Civic Engagement for All Initiative Engages Older Immigrants

By Henkin, Nancy; Yoshida, Hitomi et al. | Aging Today, September/October 2008 | Go to article overview

Civic Engagement for All Initiative Engages Older Immigrants


Henkin, Nancy, Yoshida, Hitomi, Saylor, Andrea, Aging Today


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.

PROJECT SHINE

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.

MOTIVATIONS

Although motivations for civic engagement differed among study participants, several common themes emerged. …

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