As an alumnus of a US Department of State exchange program, I was eligible to apply to attend the State Department’s Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminars in Kansas City earlier this year on the theme of entrepreneurship. During that seminar week, there was a peer-vote pitch competition and although I had never participated before in something like that, I won! That motivated me to continue developing the idea I presented on a pilot project for and with migrant and refugee artists in Chicago.

Following that seminar week, I reached out to fellow alumni in order to collaborate on a proposal to the Alumni TIES small grant opportunity. We are grateful to have been awarded the full $10,000, but are well aware of the grant’s many restrictions. I and other project leads must volunteer our time and funds cannot support an organization.

The project, New Neighbor Arts Entrepreneurship (August 2019 to January 2020) is a pilot initiative designed to help new migrants and refugees integrate successfully into American society and find a place for themselves in their new neighborhoods through arts careers and entrepreneurism. This six-month pilot project is fully sponsored by the U.S. Department of State – Alumni TIES.

“I was so pleased to hear about the Dept of State -Alumni TIES pilot program utilizing the arts in Chicago to help new migrants and refugees find a place for themselves in their new neighborhoods.”

Mary Anne Carter, Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts

My fantastic project partner, Letitia Zwickert, is a U.S. Fulbright Specialist in Education 2017-2020 and U.S. Fulbright-Schuman Scholar 2016. My accountability partner, Peter Hoesing, is a Fulbright-Hays Program participant 2009-2010. The volunteer task force for the project is in development. Current members are Willyum LaBelja, Kim Carballo, Lizette Garza, Lisa Gonzales, Sami Ismat, Lauren Rose Milburn, Brian Shaw, Shayna Silverstein, Steph Vondell, Ryan Walters, and Nadia Zeeshan.

Article 27 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts.” Bryan Stevenson’s theorizes that positive social change has four elements: proximity to people and ideas, rewriting the narrative, hope, and discomfort/vulnerability. With those two concepts at its center, this project aims to empower new migrants to successfully integrate and establish a place for themselves in their new neighborhoods through artistic careers and entrepreneurship.


1. Create, test, and refine an accessible and effective introductory “Arts Careers & Entrepreneurship” course specifically designed for migrant/refugee artists in the United States, translated into at least two languages.

2. Empower six trainers from refugee/migrant communities as workshop facilitators in order to increase their social confidence in English, mobility throughout the city, knowledge of arts entrepreneurial concepts, and cross-cultural collaborative capacities.

3. Help 30-80 migrant/refugee artists grow their awareness and understanding of arts careers and entrepreneurial capacities.

4. Establish and strengthen relationships between arts organizations and migrant artists.

-I will bring my own joy and badassery.
-I will read the project e-mails and will let project leads know if I don’t understand something or if something is unclear.
-I will speak up if something is wrong, if something is off-track from our shared values and goals, or if I am experiencing something highly uncomfortable.
-I believe a power shift needs to be achieved towards migrant/refugee artists having more power, agency, and resources.
-Wherever possible, I will proactively protect against exploitation, re-traumatization, and re-victimization, especially in the context where someone else benefits.
-Among several other agreements…

MOTIVATIONS FOR THE PROJECT, written from my perspective:

Today’s world is highly volatile, with the highest number of forcibly displaced persons in modern history. Refugees and other migrants whom are resettled in urban America — like other communities developing in self-determined insularity — lack opportunity for intergroup contact, as they are not often met by a healthy ecology of trust and reciprocal engagement in their new neighborhoods. The process of “being resettled” itself lacks opportunity for agency; refugee and asylum-seeking families have little to no choice in if they will have a certain legal status and where/when they will be resettled. 

This distrust is intensified in the Midwest, where red and blue state policies and perspectives often collide, and thus these environments become either unwelcoming or overly patronizing as “charity” cases. Many refugees who have been resettled in Chicago have been placed in West Ridge, alongside Orthodox Jewish neighbors. As one of the few pockets in the city that voted for Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election, the West Ridge neighborhood has seen increased societal tensions. In 2016, 49% of the new refugees in Chicago came from the predominantly Muslim countries in the subsequent year’s travel ban. Gallup’s 2009 Religious Perceptions in America: With an In-Depth Analysis of U.S. Attitudes Toward Muslims and Islam report warned, “…more than 43% of Americans admit to feeling at least “a little” prejudice toward Muslims, 22% of Americans said they would not like to have a Muslim as a neighbor.” Improvement since then has been slow.

Several organizations are all doing great work in job readiness services for migrants/refugees but there has not been enough of a connection to the performing arts and new media. Resettlement and immigration case managers lack awareness of career opportunities in the local arts scene and artistic ventures, especially in the performing arts and new media. A majority of the existing arts entrepreneurship programs ignore or bypass the importance of the body in social integration. Rather than handcrafts, this program focuses on capacities in the performing arts and new media which contribute to peacebuilding by encouraging proximity and expression. In the performing arts and new media, individuals take up space, share physical and digital spaces in the neighborhood, and take the stage to be seen and applauded by their neighbors.

Contact me at [email protected] for more information on this project.