Community Center for Immigrants: A New Literacy Agency for the Digital Age
Literacy gives immigrants and refugees a voice. Literacy skills allow them to interact with their children’s school, navigate the citizenship process and engage fully in their communities. Caitlyn Lewis, Founder and Executive Director of The Community Center for Immigrants (CCI), shared:
“They're coming from countries where they did not have a voice and where they were not represented. So not only learning the language here but just learning how the systems work and how they can bring their voices to the table to share their unique experience to help shape our country . . . their voice can be heard about what's going on in their own country, too, so people here are more aware.”
CCI focuses on accessible, virtual citizenship classes for refugees and immigrants. To help CCI best meet clients’ needs, Caitlyn used lessons she learned teaching English Language online from 2017-2019 and as a Citizenship teacher during the COVID-19 pandemic. She proactively developed CCI programming to help clients overcome barriers and prepare for success. In their first year, they served over 80 students.
With the rise of smartphones, tablets, and laptops, more learners can log into Zoom meetings and watch YouTube videos. “Even if they may not have the skills to log on to a Zoom meeting, their children, spouse or family member can help them.” Even volunteers enjoyed being able to jump in from home to help learners.
Online learning has helped adult learners connect with group instructors and one-on-one tutors, without having to worry about common barriers around childcare or transportation.
“I saw a lot of increase in attendance rates when I started teaching online. I asked people why was this happening? They said, ‘Oh, I didn't have to worry about getting to class anymore.’ [Online learning provided] classes for people who maybe weren't sure if attending school in person was the right fit for them,” observed Caitlyn.
CCI classes focus on making the legal terms, moral character questions, and US government history lessons easier to understand for immigrants and refugees seeking citizenship. They use examples of direct experiences to connect learners with the lessons.
Their program helps learners like Nur Jahan Mohomad. Nur Jahan, a refugee from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was passionate to become an American citizen, not only for herself and her children but also to help her mother travel from Myanmar to the United States.
Caitlyn said, “You have the drive. We have the tools.” Nur Jahan came to classes, used CCI’s YouTube channel and studied every night. “Her daughter told me she could hear my voice from the YouTube channel as she was going to bed because [her mother] would be listening to those videos and really trying to understand the process.”
Families are a part of online learning. They pop in at the beginning or end of class to meet the teacher. “It's important that kids get to see their parents learning as well and that they see like, oh, our parents think this is important - this is important for us as well,” shared Caitlyn.
While Nur Jahan learned online, her two adult children realized that they could become citizens too. CCI referred them to people who could help them apply for citizenship.
As a member of Wisconsin Literacy, CCI networks with other local and statewide organizations, gaining new perspectives and ideas and learning about other agencies and services they can refer clients to.
Caitlyn commented, “We can really come together as a community to help support immigrants and refugees, not only here in the Milwaukee community but because of virtual learning really nationwide. You can help to support others.”