Measuring progress. Inspiring action.

JUNE 2016

"Speaking for Ourselves" - Collaborative Research with, for, and about New Arrivals

by Paul Mattessich

All large communities experience the arrival of new people. Sometimes the newcomers arrive from nearby; sometimes they arrive from afar. Sometimes newcomers and longer-term residents have similar languages, customs, and cultures; other times, they differ, at least on the surface. The constant blending of people from different places constitutes a regular aspect of life in most parts of our globalized, modern world.

In Minnesota in the 2010s, the migration of people into the state is not just something that happens to occur. It’s something that needs to occur. In 2013, the Minnesota State Demographic Center indicated that “greater numbers of migrants, both domestic and international, will be necessary to meet our state’s workforce needs and to buttress economic activity.”

What we learned

Here in Minnesota, we have the opportunity to welcome newcomers and to maintain a high quality of life for all residents, new and long-term. To accomplish that effectively requires that we learn what’s working for our new arrivals, along with what issues and challenges they face.

For that reason, Wilder Research carried out a major study – Speaking for Ourselves – to focus attention on foreign-born people who have settled in Minnesota’s Twin Cities region. We wanted to learn about their lives – their families, education, jobs, health, and engagement in their communities.

The findings confirm some notions and challenge others. You can find easy-to-read summary reports on our website. For most topics, the research reveals a blend of positives and negatives. For example:


Parental encouragement helps to keep children in school, and about three-quarters of survey participants feel “fully able” to provide a home environment good for studying. On the other hand, only about one-quarter feel “fully able” to help their children with homework in English. Nearly all believe their children will go to college, but about three-quarters consider financial issues a barrier to obtaining post-secondary education.


About three-quarters of those who participated in the survey consider their health “excellent,” “very good,” or “good.” However, these ratings fall slightly lower than the health self-ratings of other Minnesotans. Health care, employment assistance, housing, and food assistance were all identified as helpful resources. Yet lack of health insurance, cost of health care, and cost of insurance create barriers to obtaining needed health care – despite federal and state initiatives intended to make health care more accessible.

Connections to mainstream institutions

Almost all of the immigrants and refugees who participated in Speaking for Ourselves had heard about or visited a public library. However, large proportions had not heard about or visited some major cultural institutions, such as the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Minnesota History Center, and the Minnesota Children’s Museum.

Civic and social participation

Survey respondents frequently offer assistance to neighbors, family, and friends. Yet, they tend not to volunteer their time in formal volunteer programs.

Those few findings illustrate the social assets existing among immigrants to our region; they also illustrate some of the challenges immigrants face. It is important to consider both the needs of these newcomers as well as the assets and resilience factors they possess, and to engage with these newcomers about their experiences and preferences, as we discuss and decide on programs and public policies to meet their needs.

A hopeful sign: organizations in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul region, as well as members of immigrant groups themselves, have begun to follow up on the study’s findings. Study researcherAnna Bartholomay's blog highlights some of this activity, as does one of the study reports. Cultural institutions who have had some successes in attracting visitors and recruiting volunteers from immigrant communities have embraced the study’s findings to formulate new plans of action to increase their appeal to, and relevance for, the region’s newest arrivals.

Our work on this study involved representatives of immigrant groups as partners, as well as representatives of some government and nonprofit organizations. This collaboration produced relevant and important findings useful for improving our quality of life in Minnesota, as well as useful for educating other communities around the world.

Related Insight Articles

Immigration in Minnesota: A changing story
by Allison Liuzzi, Compass Researcher

Minnesota on the Move: Examining Migration Patterns
by Susan Brower, Minnesota State Demographer

Minnesota's Hispanic population: 5 interesting trends
by Nancy Hartzler, Compass staff