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Social Cohesion in Northern Virginia and Chicago, IL

Just two short months after meeting in Cologne and Stuttgart, the second cohort of the ACG’s Study Tour on Social Cohesion gathered in Arlington, Virginia for an exchange in the United States. From November 5 to 10, 19 professionals working in government, academia, and nonprofits traveled to Virginia and Illinois for a week of meetings, discussions, and museum visits.

Over pizza and pasta, the group gathered in Arlington, VA for a night of reconnection and reflection. Since the last meeting, tensions throughout the world have risen over the war in Gaza. With a rise of antisemitism and anti-Muslim sentiments, the focus on social cohesion has become critical to communities on both sides of the Atlantic.

On Monday, November 6, the group kicked off the first meetings with a visit to the Women for Afghan Women community center in Alexandria, VA. The state of Virginia has one of the largest Afghan populations in the country, making it an essential service for the community. Serving more than 250 people and providing holistic support focused on helping Afghan women (but available to anyone seeking support) integrate into their new community through native language counseling, colloquial ESL classes mixed with childcare to make it more accessible, immigration and legal services, and job connection support. The area’s most significant need that they cannot currently fulfill is the growing request for pro-bono legal support for victims of domestic violence as well as the opportunity to become more strategic in their services, not only meeting the community’s immediate needs but also to provide career development support that will lead to economic and social stability.

Following lunch, the group met with Thomas Park, who runs Access 4 All. Serving more than 7,500 youth athletes in season play and more than 15,000 youths in tournament play, Access 4 All has a mission of making soccer (which has historically and statistically in the Alexandria area been available only for privileged youth) accessible for all youth in the community, this nonprofit has found ways to meet the youth where they are at. They’ve built after-school programs across the city and partnered with schools to ensure transportation and meals are available to reduce barriers to attendance as well as create a safe space for at-risk youth.

Later that day, representatives from the German Embassy shared aspects of their core work, which centers on building and maintaining relationships with representatives on Capitol Hill in addition to serving as a liaison with the Department of State, Pentagon, and other pertinent bodies to maintain transatlantic partnerships between the United States and Germany. The staff expressed anticipation regarding the next Presidential election and its hypothetical impact on the quality of the relationships but remained optimistic concerning the future of German/American relations.

The following morning, the group met with Takis P. Karantonis, Arlington County Board Member. He took great care to understand our cohorts’ backgrounds to facilitate a conversation about the broader systemic dynamics of racism and white supremacy, which have historically limited access to civic participation for marginalized communities. His presentation included the circulation of a report, Deeply Rooted, which chronicles Black experiences in Northern Virginia over the past 400 years. The report is based on historical research conducted by the Center on Society and Health in consultation with a 14-member advisory panel and with assistance from local libraries and private collections.

Switching back to Alexandria, the group visited Freedom House, a newly opened museum focusing on Alexandria’s role in slavery. Prior to the Civil War, the building was the headquarters of the largest domestic slave trading company in the United States, Franklin and Armfield. Pictures and drawings gave an idea of how the property was used (shanties, jail cells, main “office” rooms). By showing shipping lists with names, heights, and personal descriptions, the terrible fate of thousands of black men, women, and children who were trafficked from 1828 to 1861 became conceivable.

The city of Alexandria is committed to reconciling with its past. After exploring the site, the cohort met with museum representatives to discuss how history is and has been told in the U.S., the removal of Confederate statues and renaming streets, and the city’s involvement with the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

The group met with the ECDC in Arlington, VA in the afternoon. Initially formed to help the Ethiopian community of Virginia, the ECDC is now a multicultural and community-based nonprofit that serves as one of nine national refugee resettlement agencies funded by the State Department. The group learned how refugee resettlement in the U.S. is structured and how the various programs help and support newcomers to adjust to life in America.

That evening, the Black Heritage Museum of Arlington hosted a happy hour for the cohort. Through a guided tour by the museum’s president, Scott Taylor provided a personal tour of the historical exhibits that began with the era of enslavement on the plantation that gave the county of Arlington its name, as well as the depredations of the Civil War and the flight to freedom. More attention was devoted, however, to the 20th-century history of Arlington, especially struggles for desegregation and civil rights. Freedom Rider and civil rights activist Joan Trumpauer Mulholland discussed how she used her whiteness to help break racial barriers. She was part of sit-ins, freedom rides, and protests across the South.

On Wednesday, the group visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. Individuals explored the museum at their own pace, learned about the history, and reflected on what was learned. The museum allowed the group to conceptualize how racism shaped the formation of the country.

That evening, the group boarded a plane to Chicago for more discussions.

The American Jewish Committee hosted a breakfast discussion with regional director Sarah van Loon on Thursday morning. She explained the role of AJC in the Chicago area, particularly given the rise in antisemitism. The city is highly segregated. Every ten years, a comprehensive study of Jewish life in Chicago is conducted; it is a complete survey of all households, about 400,000 people. These communities have very diverse views, so social cohesion is also an issue within the communities. At the same time, AJC works with other communities and organizations on issues such as discrimination, hate crimes, and bullying in schools.

That afternoon, the group met with Miguel Alvelo Rivera, the Executive Director of the Latino Union of Chicago. Latino Union works with low-income immigrant and U.S.-born workers to develop the tools necessary to improve social and economic conditions collectively. The organization fights for guaranteed rights for all workers, regardless of citizenship status. Originally born in Puerto Rico, he explained how Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, often making the relationship between Washington, DC and San Juan difficult at times.

Later, the group visited the Gerber/Hart Library and Archives. The group was first introduced to the library’s rich collection by library curator Erin Bell, which represents the varied histories and cultures of LGBTQI+ individuals and communities in the United States, with a geographic emphasis on Chicago and the Midwest. Then, the cohort visited the newest exhibit, “Art from the Archives.” Remarkably, this exhibit was the most tangible manifestation of Gerber/Hart Public Library and Archives’ impact on society, serving as inspiration for artists whose work focuses on people and stories from Chicago’s queer history prominently featured in the exhibit.

The group went to the South Side on Friday morning to meet with the IMAN Central. At IMAN, the Strategic Initiatives team led by Sana Syed welcomed the cohort to discuss the community organization’s leading impact, innovation, and mission advancement-focused projects, such as Go Green on Racine, the Health Center, and the Go Green Community Fresh Market. Furthermore, the center’s equitable development neighborhood initiative, Go Green on Racine, which centers on repurposing old public buildings as a hub for housing and green enterprise, was extensively presented as an excellent impact story endorsed by local authorities. Before departing, the group was given a tour of the market, which seeks to address the food deserts in the South Side.

The group gathered in a conference room in the afternoon for one final wrap-up session. The cohort demonstrated a commitment to social cohesion and social justice throughout the program. The bonds they developed will allow for future exchanges of information and a transatlantic support network.

The Study Tour on Social Cohesion is organized and administered by the American Council on Germany with generous support from the Transatlantic Program of the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany through funds from the European Recovery Program (ERP) of the Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Action (BMWK).