The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Building Relationships and Bridging Social Capital Through The Immigrant Civic Engagement Project: A Program Evaluation

Friday, January 17, 2014: 8:00 AM
HBG Convention Center, Room 102B Street Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Rebecca L. Thomas, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Connecticut, West Hartford, CT
Christina M. Chiarelli-Helminiak, MSW, Doctoral Student/Research Coordinator, University of Connecticut, West Hartford, CT
Brunilda Ferraj, BA, Graduate Student/Research Assistant, University of Connecticut, West Hartford, CT
Background and Purpose

Adjusting to life in an adopted country is a complex process that involves encountering a new language, societal norms and customs. Newly-arrived immigrants increasingly rely on their own ethnic enclaves for support, resulting in less inclination and opportunity to engage with the broader community. It is imperative that receiving communities affected by changing demographics develop creative approaches to facilitate immigrant integration.

Based on the concept that relationship building is one of the fundamental principles for best practices in newcomer civic participation, one Library has developed the Immigrant Civic Engagement Project, which builds social capital among community members through a Cultural Broker Program and a series of Community Dialogues.

This presentation will provide results from the first two years of the project evaluation, investigating two research questions:

1) Will the Immigrant Civic Engagement Project facilitate the transition of newly-arrived immigrants into the community and assist in relationship building with long-time residents?

2) Will the Immigrant Civic Engagement Project develop and implement a structure to help better-established immigrants participate in civic activities and become involved in the broader community building efforts?

Quantitative and Qualitative Methods

The evaluation comprises of a mixed method approach.  Using purposive sampling, data was collected from 65 project staff, key stakeholders, volunteers and program participants.  Data has been triangulated through researcher notes, interview recordings, meeting agendas, minutes and survey data.

Working from a social constructivist frame, the evaluation team has acted as participant-observers throughout the entire evaluation process, capturing multiple subjective realities through a series of in-depth, semi-structured interviews. A 34-question survey was developed to collect data regarding the Community Dialogue goals and process.


The goal of building relationships between newly-arrived immigrants and long-standing residents has been supported by efforts to recruit a diverse grouping of cultural navigators.  A new model of cultural navigator pairs was introduced to provide additional support for volunteers and families. Cultural navigators continue to be trained and matched with newly-arrived immigrant families.

The second goal was supported through a series of dialogues focusing on adult education. Receiving and immigrant community members formed seven dialogue groups, of which 91% of participants responded to the survey. An overwhelming majority (91%) agreed that the dialogues generated more interest in becoming involved in broader community activities. Participant’s ability to communicate with people who hold different views also increased (67.3%).

Thematic analysis of qualitative data reveals Project achievements and challenges and highlights the complexity of relationship building among immigrant and receiving community members. The skills and abilities necessary for implementing a successful project are also revealed.

 Implications for Social Work

The current debate on immigration reform, changing demographics and the increasing vulnerability of the immigrant population in difficult economic times creates opportunities for advancing social work practice. While the profession often focuses on direct practice with immigrants, there exists a need for larger, community level approaches that require social workers to diversify their skill set and develop a broad knowledge base that includes micro, meso and macro approaches to immigrant integration.