By the time City Administrator Tara Vasicek and Centro Hispano Welcoming and Belonging Director Liz Rodriguez reached the seventh floor of Adobe’s 18-story high-rise in San Jose, California, they were blown away.
In front of them was a 50,000-square-foot café boasting an array of cuisines from around the world so that employees and members of the public from all backgrounds have at least one food option they’re familiar with and can enjoy.
“It’s intentional, and that’s because they want to include everyone and make them feel at home,” Rodriguez said.
Vasicek echoed that sentiment, recalling touring the facility and seeing spaces for all people’s preferences. There were nice coworking options, such as big meeting rooms, as well as enclosed areas and booths for people to work alone. Then there was the art gallery, community gathering rooms and meditation spaces, among other things.
Additionally, the space was designed with bright colors to reflect the neuroscience behind the effects of colors on the mind, and to evoke emotional responses based on the space.
“You could see how they really are trying to be welcoming to everyone, just by the colors and language they use,” Vasicek recalled. “Every space in that building was designed to make all of their staff feel welcome and part of a family. It was really cool.”
The Columbus duo got to tour the multinational computer software company’s Founders Tower on its headquarters campus in downtown San Jose as part of Welcoming America’s Rural Welcoming Communities Exchange program. Welcoming America is a nonprofit organization that provides the roadmap and support institutions need to become more inclusive toward immigrants and all other residents.
Centro and the City of Columbus were just two of 16 entities selected from the United States and Australia to participate in the fully-funded program that offers virtual and in-person exchanges with peers. It commenced in late April in California and coincided with Welcoming Interactive 2023, a conference that brings people from around the world to network and discuss topics related to inclusion.
As part of it, Vasicek and Rodriguez went on a whirlwind tour of California over the course of four days, visiting with community leaders in San Jose, Madera, Fresno, Clovis, Mendota and San Francisco about their efforts to make their diverse communities more welcoming to people of all backgrounds.
“What we learned is all these places have the same issues, like housing, immigration, workforce shortages, but the way they go about finding solutions varies from community to community,” Rodriguez said. “They found creative ways to fit within communities and find solutions to the problems going on. I just came away with so many ideas.”
That was a significant reason Vasicek wanted to participate in the program. Approximately 25% of Columbus identifies as an immigrant, and as the community continues to grow, City leaders expect the immigrant population to rise with it. Finding new and better ways to make everyone feel welcome is critical, she noted.
“For me, it was an eye-opening experience learning what other communities are doing and how we are incredibly fortunate to have Centro Hispano here because a lot of Nebraska communities don’t have something similar,” Vasicek said of the local nonprofit that provides services in immigration, education, and business, primarily in Platte, Colfax and Madison counties.
“Everybody is where they’re at because they think that place, whether Columbus or someplace else around the world, can offer them the best quality of life for their family. It’s a community’s responsibility, a city’s responsibility, to make sure everybody has a fair opportunity to fulfill that vision.”
The entire Centro Hispano team participated in the conference alongside Vasicek and Rodriguez, though the latter two also made excursions with fellow program participants from Crete, Nebraska, Minnesota and Australia to the numerous California communities. Those trips resulted in face-to-face meetings with local government officials, nonprofit leaders, residents and an immigration attorney, among others.
Vasicek and Rodriguez said they learned about the various ways other communities have aimed to address growing diversity and how to make their towns feel like home for all who live there.
“It really broadened my view,” Vasicek said. “I think we can make a lot of generalities about our immigrant population and we need to stop doing that.”
The two, as well as Centro Hispano Executive Director Karina Perez, all said the common theme from the week was ‘intentionality.” They discovered a lot of out-of-the-box ideas while on the West Coast that got them thinking about the many ways Columbus could improve.
One such example was tree canopies, which the coverage can provide many ecosystem benefits, and reduce residential heating and cooling costs, as well as potentially reduce water usage for lawns. It was brought to their attention that trees are less commonly found in neighborhoods that have more people who identify as immigrants or bring in less income living in them.
The proof’s in the pudding. According to a 2021 study by the conservation organization American Forests, neighborhoods with a majority of people in poverty have 25 percent less tree canopy on average than those with a minority of people in poverty, based on an analysis of income, employment, age, ethnicity, health and surface temperature with tree canopy data in 486 metro areas.
Upon their return, Vasicek took some time to drive around Columbus to see if it could be among those with discrepancies when it comes to tree canopies based on factors like age, ethnicity and income. Unfortunately, she said the answer is “yes.”
“It’s true,” Vasicek said. “And what we discussed was, ‘how does this ultimately affect injustice?’ It’s not something you think about, but it makes a lot of sense when you start talking about it. So, there are a lot of things we can do to make a difference.”
Perez said there has been a lot of great development over the years in terms of making Columbus feel like home to everyone who lives here, but it’s going to take everyone viewing the topic of inclusion differently than it has been historically.
“This isn’t a political issue. We’re talking about things in our community. Our economic development, our neighborhoods, creating opportunities and spaces that are more welcoming for all,” Perez said. “Those are topics that embrace and affect everybody, so how do we get folks in our community to start seeing it that way? Let’s talk about the human side.”
It requires busting down the doors on the old way of thinking, the trio noted. Perez, Vasicek and Rodriguez said they’d like to see new tables of people eager to help create solutions come about rather than existing ones being extended because it’s going to take fresh perspectives leading the charge to make things happen.
“It won’t happen by accident,” Vasicek stressed. “We have to be very intentional with what we’re doing.”
Rodriguez said she’ll often hear people share their desire for big-box retailers like Target to open in Columbus, but that will only happen if Columbus scales in size. Growing in size will require the community as a whole to embrace new residents of all backgrounds and make Columbus feel like home.
“That’s the layer we want to discover, but we have to and want to do it as a team,” she said.
Rodriguez and Perez said they’re appreciative of Vasicek and the City of Columbus for their support and for embracing the ever-changing and growing population. Vasicek and Rodriguez will continue the program with online virtual visits before heading to Australia in October 2023 for the conclusion.
The trip was well worth it, the trio noted, because they came away inspired on how to make Columbus more inclusive. Even things like the expansive multicultural dining area, color schemes and other features at the Adobe headquarters helped Rodriguez and Vasicek realize there are many ways to reach their goal for a community that has for decades taken pride in being the “City of Power and Progress.” There isn’t a one-for-all roadmap on how to get there.
“We all just want to live in a great Columbus,” Perez surmised.
But it will take the community at large to make it happen.
“We’re on our way but we have a long way to go and we need everyone at the table,” Rodriguez said. “Not just Centro, not just the City; but everyone who wants to service our community, they have to be at the table. It’s really about our entire community and us putting in the work together to make this a welcoming community for all.”