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Sterling Heights, Mich. initiates plan to take advantage of diversity.

Over the past few years, Sterling Heights, Mich. has attracted a large number of new residents of a variety of nationalities, many of whom possess a strong sense of ethnic heritage.

This influx has heightened the negative feelings of residents already prejudiced against certain ethnic groups, creating the need for greater appreciation of all cultures.

Moreover, post-Cold-War politics in Eastern Europe increased animosities between certain ethnic groups, contributing to rising crime rates.

A recent survey of Sterling Heights High School students perceived to hold ties to ethnic backgrounds (about half of the student body of 2,000) indicated 42 percent spoke a second language in addition to English.

The parents and teachers conducting the study concluded that many students therefore had at least one family member who spoke little or no English.

This was confirmed by 1990 federal census figures which showed that 15.1 percent of Sterling Heights residents five years of age or older spoke a second language and 5.1 percent spoke little or no English.

Sterling Heights met these challenges with a unique partnership among residents, schools and city officials that relies on active community participation.

Prompted by the efforts of parents and employees of the city's two school districts, who recognized a need for better ethnic understanding among youth and initiated relevant projects, as well as concerns raised by ethnic community leaders and other residents at council meetings and through telephone calls and letters to city leaders, the city council established the Ethnic Community Issues Advisory Committee in March, 1990 to ensure that all of Sterling Heights' approximately 120,000 residents have the resources and information necessary to take advantage of city programs and services and make their voices heard on issues affecting them.

Initial committee appointees included community leaders and educators of various backgrounds. Residents of other ethnic backgrounds soon expressed interest in taking part.

The committee now consists of nine residents, business people and a police officer, each representing a different culture, who meet monthly to assist the city's Office of Community Relations in reaching ethnic communities.

The committee has achieved a major goal of making city departments and officials appear more approachable to ethnic communities, where many are intimidated by or lack understanding of local government due to language or cultural differences.

Committee members now serve as links between government and their families, friends and neighbors.

With more people relying on the electronic media for information, Sterling Heights turned to City Hall Television-Cable Channel 5 to bring information on city programs and services to non-English-speaking residents.

A weekly synopsis of important municipal news in non-English languages, the show premiered in 1991 and now reaches 34,000 homes, or the 83 percent of Sterling Heights households who subscribe to cable television.

Several committee members served as translating moderators on the initial broadcast. The committee soon realized the need to add more moderators to reach as many ethnic groups as possible, and spread the word through 50 churches and community centers frequented by ethnic residents, while also sending press releases to all local newspapers.

The result was an increase in the number of moderators to eight, who translate into Albanian, Arabic, Chaldean, Chinese, Filipino (Tagalog), Italian, Lebanese, Polish, Spanish and Serbian.

The committee plans to add more languages as moderator applications arrive and need is determined. "We want the program to make all residents feel a part of the city," said Frano Ivezaj, Ethnic News' Albanian-American host.

The recruitment drive also generated increased viewership, as indicated by the number of requests for program schedules.

In a further effort to reach out to all residents and strengthen ethnic pride and awareness, the committee and community relations office recently published brochures designed to increase understanding of four the city's largest ethnic groups.

Titled "Getting to Know Your Neighbors," the guides explain the customs, history, origin, language, culture and religious beliefs of Indian-, Chaldean-, Polish- and Albanian-Americans.

Available at churches, community and senior centers, city hall, the public library and the parks and recreation office, the pamphlets aim to abolish stereotypes created by lack of adequate information.

Brochures had to be revised several times due to current conflicts in Eastern Europe. In one instance, a committee member's family redrew maps already printed in 2,000 pamphlets.

The committee is currently working on a multi-lingual city service directory listing important programs and services, as well as information on utilities and hospitals translated into a number of languages.

The logistics of printing the directory have posed a problem, however. The high school assistant principal helped locate printers across the nation who could print characters in various alphabets, but the limited budget could not cover the exorbitant costs. Thus, the committee had to enlist volunteers who could transcribe their native languages by hand.

The Sterling Heights Public Library has created International Storytimes to introduce children to various cultures around the world. Broadcast on Library Channel 12, programs are presented by volunteers who talk about a particular country's customs, read a short story in the native tongue and then tell one of the country's folk tales in English.

The library also has available computer programs in several languages which teach or improve reading skills. Users can adjust the reading speed rate to their individual levels.

Since the institution of Ethnic News and publication of the brochures, calls to the Office of Community Relations Information/Complaint Hotline praising or seeking information on these projects have risen to account for about 6.5 percent of all calks, an impressive figure, when taking into account the wide range of subjects on which residents request information, according to Director Pat Lehman.

One potential obstacle to the programs' success was the adversarial relationships of some ethnic groups toward others brought from the "old country" to Sterling Heights. This was overcome by committee members who set an example through their willingness to put aside differences and work together.

Another challenge was to abolish the notion Of the community as a "melting pot" in which all cultures would assimilate, long a sore point with ethnic groups wanting to retain pride and traditions while being considered Americans.

The committee worked to replace "melting pot" terminology with words describing Sterling Heights as a "mosaic of cultures" in which all ethnic groups can retain their identities while working with others to better the community.

As needs surface, the city and committee will continue to work together to find ways to serve all residents.

For more information, contact Pat Lehman, director, Office of Community Relations, P.O. Box 8009, Sterling Heights, Mich. 48311-8009; (313) 977-6123
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Title Annotation:includes related article on children's attitudes toward race relations; City Ideas That Work
Author:Turner, Laura
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Apr 26, 1993
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