In Seattle, Washington, as in other major Western cities, nonprofits and agencies struggle to understand and address the needs of their migrant and refugee communities. A problem-solving model is frequently utilized in an effort to integrate these communities.  What are their needs?  How might civic participation be enhanced?

In collaboration with the leadership of a non-profit serving the East African community and with support from the Seattle Foundation, Neighbor-to-Neighbor grant program, we asked a different question.  Instead of starting with the refugee community as a ‘problem to be solved’ we took the appreciative inquiry (AI) approach to frame a different question:  “How might a strength-based approach to civic participation empower the often un-heard voices of refugees while building understanding across traditional cultural barriers in diverse urban neighborhoods?

Instead of focusing on solving a problem, we launched an intergenerational story-telling project. This involved three generations of members of refugee families.  This inquiry led to a celebration of the strengths of the East African community in Seattle.   From that process, emerges an inclusive community-wide conversation. It is true that migrant and refugee communities in large Western metropolitan centers face daunting challenges in integrating into their new homeland.  Often, the journey to the new world has been through a refugee camp and has involved extreme hardship and the violence of regional conflicts.  But, instead of focusing on the problems in these communities, we chose instead to focus on the many strengths of the East African communities.

A positive vision for the East African community to be more active participants in the civic and social life of urban neighborhoods replaces a problem-based assessment of community needs.  Appreciative Inquiry provides a formative context for the celebration of the richness of diverse traditions, cultures, languages and life experiences.  This approach requires the courage and trust to listen to unheard and disempowered voices, the humility to let wisdom and understanding emerge organically from a community conversation, and the ability to step outside preconceptions of what an Appreciative Inquiry process ought to look like.

In July 2013, we celebrated completion of the first phase of this project.  The festive event was held in the Eritrean Community Center.  The rich textures and tastes of hot spicy foods from East Africa seasoned the proceedings!  The celebration crossed age boundaries, cultural, and linguistic boundaries.  A gripping moment was the shared poetic reading of two young women—one from Eritrea and one from Ethiopia.  The two nations have historically had deep conflict.  Today, these two women shared the transformation of the conflict into a moment of profound understanding of the bonds that we share in the human community that can transcend differences.

My work, as a facilitator of community conversations and as an Appreciative Inquiry facilitator, is deepened by my participation in this event.  In the moment that I reached across a table to join hands with the beautiful Eritrean baby, Kidane, my heart opened to a profound new understanding of what it means to be relational beings on a journey together.