Every week, a group of Chinese elders meet in their Philadelphia housing complex to learn and practice traditional Chinese dance. The teacher, Ms. Xu, relishes the chance to share die art she learned as a child and to create a meaningful garnering.
Ms. Xu, age 70, and her husband, Mr. Wang, 75, left professional careers and native culture in China 14 years ago to support their son's graduate studies in Philadelphia.
In meir new country, rhey took care of their son and then their grandchildren. Altiiough Ms. Xu and Mr. Wang wanted to get involved in their community and knew they had much to offer, mey struggled wim language barriers, cultural differences and an alien social landscape.
Despite the growing number of older immigrants and refugees, little attention has been paid to die community-engagement activities of this population, particularly those with limited English-speaking knowledge. In 2007, with funding from MetLife Foundation, the Temple University Center for Intergenerational Learning launched an initiative called Civic Engagement for All.
This initiative builds on the center's two decades of work with immigrant communities through Project SHINE (Students Helping In Naturalization of Elders). This national service-learning program mobilizes college students to help older immigrants learn English, prepare them for U.S. citizenship and improve their health literacy skills. The center designed Project SHINE to increase understanding of the nature of civic engagement among older immigrants and refugees and to identify promising practices for supporting the involvement of this population in civic activities.
Wim guidance from a national advisory committee, we at the center conducted 10 focus groups in Philadelphia, Atlanta and Orange County, California, with a total of 100 older immigrants and refugees from six ethno-linguistic groups (Latino, Chinese, Liberian, Vietnamese, Somali and Ethiopian).
Our discussions with elders focused on three key areas: types of civic engagement activities in which they are currently involved, motivations for their involvement and factors that influence their engagement. The following are some of the findings from these focus groups.
For many foreign-born elders, civic engagement, volunteering and community service are unfamiliar Western cultural constructs. To make mese concepts more applicable to immigrant communities, we adapted categories of civic engagement behaviors developed by die Points of Light Institute: helping (both informal and formal), giving, influencing and participating. We added a fifth category, leading, to reflect instances in which older immigrants are community mobilizers.
By broadening the concepts of volunteerism and civic engagement, we confirmed mat older immigrants and refugees are making innumerable contributions to their communities, primarily through informal and personal networks. Focusgroup participants spoke of older Ethiopian refugees who raised funds for a neighbor faced with financial crisis, an older Liberian leader who resolves family conflicts, and a group of Somali elders who assist newly arrived refugees in becoming acquainted with the United States.
A Somali elder explained, "One of the things we do is when new people arrive, we teach them about me area and how to clean the apartment, talk to landlord . . . do things for themselves."
Older immigrants also discussed ways they have contributed to their communities tiirough trusted organizations and religious institutions. Latino elders said they participate in a town watch to protect their senior residence, Chinese retirees teach English as a second language and computer classes to other seniors, and a Vietnamese older adult facilitates a support group for torture survivors.
Although motivations for civic engagement differed among study participants, several common themes emerged. Many older immigrants became involved in projects out of a longing to be socially connected and to be contributing members of their community. Mr. Wang and Ms. Xu, for example, decided to move from me suburban home they shared with their son and his family to a senior residence in Philadelphia after their grandchildren no longer needed childcare. They started to volunteer at a nearby senior center that attracts Chinese elders and to organize a recreational class at a senior housing community.
Other focus-group members said they became engaged because mey felt an obligation to give back to their community in appreciation for the opportunities they had received. They reported that other strong motivators were their religious beliefs, a desire to encourage youth to preserve their native language and culture, and a wish to address specific community problems.
These motivators do not necessarily result in successful connections with civic engagement opportunities, however. The center's research revealed several factors influencing the nature of older immigrants' engagement, particularly a person's stage of life, health status, English-language proficiency and familiarity wim U.S. systems.
Experiences immigrants had in their native country and cultural conceptions of civic engagement also influence participation. For example, an older Vietnamese refugee who had been held prisoner by the communist regime after the war in Vietnam may not feel comfortable joining an advocacy effort because of his memory of being barred from engaging in community activities in his native country.
An equally important factor is the existence of civic connectors, such as ethnic-based social service agencies, religious institutions, informal groups and family members who play a role in linking elders to meaningful opportunities.
For example, a Mexican- American elder in California described how his church, with his leadership, acts as a broker for services within the community by helping members locate and navigate needed services. He told us, "When you're involved, you don't have to go out looking for people to help. People come to you. So they come and they ask us if there's help at church for people. We know where to send the people ... we know about the communities."
In addition to hearing the voices of older immigrants, the project team is identifying promising practices by conducting interviews with communitybased agencies that are currently engaging older immigrants.
Also, pilot projects are underway in three cities to test innovative strategies for supporting limited-English-speaking elders in service. With financial backing from the United Parcel Service Impact Fund, the initiative has also created a local advisory council consisting of immigrant community leaders and professionals from multiethnic community-based organizations in the Philadelphia region. They will discuss implications of the research findings and develop training materials for organizations working toward involving older immigrants in community activities.
Key themes that have emerged include the importance of developing culturally relevant civic opportunities, enhancing the self-confidence of elders and building authentic partnerships between traditional providers and multiethnic community-based organizations. The Civic Engagement for All training program is being developed for organizations, interested in developing opportunities to engage the immigrant and refugee population in community service.
Older immigrants from Southeast Asia who now live in Philadelphia, above, interact with schoolchildren through a project of the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association Coalition.
Mr. Wang and Ms. Xu volunteer to teach Chinese dance at a senior residence in Philadelphia.
Nancy Henkin is executive director of the Center for Intergenerational Learning at Temple University in Philadelphia. Andrea Saylor works with the AmeriCorps Vista program at Project SHINE, where Hitomi Yoshida serves as project manager. The new Project SHINE report on their focus-group study is posted online at www.templecil.org.…