Engaging California's newcomers.
As of 2004, reported S. Karthick Ramakrishnan and Celia Viramontes in "Civic Inequalities," first-generation immigrants made up 27 percent of the state's population and second-generation immigrants, 21 percent. Demographers have estimated that immigrants and their children could make up 29 percent of the California electorate by the 2012 elections. About half of the children in California between the ages of twelve and seventeen have at least one immigrant parent--this according to Rob Paral's report from Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees.
Although large metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles have long been home to many newcomers, today newcomers are settling all over the state, in suburban as well as urban neighborhoods. Newcomers make up at least 10 percent of the populace in thirty-six of the state's fifty-eight counties and at least 15 percent in two-thirds of California's municipalities, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.
This increase in resident diversity is not limited to California. Census Bureau projections now indicate that Americans who identify as minority will outnumber non-Latino whites by 2042. "What's happening now in terms of increasing diversity probably is unprecedented," commented Campbell Gibson, a retired census demographer quoted by the New York Times (Roberts, 2008).
Why Engage immigrants?
Overall, engaging immigrants in the civic and political life of their cities and counties will create stronger and more successful communities for at least two specific reasons. First, it will result in decisions that are more responsive to the full community's needs and interests. Second, it will hasten the process of integrating newcomers into the broader community.
Local officials know that immigrants are less likely than native-born residents to participate in public meetings and other engagement opportunities. In a 2003 Public Policy Institute of California survey reported by Paul Lewis and coauthors, local officials with significant immigrant populations in their community expressed concern about their ability to connect with the newcomer population. Thirty-seven percent of the officials reported they had a hard time determining the political or policy concerns of local immigrants. Most respondents said that immigrants in their community seemed to keep primarily to themselves.
Effectively reaching out and involving newcomer populations adds to the information public officials have to inform and guide their decisions. Inclusive civic engagement allows local leaders to better understand the needs, concerns, and goals of their increasingly diverse constituency. This knowledge enables local officials to make decisions that are appropriately reflective of the public interest.
A transparent and inclusive civic engagement process is likely to increase public support for the decisions made. This in turn can create an atmosphere conducive to successful implementation.
Promoting Newcomer Integration
More inclusive public involvement can weave newcomers into the civic and political life of their community. Participating in well-designed and inclusive public meetings and neighborhood conversations involves immigrants, with others, in civic activities and helps them overcome the fear and mistrust that often act as barriers to full community participation.
To a significant degree, immigrants represent the future of leadership in California. The first steps in leadership development are often taken through local civic engagement opportunities. Civic engagement contributes to development of three factors that are vital to a person's ability to actively participate in democratic processes: motivation, capacity, and a network of recruitment. Opportunities to identify and discuss issues that are important to immigrants and their communities motivates participation. Such engagement also builds the capacity of individuals to address community issues by adding to their self-confidence, knowledge, and skills. Immigrant civic participants develop a better understanding of local government and a range of communication, analytical, problem-solving, and community-building skills. Inclusive engagement also serves to build relationships that support collaborative efforts and bring additional resources to bear in addressing community issues.
These networks of relationships (or "social capital") reduce the isolation of immigrant groups and offer new avenues for community problem solving. The focus may be on a particular policy decision, or broader efforts may address issues such as education, youth violence, health care, and substance abuse.
A Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) report by S. Karthick Ramakrishnan and Mark Baldasarre suggests that first-generation immigrants are an untapped resource for civic involvement. First-generation immigrants who have not yet participated in the civic life of their community were found to have an especially strong interest in volunteering. PPIC researchers suggest that offering opportunities and encouragement for newcomers to contribute to local civic life may help stretch limited fiscal resources to address community needs.
The challenge is to remove obstacles to public involvement and allow more immigrants to become active members of the community. Bringing new voices and perspectives into public discussion helps people bridge cultural divides, have a richer discussion of community issues, and learn more about one another. Benefits of inclusive public dialogues can include reduced tension in the community and broader support for community improvement initiatives.
Obstacles to Immigrant Civic Participation
As reported in Nation's Cities Weekly, "The challenges of integrating immigrants into the social and economic life of the U.S. are often debated nationally, but the consequences of immigration are most intensely felt at the local level, leaving many city officials looking for ways to create a smooth transition for those who have migrated from another country." Local officials know that special efforts are usually necessary to attract, engage, and include newcomers. For instance, according to a 2007 survey the greatest challenge in engaging the public for California cities and counties is that "it is always the same people who participate." Notably, the local officials surveyed perceived that white residents were more likely to be involved in public forums, hearings, and meetings than Latino, Asian, or African American residents. Why is it difficult for local leaders to involve newcomers in civic participation efforts? A number of reasons may explain this:
* Language, literacy, and cultural barriers may mean newcomers are unaware of opportunities to participate, or they may find participation embarrassing or difficult, especially if the events are promoted and conducted only in English.
* Lack of knowledge about local political processes and issues may make people feel unqualified to participate unless they understand that everyone has values and priorities to contribute and that everyone will be given understandable background information.
* Lingering fear of an oppressive government in their country of origin can make some immigrants wary of public meetings. They may believe that challenging government policies or speaking out will lead to trouble with authorities or with people who have anti-immigrant sentiments.
* Too little time and resources to attend a meeting is a common refrain, especially for those newcomers working long hours at low-paying jobs.
* Lack of awareness of opportunities for involvement can be a barrier to diverse participation.
* Fear of deportation or political repression in their country of origin may make newcomers and their families wary of public participation, especially if it occurs in an entirely public or official setting.
These factors may lead to a significantly lower rate of public involvement among immigrants than among others. Achieving a demographically representative level of immigrant participation requires significant planning, outreach efforts, and support from individuals and organizations with strong ties to immigrants in the community.
Of course, not all supposed obstacles to participation occur within the immigrant community. Public officials often are not involved in immigrant social networks or community organizations, and immigrants may have not been drawn into civic clubs that produce local leaders. Local officials must bring their knowledge, commitment, and resources to bear and supply leadership to address obstacles to immigrant civic participation, including bias or prejudice within local agencies.
Know Your Changing Community
A good first step to maximize immigrant civic engagement is to stay current on who the most recent newcomers are in your community, where they are from, and what language(s) they speak. Since the 1990s, a shift in immigrant settlement patterns has led to more newcomers living in suburbs and smaller communities, rather than in traditional gateway cities such as New York City and Los Angeles. Because of this relatively recent shift, available census data may be of limited use. However, there are a number of creative ways to assess local demographics and languages spoken by newcomer residents of the community. Public schools are one of the first places where newcomers interact with institutions and more established residents. Keeping in touch with school administrators can be a good way to gauge the local immigrant population as well as things like what languages these immigrants speak, where they are from, and how many of them are facing financial hardship sufficient to qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch programs.
Another way of finding data on the newcomer population is to ask "on the ground" representatives from local agencies about the population they serve, and learn from local community organizations and faith communities about the people they are serving. In addition to gathering data about who the newcomers are in your community, where they are from, and what languages they speak, make a special effort to understand the cultures, norms, and interests of immigrant residents, especially in relation to your ability to engage these communities.
Build Relationships with Key Leaders and Organizations
A 2008 survey of advocates and organizers working with immigrant populations across the state showed broad consensus about the vital importance of recruiting support from community leaders early on in any public engagement effort. Greg Keidan and Theo Brown found that simply announcing and advertising a public meeting often results in low turnout and the "usual participants." Immigrants, renters, people of color, and young people are typically underrepresented.
Your engagement efforts will be more successful if someone known and trusted by each immigrant community invites them and reassures them that the event will be safe, that their translation and other needs will be accommodated, and that their opinions will make a difference. Effective communication and outreach with newcomer communities requires local officials and their staff to be familiar with local organizations that work with or include significant numbers of immigrants among their members. Early communication and partnerships with these organizations helps ensure a more effective approach to engagement and greater representation from immigrant communities. Be aware that differences between such organizations could have an impact on your ability to carry out effective collaborative efforts. Building partnerships with organizational and community leaders can have other mutually beneficial consequences. These leaders may be able to help find funding for a public engagement process or in-kind support (such as a place to meet), furnish facilitators and moderators for an event, or help spearhead actions that emerge from the civic engagement process. Involving these leaders in the planning and design stages helps to create culturally appropriate processes as well as build credibility for your public involvement efforts.
Overcome Language Barriers
An essential aspect of inclusive civic engagement is to reach out to immigrant communities in their native language and allow people to participate regardless of how well they speak English. Public involvement processes are most successful when every participant has an adequate opportunity to speak and to comprehend what others are saying.
Newcomers have varying degrees of English comprehension. Even immigrants with some English language skills may feel embarrassed to speak in front of a group for fear of making a mistake. Using simultaneous translation equipment levels the playing field and can be done efficiently. Also, outreach and other meeting materials should be available in the languages spoken by immigrants in your community and should include information about translation services to be available at the event. Having staff with appropriate language skills can help make this possible.
Use Culturally Effective Outreach Strategies
An effective way to reach out to a large number of immigrants in the community is to work with members of local and regional print and electronic media that are targeted to immigrants. For instance, Spanish-language radio was a key to generating large turnout at immigrant's rights rallies in Chicago and Los Angeles in 2006. NSON Research's survey of people who were invited to participate in the 2008 CaliforniaSpeaks health reform dialogues found that monolingual Spanish speakers were 3.5 times more likely to hear about this public engagement on local television news than were English-speaking people.
As with other organizations serving newcomers, local agencies must develop long-term relationships and mutual trust with ethnic media. One way to do this is to send hiring notices and general news about your city or county to local ethnic media regularly and invite them to press conferences and media events. Ask local immigrant community leaders about popular local ethnic media outlets, and make sure they are included in your communication planning.
Make Public Engagement Accessible, Enjoyable, and Rewarding
Where a civic engagement activity is held can have a significant effect on who shows up. Find sites where newcomers will feel safe and welcome. Public agency office buildings may not always be an optimal site, given that newcomers may mistrust the police and have fears relating to federal immigration raids. Public schools, community centers, church or union halls, and fairgrounds are examples of places that may be safe and welcoming. Community colleges can be a good venue; a university setting, however, may be intimidating.
Transportation issues should also be considered. Immigrants may not have a driver's license, especially in urban areas. Choosing a location that is within walking distance of neighborhoods where immigrants live, or that is easily accessible by public transportation is a good strategy. Another is to arrange van or bus transport for all attendees who need it.
The timing of public forums is another key variable to consider. What time and date will enable the most inclusive cross-section of residents to participate? How long will people be willing to commit in order to participate? Organizers hoping to attract diverse residents typically hold events on weekends or after business hours on weekdays. Summer vacations can make it hard to recruit participants, especially students. Ask some immigrant community leaders about possible meeting dates to check for potential conflicts with ethnic or religious holidays or celebrations.
Although limited budgets are often a reality, offering food and child care can make it easier and more enjoyable for newcomers to participate. "Breaking bread" together can be an important way to solidify trust in some cultures. Presenting food from one or more immigrant cultures represented in the community is a great way to make newcomers feel welcome. For instance, if holding a meeting in a community where most newcomers are from Mexico, serve some Mexican dishes.
Onsite child care ensures that people with families won't stay home for lack of a babysitter. This also makes an event more appealing to people from cultures where all family members participate in community activities together. Entertainment that highlights the ethnic traditions of local residents can help create a welcoming atmosphere for a public engagement event and draw participants. For instance, at a public meeting in Southwest Chula Vista, organizers asked a local Mexican dance troupe to perform in traditional costumes during the event, much to the delight of all in attendance. Other events have used drummers and dancers to welcome participants and call them to the meeting room. Music or other art with which immigrants can identify may make newcomers feel appreciated and comfortable.
Make Meetings and Materials Appropriate for immigrant Participant
Designing specific meeting processes that enable members of immigrant communities to participate involves a number of considerations. Solicit input from leaders and organizations trusted by immigrants in developing recruitment approaches and determining the best models of engagement. This may result in opportunities to meet with members of particular immigrant communities separately and in spaces that are known and comfortable to them.
Where such meetings occur, local officials should ensure there is a common understanding beforehand among city and community leaders about the goals and process of the meeting. Showing respect for community leaders and their role in the meeting is important, and it may be useful to clarify up front how further communication between the city or county and participants will occur. Also, certain formalities or rituals may need to be observed out of respect, and agency participants may want to inquire about this ahead of time. It may also be helpful for local officials in the meeting to clearly identify and "place themselves" within the overall public agency structure and decision-making processes.
Local officials or staff must clearly explain and reinforce for immigrants the role that public input will play in a decision-making process so as to manage expectations and cultivate newcomers' understanding of how the public decision-making process works. Local officials should be aware that, in some cases, meetings arranged through a specific organization may turn out only a segment of an immigrant community (by gender, income level, family ties, politics, or religion), and this may suggest a need for additional outreach and meetings in association with other intermediary groups. Frequently, there are public involvement processes where immigrant residents participate with other members of the community. Where this is the case, consider these points (in addition to ensuring basic language access):
* Introductory comments that welcome and express the importance of all participants to the meeting, and that include remarks by immigrant community leaders, may help set a comfortable and productive tone.
* Good facilitation may be particularly important to ensure participation by those with less English-speaking capacity or confidence to participate.
* It may be helpful to ensure opportunities for members of the same immigrant community to speak together in their native language at the beginning and at times during the meeting to ensure understanding and full participation.
* Offer opportunities for small-group as well as large-group participation. Be aware that in more stratified communities some group members may be less willing to speak until others have already done so. Forcing the issue may create discomfort.
* Immediately address dynamics that create a less-than-safe place for participation (such as apparently prejudicial comments made about a particular group).
* Consider forms of recognition and appreciation for those who participate.
Appropriate and Effective Materials
As well as being translated, background materials prepared in conjunction with public involvement activities should present information in a way that is straightforward and understandable to the average reader. Both materials and presentations should be in clear and nontechnical language with helpful visual aids.
Also, remember that some members of immigrant communities are unable to read and that indigenous peoples from Latin American countries may speak languages other than Spanish. To ensure materials are appropriate and understandable to the intended users, one strategy is to pretest them with small and diverse local focus groups. Members of local or regional ethnic media may be also able to offer help and advice. Your recruitment and informational materials should let immigrant communities and meeting participants know they have values, experiences, and ideas to share regardless of their education, background, or familiarity with the details of the issues at hand. Don't overwhelm participants with too much technical information. Help them understand the information needed to make an informed decision. This is empowering and encourages further participation.
Flexibility can be a virtue here. The obstacles to more representative public engagement are not static. Your community will probably continue to change demographically, and age, income level, language capacity, gender, and other factors may all influence optimal approaches to achieving broad participation from your immigrant communities.
Identify Issues Immigrants Care About
One strategy to inspire immigrant involvement in local decision making is to begin with their priorities and concerns. What local issues are important enough to them and their families to encourage a higher level of participation? Such issues may include education, public safety, jobs, public transportation, and police-community relations. Initial surveys, interviews, or exploratory meetings are ways to identify the issues that are the highest priority to newcomers. This doesn't mean members of immigrant communities shouldn't or won't attend other citywide or neighborhood discussions or dialogues. However, attention to the issues of greatest concern to those typically less involved is more likely to bring them into the civic and political arena. Demonstrate how participating can help newcomers achieve their dreams, rather than just asking them to help the local agency achieve its goal.
Be prepared to make investments, human and financial, in local issues that surface so as to establish trust and build relationships. One strategy for designing participation that is of interest to immigrants is to integrate citizenship and language education into the program. Newcomers in three cities who took part in the 2004 Building New American Community initiative identified English language training, job skills training, and youth development opportunities as the issues most fundamental to their successful integration into the community. By focusing on these fundamental challenges, local agencies can help newcomers build their capacity to participate in the civic life of the community.
Build the Leadership Capacity of Newcomers
One effective way to address obstacles to immigrant participation is to present training and leadership opportunities for immigrant groups in your community. Examples are citizen academies, leadership training, English language classes, and appointment to local boards or commissions. Local governments or chambers of commerce may consider sponsoring scholarships for immigrants to attend existing leadership and skill-building programs. These educational opportunities give immigrants the skills and confidence to be more active participants in civic life. Of course, participating in local public involvement processes also builds skills and inspires people to take a more active role in their community.
A city or county may develop an intentional plan to develop capacity for immigrant public involvement. The best way to do this is often in partnership with immigrant leaders and organizations that can help bring legitimacy to the effort and access to potential participants. For example, the City of Stockton partnered with a local community organization to hire Cambodian and Hmong "community liaisons" to enhance the job skills and knowledge of local agencies among residents with refugee status. In Portland, the city Office of Neighborhood Involvement created the Diversity and Civic Leadership Advisory Committee, which consists of residents from underrepresented community and neighborhood organizations. This committee created a request for proposals to develop civic leadership and engagement initiatives for immigrants and other constituencies traditionally underrepresented in civic life. The city then funded several community-based organizations that responded to create and implement these trainings and engagement initiatives.
Another strategy is to attend meetings of immigrant-related organizations to let them know how their members can get involved. Establishing this sort of mutually beneficial relationship helps immigrant organizations build their capacity for leadership in the community while local governments establish new lines of communication to reach out and encourage broader participation in their public engagement activities.
Enhance Local Agency Staff Capacity for Successful Immigrant Engagement
Most immigrant engagement strategies are easier to implement if local agency staff are representative of all segments of the community. When reaching out to involve immigrants in local civic participation processes, it helps to have staff members who look like, can communicate with, and relate to the people they are trying to involve. These similarities help create trusting relationships and allow the local agency to identify and implement culturally relevant outreach and engagement strategies.
Skilled staff members who have the time and ability to develop relationships with appropriate immigrant organizations are valuable assets to a local agency. Staff can help create and manage successful long-term immigrant engagement and integration efforts. They also have insight on how local agency actions can contribute to positive relationships among immigrant communities rather than unintentionally creating competition or a perception of favoritism through poorly designed engagement efforts.
Woodburn, Oregon, city leaders realized they needed to better serve the needs of Latino residents when the 2000 census data showed a majority of the population was Latino, a third of residents were foreign-born, and two-thirds of students were English learners or monolingual Spanish speakers. They changed their incentive structures and recruitment strategies in order to increase the number of culturally competent, bilingual, bicultural city employees. They also hired a naturalized citizen who was bicultural and bilingual for a newly created community relations officer position. This office was strategically situated just inside the front door of city hall to make it easy to find.
Christine Tien, the City of Stockton's deputy city manager, offers this advice to local officials and staff: "Outreach to our immigrant populations is crucial. Work with your local community groups to get ideas on the best ways to disseminate information and engage our increasingly diverse communities--and really listen to their concerns. What you think is good for a community may not be what they need. Learn about other cultures in your community. Build trust with community members by following through and fulfilling promises. Be honest. Be open to different ways of doing things."
Plan Collaboratively, Think Long-Term, and Learn as You Go
To be successful, create a long-term plan that incorporates multiple strategies for building and using a capacity for immigrant civic engagement. Civic engagement offers immigrants a pathway toward greater integration into the community they live in. For this goal to be achieved, however, immigrants have to be prepared and have the capacity to participate. This may suggest a broad set of initiatives, among them leadership development, access to English language classes, naturalization support, voter education and registration, and learning how local civic and political institutions work. Don't get tunnel vision; think broadly about immigrant civic engagement.
To begin on a solid foundation, build your plan with the input and support of your immigrant communities. A summit on immigrant needs and contributions in Santa Clara County in late 2000 suggested key areas for county focus, and it helped launch a number of immigrant engagement and integration initiatives spurred by the detailed report Bridging Borders in Silicon Valley.
Engaging newcomer communities typically takes concerted effort over time to be successful. Be prepared to learn and adapt as you go. Ask those who participate in civic engagement activities what worked in terms of the recruitment strategy, method of communication, the meeting format, or the issue itself that brought people out. Ask these participants and other community leaders what they think would have been more effective in generating understanding and engagement. Including immigrants and members of a variety of ethnic groups from the community in this evaluation process ensures that it accurately reflects the perspectives of all stakeholders. This demonstrates a commitment to inclusive civic engagement and a desire by local officials to listen to and serve all residents.
Your first efforts to encourage greater engagement may not be fully successful. It may take more time, or require changes in strategy. Assess this honestly and adapt your approach on the basis of what you have learned from your own experiences, from this guide, and from other sources.
There are, of course, other excellent resources available to those interested in this and related topics.
Increasing Refugee Civic Participation: A Guide for Getting Started, available from Mosaica (www. cliniclegaI.org/Refugee/Docs/MosaicaCivic ParticipationToolKit_final.pdf)
The Role of Municipal Leaders in Helping Immigrants Become an Integral Part of Colorado's Communities, from The Colorado Trust and the Colorado Municipal League (www.coloradotrust.org/repository/initiatives/ pdfs/SIRFI/SIRFI-CML_CVR-GUTS_vF.r2.pdf)
Investing in Our Communities: Strategies for Immigrant Integration (a Toolkit for Grantmakers) and Pursuing Democracy's Promise: Newcomer Civic Participation in America, available from Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (www.gcir.org/publications, or call GCIR at 707/544-4171)
Lessons Learned About Civic Participation Among Immigrants, from the Association for the Study and Development of Community (www.capablecommunity. com/pubs/Civic%20Participation.pdf)
The Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington has an online resource compendium, resources for local officials interested in immigrant engagement and integration (http://mrsc.org/Subjects/ Governance/Diversity/lmmOutreach.aspx#About)
The House We All Live in: A Report on Immigrant Civic Integration, from the Carnegie Corporation of New York (www.carnegie.org/pdf/housewelive.pdf)
Editor's Note: This article is adapted from A Local Official's Guide to Immigrant Civic Engagement, published by the Institute for Local Government, the nonprofit affiliate of the League of California Cities and the California State Association of Counties. The primary author is Greg Keidan, program coordinator with the institute's Collaborative Governance Initiative. The guide is intended to furnish local government officials and staff members with examples, strategies, and resources to better enable them to involve California's growing immigrant population in the civic and political life of their communities. We also hope that this guide may be of use to community advocacy and leadership groups, civic engagement practitioners, and others wishing to enhance immigrant involvement in local public decision making. The guide may be purchased at www.ca-ilg.org/ilgpubs or downloaded without cost at www.ca-ilg.org/cgipubs.
[c] Institute for Local Government, A Local Official's Guide to Immigrant Civic Engagement (2008), www.ca-ilg.org.
Bridging Borders in Silicon Valley. San Jose, Calif.: Santa Clara County Office of Human Relations Citizenship and Immigrant Services Program, Dec. 6, 2000. www.immigrantinfo.org/ borders/index.html.
Duvall, C. "NLC Launches Initiative to Help Cities Integrate Immigrants into Their Communities." Nation's Cities Weekly, June 23, 2008. Retrieved Jan. 7, 2009, from http://www.nlc.org/ARTICLES/articleItems/NCW62308/ ImmigrationPriority.aspx.
Keidan, G., and Brown, T. "Ensuring High Levels of Latino Participation in Public Engagement." Washington, D.C.: AmericaSpeaks, 2008 (unpublished findings and interview transcripts available by request).
Lewis, P. G., Ramakrishnan, S. K., and Patel, N. "Governance and Policy in High-Immigration Cities: Results from Surveys of Elected Officials, Planners, and Police." San Francisco: Public Policy Institute of California, 2004. www.ppic.org/main/publication.asp?i=502.
NSON Opinion Research. CaliforniaSpeaks Health Care Reform Town Hall Meeting Participant and Non-Participant Follow-up Surveys Summary Report. Salt Lake City, Utah, Feb. 2008 (unpublished).
Paral, R. "Integration Potential of California's Immigrants and Their Children." Sebastopol, Calif.: Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees, 2008. www.gcir. org/about/what/ciii.
Ramakrishnan, S. K., and Baldasarre, M. "The Ties That Bind: Changing Demographics and Civic Engagement in California." San Francisco: Public Policy Institute of California, 2004.
Ramakrishnan, S. K., and Viramontes, C. "Civic Inequalities: Immigrant Volunteerism and Community Organizations in California." San Francisco: Public Policy Institute of California, July 2006.
Roberts, S. "In a Generation, Minorities May Be the U.S. Majority." New York Times, Aug. 13, 2008. Retrieved Jan. 7, 2009, from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/14/ washington/14census.html.
United States Census, 2000. http://www.census.gov/main/ www/cen2000.html.
Greg Keidan is program coordinator and Terry Amsler is program director for the Collaborative Governance Initiative at the Institute for Local Government in Sacramento.
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|Author:||Keidan, Greg; Amsler, Terry|
|Publication:||National Civic Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2009|
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