Member Spotlight: Resilience during COVID-19 in Salt Lake County

*As the COVID-19 crisis continues, we share the stories and experiences of the Welcoming Network in responding to the crisis in their communities as well as the challenges facing immigrant-serving nonprofit organizations. This week, we hear from Ze “Zee” Xiao, Director of the Mayor’s Office for New Americans in Salt Lake County, UT.

COVID-19 has disrupted daily life all over the world. How has your organization or local government been responding to this crisis while continuing to serve your community? 

As a welcoming community, we want to make sure that all of our residents have a trusted means for two-way communication, particularly for immigrants and refugees. We know in times of crisis, underrepresented populations are often left behind. It takes intentional efforts to ensure that residents are receiving information in an equitable way – it is more than just the translation of materials and identifying trusted messengers to deliver the message. It is also how policies and resources are being put together. If immigrants and refugees are not at the table, they are left behind. It is a challenge to balance the immediate needs of residents while responding to systemic inequalities. 

What have been some of the challenges and opportunities you’ve faced since the onset of COVID-19? How prepared were you to handle emergency response and crises, particularly in assessing the impact on both immigrants and the broader community?

During this pandemic, I have seen Band-Aid approaches for inclusion and welcoming coming apart. Let me explain.

I will start with language access. Salt Lake County has an outline of a language access plan; however, due to the lack of resources, it is not operational. Sharing information in a linguistically and culturally-appropriate manner has been, and will continue to be, one of the biggest challenges.

Second is the lack of infrastructure for community engagement and input. Although the Office for New Americans was set up to be that bridge, this office has not been included in critical conversations.

Third, there has been an inability to recognize the contributions of new Americans as an asset to combating COVID-19. Immigrants and refugees are at the frontline in fighting this pandemic. The failure of leaders to acknowledge their contribution is a missed opportunity. It is difficult to survive a storm in a boat that is patched with Band-Aids. We have and must address the systemic inequalities in order to build a resilient, welcoming community.

What are some key learning points your organization has from responding to COVID-19 so far? What can Welcoming America members all over the U.S. and world do to be more resilient and strengthen trust in communities during crises?  

The key learning points for our office are: 

  • Lead with integrity and responsibility. In crisis mode, underrepresented communities can be left behind. Many times it is not intentional, but you must speak up.

  • You can’t do this alone. Build partnerships with your state, city, not-for-profit, faith-based, and elected officials.

  • Take time to celebrate small accomplishments. This work is hard and we will need to refuel ourselves physically, mentally, and spiritually.