Afrika Yetu leads attendees in a dance that has all of Market Square moving. Photo: World Refugee Day.

This week, more than 400 artists, activists, and elected official from across the country will gather in Downtown Pittsburgh for a summit on how cities can attract and support immigration.

Running from May 15 through 17 in the conference rooms of the Omni William Penn Hotel, The Welcoming Interactive + Welcoming Economies Convening will feature a variety of panel discussions and workshops on the topic of inclusive communities, with a special emphasis on the benefits of international immigration for American cities.

The meeting serves as the annual gathering of Welcoming America, a national advocacy organization. Previous meetings were held in Atlanta and Louisville.

“As the largest gathering of local leaders focused on creating more inclusive communities for immigrants and all residents, we are delighted to bring this convening to Pittsburgh,” said Welcoming America Executive Director Rachel Peric. “Pittsburgh and Allegheny County are positive models for a country grappling with demographic change in their efforts to foster inclusion, counter hate, and create a more vibrant and prosperous region.”

The community development organization All for All is the lead local host, with the city and county serving as co-hosts.

All for All founder Betty Cruz tells NEXTpittsburgh that while they’re happy to show off our local successes as the conference, they also want to be honest about our challenges.

“We want to present an authentic, real take on what we’re grappling with here locally, whether it concerns around gentrification, to racial equity to new Americans and the broader immigrant community,” she says. “The intersection of all these issues is what we want to communicate as part of the Pittsburgh story.”

She adds, “Folks might want to talk about economic development. How immigrants are essential to the growth of the region, and that’s true. But they’re also essential to the culture of the region.”

Cruz says that Pittsburgh found out it had been selected for the 2019 conference location in early October of last year, just a few weeks before a gunman, fueled by anti-immigrant conspiracy theories, killed 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill.

While she and her team were hesitant at first about hosting the conference in the immediate aftermath of the horrific crime, they soon decided, “this is exactly why we should be hosting.”

Featured speakers at the event include:

-Zulma Maciel, Office of Immigrant Affairs Director for the City of San Jose.

-Dan Gillman, Chief of Staff for Mayor Bill Peduto.

-Seemi Choudry, Director of the Office of New Americans in Chicago.

-Dr. Jeffrey Myers. Rabbi of the Tree of Life Congregation.

“We are excited that the Welcoming Interactive + Welcoming Economies Convening will be held here in the City of Pittsburgh,” said Mayor Bill Peduto. Pittsburgh policy-makers “will be able to take advantage of the sessions around social cohesion and inclusion that the WIE convening will provide. Our city is becoming increasingly global and having the convening here helps to increase the spirit of welcoming.”

In addition to the many speakers and panel discussions, conference participants will have a chance to explore the past and present of Pittsburgh immigration during guided tours organized by The Global Switchboard, a local coworking space and business accelerator with an international focus.

The tour will go to the South Hill Interfaith Movement (SHIM) family center near Whitehall to visit with the newly established and growing Bhutanese population, the long-standing immigrant businesses in Squirrel Hill and the former settlement houses in the Hill District.

Alaa Mohamed, program manager for Global Switchboard, tells NEXTpittsburgh that the locations were chosen to illustrate how greatly immigration has informed the city’s wider social and political development.

“I hope people appreciate the nuances that we’re shining a light on,” she says. “At the end of the day, we all have to work together and acknowledge each other’s history as well as our current lived realities in order to move forward as a nation.”

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.