Sanford attempts to better integrate Hispanics

Jul. 18, 2014 @ 05:01 AM

Helping Sanford’s Latino community obtain better access to public safety, local government, education and economic opportunities are just a few of the goals of the Building Integrated Communities initiative sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Sanford is one of two North Carolina cities, along with Winston-Salem, that will take part in the three-year community planning program.

“[Sanford and Winston-Salem] were the best candidates because of a commitment on the part of the city and community members to work on this project,” said Hannah Gill, project director of Building Integrated Communities. “ They displayed a demonstrated commitment to this kind of work.”

Marshall Downey, director of Sanford’s Planning and Community Development Department, said he was looking to bring a number of agencies, including the Sanford Police Department, Emergency Medical Services and the Department of Social Services, in on the project.

“Ultimately,” Downey said, “the idea is to allow greater access to information, greater access to services, for our Hispanic community — to provide a greater awareness and understanding in general of how local government and local industry work. We’re trying to figure out how to better integrate our Hispanic community into the local economy and local processes.”

The Building Integrated Communities initiative is focused on helping local government in North Carolina improve public safety, promote economic development, enhance communication and improve relationships with cities’ Hispanic populations. Almost 20 percent of Lee County’s population is of Hispanic origin, according to 2010 census data, and the Hispanic population has been increasing steadily over the past few years.

Gill outlined the goals of the initiative, which will take place over the next three years.

“Right now and in the fall, we’re going to be doing a needs assessment,” Gill said, “looking at foreign-born communities in [Sanford], identifying organizations and companies already doing work into immigrant integration. Then we will be having a series of public meetings over the next year in which we invite local residents to share their perspectives and identify priorities. During year two, we will be creating a plan of action to address shared priorities. Then, in year three, the city and the communities together will implement the plans.”

Downey’s predecessor, Bob Bridwell, applied for the program shortly before he retired from city government, though he has continued to work closely with the project.

“Ultimately, I would hope we have a community that is opening and welcome to a significant part of our population, in terms of their needs,” Bridwell said. “That could be a really simple thing in terms of how we go about it. If a fire truck shows up to their house, is there someone who can speak Spanish? Things like that.”

Bridwell, who is now a minister at St. Stephen Catholic Church in Sanford, has been working closely with civic and religious groups to garner support for the initiative. He said it will take more than government agencies to successfully integrate Sanford’s Hispanic population.

“I think we treat them like any other resident and make sure we are doing what is appropriate and necessary, not just at a governmental level, but at a human level,” Bridwell said. “That’s really the essence of the project — How do we open our community where everybody feels like they’re saying what they need to say?”

Sanford Mayor Chet Mann was pleased when he found out Sanford had been selected to work with UNC on the initiative, and he said reaching out to the Hispanic community is a priority for the city.

“This is a long-needed and anxiously awaited project that I’m excited to be a part of,” Mann said. “We need to make [the Hispanic population] a vibrant part of our community. We need them to be viable. We need them to be productive. We need them to have representation on the [Sanford City Council] and the [Lee County Board of Commissioners].”

The Rev. Robert Ippolito of St. Stephen Catholic Church has worked closely with Sanford’s Hispanic community for years and said he believes greater involvement in local government is imperative to solidify the population’s place in Sanford and Lee County.

“You only have a voice if you vote,” he said. “We’ve got to be registered and go out and vote. I make a special effort to get people registered to vote, so I think that’s important. They would feel more involved, I think.”

Ippolito said his main hope for the initiative is that it would help break down the barriers that exist between Sanford’s Hispanic population and what he called “the native-born population.”

”I’d like to see Hispanics more integrated into the local community,” he said, “for them to feel more a part of the total community, not just the little world of the Hispanic community. I think that would be a realistic and realizable goal.”

Bridwell said he is hopeful that that goal can be achieved.

”The good news is this city and this county have traditionally been a caring, compassionate community,” he said. “It’s not like we’re having to invent that. It’s extending that to a level where people’s needs are being met in a much more comprehensive way.”