By Christopher Patten
In early 2019, the Center for Civic Design began meeting with individuals who had become American citizens within the last five years. Eventually, they spoke with 36 participants from over 20 countries. The meetings began with traditional interviews, but ended by asking the participant to engage in a short drawing activity. The two methods revealed many insights.
- ‘Civic engagement’ means different things in different countries. Many advocates assume that new citizens will become engaged and vote, but this wasn’t always the case.
- New citizens bring experiences from their culture that influence engagement in civic life. They might fear authority or crime or feel frustration with competition and lack of security. New citizens also come with expectations around the American dream. Most of our study participants came to the U.S for a better life. They were willing to work hard for safety and security.
- New citizens who arrive with privilege and English have more interaction with civic groups and advocates sooner. For those who arrive poor, it takes time to integrate. Only after you reach a comfortable living situation can you have the mind space to take part in civic life.
- Negative interactions with government officials linger after immigrants become citizens and deter them from getting involved. Positive interactions, however, motivate and accelerate acculturation.
- Immigrants are largely on their own to find their way through learning how America works, which natural born citizens learn to navigate through by growing up in it. Because of this, having information available in multiple media in language about voting and elections is essential for many new citizens to becoming and staying engaged in civic life. Language access is a gateway to learning more English and becoming better informed voters.
Happy en la vida
The drawing you see was completed by a participant immediately following the interview.
A citizen who had come illegally from Mexico drew six people on his paper, adding “Happy en la vida”. This signified his family and how he now knows he won’t be taken away from them. Now it was safe to move forward with his life. He also said that the people represent those he works with. He talked about how in his restaurants there are such diverse people all working hard and getting along.
Christopher Patten is Design Researcher at the Center for Civic Design in the USA. He will be hosting a session about designing tools that connect election officials and immigrant communities at the International Design in Government Conference.
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