make the newcomers good neighbors and responsible citizens. Participants recognized that Americans often do not grasp the importance of religion to their cultures and acknowledge that they need to educate their employers and the community about their religious practices so that they do not become a hindrance to their success.
Participants cited sveral employment-related reasons for leaving the Rochester area, including lack of available jobs, lack of jobs offering a livable wage, and lack of professional opportunities. The most highly educated immigrants (those with a higher education degree, professional training, or professional experience from another country) are the most likely to feel that Rochester is unresponsive to their skills and unwilling to use their talents. Many move to larger cities for better opportunities.
Many participants, while possessing a strong work ethic, find it difficult to navigate the world of implied, rather than explicit, expectations. Since many American work customs are very different from those of their country, they cite the need for understanding from their employer and assistance with interpretation of the rules.
Ohter concers include a lack of community leadership opportunities, the small size of their ethnic communities, limited assistance with language acquistion, limited public transportation, and the cold climate.
Renting is a concept new to many Rochester immigrants. Most owned their own home until moving to America, and are unused to having restrictions on their living arrangements. Many groups' style of living with extended family is foreign to many Americans, who are used to living with just their nuclear family unit.
Many groups also expressed concerns about the lack of affordable housing and the tendency of some rental agents to steer a particular ethnic group to a certain area of town. Although living in proximity does offer the advantage of ethnic group support, it robs the newcomer of the opportunity to interact with the Rochester community in the informal atmosphere of a neighborhood.
The participants discussed cultural differences that tend to cause confilcts. Some groups said they naturally speak loudly when they get together for a conversation and Americans often think they are arguing and causing trouble. Other groups indicated that they consider it disrespectful to look a person in the eye, but Americans often think that their downcast eyes signify lack of confidence or dishonesty.
Many people do not realize that the dozens of choices they make in everday interactions are based on their cultural traditions. Consequently, it is easy to misunderstand the choices of people who have been raised in a different tradition.
The participants indicated that they work hard to learn the American rules of social interaction that will enable them to "fit in" to the Rochester community. They also hope the Rochester community will understand that their ways are not "wrong," only "different."
Although most participants cited instances of discrimination in their lives in Rochester, many were hesitant to label it as such. They insisted that misunderstandings are due to lack of knowledge on the part of Americans and the newcomers' lack of familiarity with the written and unwritten rules - the culture - of Rochester. Part of their strength is their willingness to work hard on these issues.
The participants also described feeling a need to justify why they are here. Members of all focus groups want Rochester residents to understand that they have come to Rochester not to take advantage of public assistance or social services, but for the same reasons current residents or their ancestors came: safety from war or crime, job opportunities, and a good life in exchange for hard work.