Imagine you’ve recently left your native country — either willingly or unwillingly – and have embarked upon a journey to the United States. After navigating through fear, worry, and immigration systems, you and your family find yourselves in Nebraska. It’s a nice place with kind people and open spaces, and you focus on settling into your new home.
It becomes clear, however, that you have only a limited knowledge of how civic society is built here. And, frankly, you’re reluctant to get too involved. In your country of origin, it could be dangerous to freely interact with government officials. Your experiences tell you to not to trust the government or institutions. And, of course, the current American atmosphere of suspicion regarding immigrants and refugees has kept you on the outside looking in, invisible in your new community.
That’s where Civic Nebraska comes in.
On June 20, Civic Nebraska hosts the first-ever New Americans Capitol Experience Day at the Nebraska State Capitol. The new program will connect immigrants and refugees to their local government structures and representatives. Our goal is to empower our new countrymen in becoming successful, civically engaged Americans.
“There has never been a greater need to welcome Nebraska’s immigrant and refugee population, and New American Capitol Experience Day will introduce them to and help them become comfortable with their local governing systems and officials,” said Amanda Barker, Civic Nebraska’s deputy executive director and head of Civic Health Programs. “For immigrants to feel empowered and engaged citizens in their new home, they must first have access to the institutions that impact their daily lives.”
Civic Nebraska regularly hosts Capitol Experience Days for middle- and high-school students in the state. Participants of the immersive, hands-on events are required to apply critical thinking and civil discourse, and their knowledge of the governing process. Students meet a state legislator, an official from the state’s executive branch, and a Nebraska Supreme Court justice. Then, they debate one another in a mock committee hearing on a real-life legislative bill. Throughout spring 2018, nearly 300 students from more than 20 Nebraska schools took advantage of the Civic Nebraska program.
“We will continue to empower our students as citizens, while recognizing the need to expand that same process to our state’s immigrants and refugees to create a more modern and robust democracy for all Nebraskans,” Barker said.
New Americans Capitol Experience Day will differ slightly from student-driven sessions. Rather than a mock committee hearing, for example, participants will focus on U.S. citizens’ constitutional rights. By introducing new Americans – some of whom may not have been exposed to democratic ideals in their country of origin – to local leaders and state government systems, Capitol Experience Day will create connections and opportunities of civic engagement beyond the day at the Capitol.
To make the program as open and accessible as possible, there will be child care available for the entirety of the event. There will also be opportunities to explore the State Capitol building and its rich history, Barker said.