Member Stories: Lancaster Community Foundation

Monday, June 13, 2022 - 8:14 am

When Divides Surfaced Over Immigration, It Built Bridges

In 2017, the BBC dubbed Lancaster, Pa., the “refugee capital of the country,” highlighting its role in resettling more than 20 times more refugees, per capita, than the United States as a whole. To support the needs of more than 1,300 new neighbors, the Lancaster County Community Foundation had been doing its part through multi-year commitments throughout the community. But around that same time, the broader political discourse around refugees and immigrants started to shift – and so did the attitudes of many Lancaster residents.

“There was a growing divide,” said Samuel Bressi, president and CEO of the foundation. He began to realize that “this might not be viewed as something that’s positive by all.” 

But instead of backing away, Bressi and his team galvanized a diverse range of nonprofits, businesses, educational institutions, and individuals to combat disinformation and build a coalition of support. Out of that grew several bridge-building initiatives: community education forums hosted by faculty from Franklin and Marshall College; a refugee-focused community center at a local middle school; dinners between local residents and refugee families; an entrepreneurial support group, and more. But the Foundation’s marquee project was “Here, There is Welcome,” an interactive art exhibit for local residents. It combined data from an in-depth study on immigrants’ contributions to the local economy with unearthed artifacts showing the community’s long history of welcoming outsiders, from slaves traveling the Underground Railroad to members of persecuted religious groups.

“We were able to put stories together of real people who were really contributing to in Lancaster,” Bressi said. “The data is clear that this is a net positive. This is not charity. This is enlightened self-interest for a community who wants to grow and wants to develop.”

Bressi and Dave Koser, the foundation’s director of programs, shared takeaways from the work to build common ground and help make the county more equitable for generations to come. 

  • Make sure you have board support.
    “The more controversial the issues that you’re tackling, the closer you need to keep your board behind you,” Bressi advised, from core values to budgets and operations.
  • Build a coalition through creative partnerships.
    The Foundation worked with various sectors within the community – including the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce, the preservation organization LancasterHistory and Church World Service Lancaster – along with national organizations like the New American Economy Research Fund.
  • Use one bridge to help build another.
    The work with refugees and immigrants also brought to light other needs in Lancaster, Bressi said. “We’re looking not only at refugees,” he said, “we’re looking at individuals who may have been here for generations and may have been disenfranchised and not given the opportunity to thrive.”  In 2022, the foundation committed about $150,000 for Community Bridge Builder Grants supporting “new programs to erase hate and prejudice, and to advance welcoming and appreciation of differing perspectives.”
A student at a refugee school in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, proudly displays his work. Image courtesy of Lancaster Community Foundation
A student at a refugee school in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, proudly displays his work. Image courtesy of Lancaster Community Foundation 


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