Twenty years after Atlanta welcomed athletes, families, fans and media from more than 160 countries to town for the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games, Mayor Kasim Reed’s staff is working to make Atlanta a Welcoming City for its immigrants and refugees.
Atlanta joins 21 other U.S. cities in “Building a Nation of Neighbors,” the Welcoming America goal, in this new initiative. The work of Welcoming Atlanta is guided by 20 stakeholder-selected recommendations centered on the themes of community engagement, economic power and public safety.
“These are the foundations everyone needs to live and thrive. We all need to be safe in our home and work and have access to wages that allow all to live with dignity and grow. And everyone needs to belong to a community,” says BSW alumna Maria Azuri. She joined the City of Atlanta as the initiative’s director of programming in January.
“At Welcoming Atlanta, we contribute to the area of belonging, the need to be integrated into the community,” she says. “So how do we turn our recommendations into actions? How do we look at creating more economically viable opportunities for all Atlantans, including immigrants and refugees?”
“Belonging” is a central theme in Azuri’s life. Her family emigrated from Mendoza, Argentina, when she was a child.
“I watched my mom, who left Argentina at 35 as a nurse, stripped of her identity and her world. Community and belonging—what we leave behind when we emigrate, what we gain when we get here—these themes intersect with the reality of being an immigrant. In many ways, over and over, you’re constantly reminded that you are ‘the other.’”
Her family immigrated to a neighborhood in Sarasota. As she grew, the healthy functioning of this community of neighbors helped her appreciate the role and value of community engagement, she says.
“It made so much sense to me that the community, for everyone’s well-being, must have common truths and institutions for everybody to collectively function.”
Welcoming Atlanta’s initial program, under her guidance, is expanding access to English-language learning opportunities.
“Employers are approaching us, describing their employees’ incredible work ethic and asking how they can do this training,” she says. “We also want to educate immigrants who work in the city on the home ownership incentives provided through Invest Atlanta and other organizations and agencies. We’d like them to live here as well as work here.”
Her work focuses on the new tools and best practices that will successfully deliver this instruction.
“For example, instead of making the heads of household come to a school or community center to learn, we are bringing innovations in instructional technology and curriculum design to worksites, blending them with social learning models. I am identifying partners who have created curriculums we can put on tablets and provide to employees at a restaurant, private business or plant.”
Immigrants and refugees generate a significant amount entrepreneurial activity, Azuri notes. Welcoming Atlanta’s language instruction will help promote awareness of the variety of small business incentives available from agencies like Invest Atlanta.
“These business creation incentives are available to all, but immigrants and refugees often travel on public transportation, which gives them less time to learn about them.”
Azuri says that as immigrant and social worker, she takes her job very seriously.
“My job is super cool. I get to bring creative innovation and economic development into our community, and I create programming that, in a way, is relevant to all Atlantans.”
She earned her B.S.W. in Social Work in 2003 at Georgia State University, where she learned the value of mentoring.
“I was mentored by every professor still in the School of Social Work,” she says. “(Professor) Elizabeth Beck said to me, ‘the best compliment I can give you is that I’d love to see you have your Ph.D. and one day be my coworker.’ I knew I loved school and saw myself having a great job, but never knew I had what it took to get a PhD. Her comment shaped me.”
Faculty members Peter Lyons helped her understand schools of social work “should and could have a great impact on children, their families and their communities,” and Mindy Wertheimer encouraged her to apply to Columbia for a graduate degree. While there, she focused on advanced generalist practice, program development and evaluation.
“I thought I wanted to be able to create programs that will help meet the needs of special population groups and beyond, that help them flourish,” she says, “and now, here I am.”
Azuri finished Summa Cum Laude, one of eight Latinos to graduate at Columbia in 2004.
“I’m constantly reminded that it was the support of my instructors that gave me the self-confidence to accomplish that, and I tell them all the time.”
Through Azuri’ s career—addressing teen risk behavior, improving reproductive health for Latinas and women of color, teaching social work at the Andrew Young School, and now, as a leading force in the city’s initiative to build a better community for Atlanta’s immigrants and refugees—she is led by the tenets of social work practice.
“We cannot build a community by focusing on its deficits. We build communities by focusing on their strengths,” she says. “That’s what differentiates the Andrew Young School’s social work practice and education.”