December 17, 2017
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For Maine’s economy to grow, it doesn’t just need more immigrants. It needs a welcoming attitude

By Elizabeth Greason, Special to the BDN
Francis Flisiuk | BDN | BDN
Francis Flisiuk | BDN | BDN
Marie Coyle, who teaches at the YMCA, leads a dance during the World Refugee Day festival on June 13, 2015, in Deering Oaks Park in Portland.

The numbers are in. Maine is losing people faster than it can attract them.

Politicians, business leaders and economists, who may agree on nothing else, agree on this. What they also agree on? If some sort of innovation doesn’t happen soon, Maine is poised for ugly economic times.

There are great suggestions out there for how to grow, many of which were mentioned in BDN Maine’s #TheEconomyProject. Some would require economic investment, others a shifting in mindset.

Here’s the problem, though. Many Mainers don’t want to change. The latest meme floating around Facebook (with 1,805 likes and 1,655 shares) affirms this: “Welcome to Maine. Don’t try to change it. If you don’t like it, turn around.”

But it’s precisely because I do love Maine that I would implore Mainers both to consider the effects of doing nothing and to imagine what is possible if we begin to innovate.

To attract more people to the state requires us to be welcoming to businesses and people “from away,” whether they are from New York, New Zealand or New Caledonia. This does not require us to change who we are, our “Mainer-ness,” but it does challenge us to expand on our skillsets and to consider shifting our mindsets. The onus is on us to be proactive to attract, and later retain, a diverse workforce.

But they’re coming to our state, you may say. They should adapt to our way of doing things, you may think. And you would be partly right. Adapting to a new culture requires agility, and adapting to new norms, values and systems. Each immigrant to Maine I’ve met is working hard on this cultural adaptation process.

Anyone who has lived in another country knows that adaptation is a challenge. When people acknowledge that difficulty and offer compassion, the process becomes infinitely easier, and full integration is ultimately more effective.

As an example, I lived in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates for many years, and at this time of year, I would miss Maine terribly. Though I understood I was in a country that didn’t celebrate Christmas as part of its culture, and I had adapted just fine to that, a part of me was homesick and felt my “otherness.”

But you know what made me feel welcome, and made me extend my stay in the Middle East year after year, continuing to want to live and work there for the better part of a decade?

The Mall of the Emirates displayed a giant Christmas tree (right near the indoor ski mountain). My Muslim colleagues wished me “Merry Christmas” — sometimes even with Christmas cards. My workplace gave me Christmas off. The local radio station played Christmas carols — in English. I could go to midnight mass at the church down the street. My Muslim friends asked me about American Christmas traditions, really wanting to listen to my answer.

The cultural competency and genuine curiosity about other cultures displayed by the Muslim citizens of Dubai made this Mainer feel accepted, appreciated and valued in the middle of the Arabian Desert. And I would go back to work there in a heartbeat.

That is what cultural competency creates: an environment where diverse people choose to live and work, adding value to an economy and richness to the cultural tapestry.

Cultural competency is a skillset, a mindset and a genuine curiosity for understanding difference, and an acknowledgement that there is strength and value in difference. It is a reason for the success of so many vibrant international cities.

My workplace in Dubai didn’t want me to dump my American perspective or values at the door. It wanted to see how my ideas and cultural perspective could combine with a Middle Eastern perspective to create something new, something better, something that had never existed before.

If Maine has the courage to be open to a similar type of innovation, and the intercultural communication skillset to welcome it, this type of cross-cultural cross-pollination could lay the foundation for Maine’s future economic prosperity.

Maine’s most proactive and innovative companies, schools and nonprofits already know this and are actively seeking out cultural competency training to attract and retain diverse employees, students and clients. Mainers are expanding their professional skillsets to include trainings in effective intercultural communication, so they have the communication and cultural competency skills to assure all people thrive in their workplace or school.

“If I’d only known this [technique for communicating effectively across cultures] six months ago, so much misunderstanding could have been avoided. So much time and money could have been saved,” said one manager of a hotel after attending one of my company’s trainings.

This speaks to the fact that all the job-creation pipelines, all the cabinet positions, all the training for immigrants, though necessary, is not the whole picture.

If Mainers do not develop their cultural competency skills, the best-laid plans for boosting the economy will fall short. Alternatively, developing this skillset will help to assure that people want to come to Maine and stay here. And that will make Maine’s economy flourish.

Elizabeth Greason is owner and principal consultant of Maine Intercultural Communication Consultants.


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