Editorial: Why we need to invest in culture

  • Filipino folk dancers perform during the Concord Multicultural Festival downtown on Saturday, June 25, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

If the rhythmic drumming wasn’t enough to pull you in, maybe the sweet aromas of Nepalese curry or Somali meat pies did the trick.

In its 10th year, the Concord Multicultural Festival for the first time piggybacked onto Market Days, the city’s signature street fair on Saturday. That move lured many downtown visitors off a sun-baked and crowded Main Street, through the Memorial Arch and onto the State House lawn, which on this day seemed like another world.

But this wasn’t another world. It’s the changing face of Concord, a community now home to a growing number of foreign-born residents, many who make their way here as refugees from places like Nepal, Rwanda, Iraq and Namibia. The multicultural festival has long served as the tie that binds, an annual celebration of diversity, acceptance and understanding. But there are limitations to what an annual festival can do – or even what it’s meant to do. It’s there to break the ice, to start a conversation.

Now comes the hard part. How does Concord begin to fully integrate its newest residents into its daily life, and most importantly into its economy? There’s plenty happening on that front, though at this stage it’s far enough below the surface that you may miss the subtle signs of progress.

Concord’s currently in the second year of a three-year grant from Endowment for Health. The New Hampshire Immigration Initiative includes four cities – Concord, Manchester, Nashua and Laconia. In Concord, community leaders are helping shape the vision for health and services, arts and culture, and entrepreneurialism. It’s that final piece that has perhaps the greatest power to shape not only the immigrant community’s future, but the city’s as well.

For too long, immigration and the arrival of refugees has been viewed as a resource drain. The numbers, though, don’t back that up. In fact, the opposite is true. A 2015 study by the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies titled, “The Economic Impact of Immigrants in New Hampshire” found that about 40 percent of the state’s foreign-born workers have a bachelor’s degree or higher, a number greater than New Hampshire’s native-born population. New arrivals, though, especially those who have been resettled from war-torn regions, are too seldom finding employment that matches their skills. Instead, they’re landing low-paying jobs that won’t ever give them the financial footing to fully embrace the American experience.

By all projections, we’ll need their help soon. New Hampshire is a graying state, and about a third of our future population is expected to be of retirement age in 15 years. If New Hampshire continues to struggle to retain its own native-born workers, it’ll be even more vital that a new wave of arrivals has the skill set – and the opportunity – to contribute to the growth of our economy. But our state has lagged behind our neighbor to the south in attracting new foreign-born residents. Nearly 16 percent of Massachusetts’s population was born elsewhere. In New Hampshire, that figure is south of 6 percent. In Concord and the rest of central New Hampshire, that number is 3.4 percent.

Concord is making small gains in addressing this next step by partnering with some of the region’s most influential institutions. Take, for instance, the New Hampshire Food Bank. The Multicultural Festival this year enlisted its help. The result, as reported by Elodie Reed in Saturday’s Monitor, is an example of new connections that pave the path forward. The food bank opened up its kitchen to those preparing for Saturday’s feast. But it was also there recruiting new Americans to enroll in an eight-week culinary job-training class that would give students the skills needed to land a higher-paying job with an established restaurant, or perhaps even start a business of their own.

“It’s kind of a perfect marriage,” said instructor Jayson McCarter.