Portland initiative seeks greater inclusion of immigrant youth

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PORTLAND — Several local organizations will use a $68,000 grant to identify and reduce the barriers to the full inclusion of immigrant and refugee youth in greater Portland.

The Hudson Foundation grant will allow LearningWorks to partner with The Institute for Civic Leadership and Steve Wessler, founder and former director of the Center for Preventing Hate, on the “Partners for Empowering Immigrant Youth” initiative.

The Portland-based Hudson Foundation is a private family foundation that awards grants to nonprofits that serve the needs of disadvantaged and marginalized people, as well as community-based programs that empower at-risk immigrant and refugee youth.

Joel Russ, partnership director, said the intent of the initiative is to identify barriers, gaps in service and programs that could help prevent immigrant and refugee youth from disproportionately dropping out of school and coming in contact with the criminal justice system. 

Barriers arise from many factors, including the need to achieve fluency in English, anti-immigration and racial bias, adjustments to a new culture, and lack of access to and understanding of community resources, Russ said. 

“If we are to reduce the disproportionate number of immigrant/refugee youth dropping out of school and involved in the juvenile justice system, we need to engage a new approach rather than simply do more than we are already doing,” LearningWorks Chief  Executive Officer Ethan Strimling said in a prepared statement. “Talking the time now to better understand the underlying factors contributing to this complex issue will not only significantly improve the likelihood of more positive outcomes in the community, but also serve as a model for other communities to follow and achieve similar results.”

During the next year, the partners will conduct an evaluation of those barriers through conversations with as many as 125 youth and their families, focus groups, community engagement activities and research.

“The intent is to develop a program that is responsive to what we have learned,” Russ said, adding information will be distributed statewide so other communities can benefit from the initiative.

The process will include inventory of existing programs that assist immigrant and refugee families and the identification of gaps in service to better understand what is missing that would help youth become more integrated and included in the community, he said.

“We don’t have a full understanding as a community of what all those (available) services are,” Russ said.

He said one of the symptoms of the challenge of integrating immigrants into the community initiative partners are most interested in learning more about is the number of young minority and immigrant men and women who have contact with the juvenile justice system.

Maine’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Group has acknowledged that, despite the relatively small number of minorities in the state, the national trend toward disproportionate minority contact with the juvenile justice system is an issue locally.

In Cumberland, York and Androscoggin counties, juvenile arrests of black youth were 1.88 times the number of white youth, and referrals of black youth to juvenile court were 3.98 times that of white youth, according to a 2009 report from the Juvenile Justice Advisory Group.

LearningWorks already has in place programs for the immigrant/refugee population that include language and vocational training, employment opportunities, after-school activities, a mentoring programing and civic leadership development, Russ said.

“It has become increasingly evident that despite the best intentions and targeted efforts by a network of educators and service providers to meet the needs of our immigrant/refugee youth, we are still not making significant enough progress. And we don’t know why,” Russ, Wessler and Jan Kearce of the Institute for Civic Leadership wrote in a project description.

“We believe that simply expanding existing programming or investing further in programming based on assumptions and intuition will not produce significantly greater results for immigrant youth, nor will it transform our approach,” they continued. “We want to work smarter, not harder.”

Gillian Graham can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or ggraham@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @grahamgillian.