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The future of working with newcomer immigrant populations and serving them also means understanding the needs of extant populations: being able to bridge shared experiences and say we have a lot more in common than that which divides us.

—John Arroyo

When I asked John Arroyo, SAR’s 2018–2019 Mellon fellow, how he became interested in studying immigration, he described growing up in a largely Mexican and Mexican American community in East LA, where even as a kid he was thinking about urban issues and the diversity and future of communities like his. He is now a planner and urban designer who incorporates a humanistic perspective into his work, which allows him to make connections between urban issues, art and culture, ethnic studies, and the social sciences. While at SAR he worked on translating his dissertation research into a book about the last twenty years of suburban immigrant placemaking in Gwinnett County, Georgia, one of the fastest growing counties in the United States and the most diverse and multiethnic county in the US South. This huge growth in Mexican American, Latinx, and other immigrant populations has shifted his thinking on how cities incorporate new communities—or don’t—and how these communities respond to old and new built environments.

John Arroyo

SAR’s 2018–2019 Mellon fellow, John Arroyo. His time at SAR, he said, allowed him to step back from his dissertation research and think about how to write his book and for whom.

Arroyo explained to me that Latinx populations new to the greater Atlanta area are moving straight to suburbs that don’t necessarily have the infrastructure to meet their needs, such as affordable housing or transportation networks. Growing immigrant populations are driving policy at city, county, state, and federal levels, and this process is calling into question what Arroyo called “pastoral ideals” of what a mainstream suburban city should look like. In lieu of sufficient infrastructure, immigrants are building shadow cities to connect with each other and with their communities of origin—for example, transforming big box stores emptied by the great recession into mini-malls reminiscent of shopping areas they knew at home. Arroyo said that his time at SAR helped him to restructure his findings and to think about how immigrants were responding to the built environment with agentive versus coping perspectives—transforming versus accepting environments that weren’t built and don’t work for them.

Both before and since his time at SAR, Arroyo has been working with ArtPlace America to study creative placemaking. “Placemaking,” he told me, “is the equitable transformation of communities” co-created by the people who live in them with the support of nonprofit, municipal, and other government entities. Arroyo has recently completed a field scan for ArtPlace—a three-year project to study the connections between art, culture, placemaking, and immigration—which draws lessons from the challenges and opportunities faced by immigrant groups working with art and culture, as well as art and culture groups working with immigrants, and provides guidance for these groups.

“This investigation,” says ArtPlace, “captures the voices and insights of artists and immigration professionals working on a wide range of advocacy and social service issues in the face of rapidly changing mobility patterns in the U.S. and globally.”

When I asked Arroyo what connections he saw between his work in Gwinnett County, his work with ArtPlace, and the workings of (or challenges to) democracy that we’ve seen over the past few months during the runup to and results of the election, he described how Gwinnett County has become a model for other city and state governments. Even during a rise in anti-immigrant policy and deportations, cities in Gwinnett County are working to develop citizen engagement, protecting and welcoming populations. “One of the reasons the word welcoming is important is because it helps cities that aren’t able to say sanctuary cities still be supportive to immigrants, refugees, and asylees, even if the nomenclature or the term is different.” Arroyo believes that this kind of advocacy and recognition of the importance of demographic change is not only important locally, but for the future of the country. “What’s been interesting for me is how many people thought I was off base to think that there would be so much demographic change in a place like Georgia. I think especially people on the coasts had many stereotypes about the inability of the US South to shift political attitudes and electoral outcomes. I’m not surprised that all eyes are on Georgia right now.”

Most exciting, perhaps, Arroyo and colleagues have just won a grant of over $4.5 million from the Mellon Foundation, as part of their Just Futures initiative, to create the Pacific Northwest Just Futures Institute for Racial and Climate Justice. As principal investigator and director of the institute, Arroyo will lead a new partnership between the College of Design and the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oregon, in conjunction with Whitman College and the University of Idaho. The institute will study climate change, traditional ecological knowledge, displacement, labor, and other environmental issues of concern to local Indigenous communities, all in relation to the growth of Afro-Indigenous and Caribbean communities in the Pacific Northwest. The work, says Arroyo, aims to help students who don’t traditionally feel seen in the landscape of the Pacific Northwest, to increase the visibility of other underrepresented groups, and to forge connections among parts of the university that didn’t otherwise have a way to work together in order to support climate and racial justice.

I appreciate that it comes on the heels of having been supported by the Mellon Foundation through my SAR Latino Studies fellowship. I’d like to say that SAR got me started on a connection with Mellon. I wasn’t coming from a traditional background in the humanities (for example, English or history), so I’m happy to see an expanded, interdisciplinary definition of humanistic study. I think the margins and boundaries of the humanities and social sciences are where the most exciting work is happening. I couldn’t be more thrilled for all of UO’s community partners, our students, our faculty, residents of the Pacific Northwest region. I believe we have a lot to teach the rest of the country about intersecting environmental climate issues and racial justice.

Arroyo spent the last few moments of our conversation thinking out loud about urbanism and change and specifically environmental migration to places like New Mexico. How will local governments manage change? How will the people already living in a place react? What kind of infrastructure will be needed, and is it being planned or built?

Photo by Andreas Dress.

My overarching question in all my urbanism research is what are the distinct ways specific cultural groups adapt and/or transform their built and natural environments? The reason I think that’s so important, and how it plays out in our Mellon project with the Pacific Northwest Just Futures Institute for Racial and Climate Justice, is that we planners tend to say, “We do this for everyone.” When we say “we plan for everyone”—a generic monolith—it prevents us from thinking about nuances, for example, tribal climate change strategies. Currently, a growing body of research is problematizing these consequences. When we hide under the guise of general diversity, equity, and inclusion, we fall short of considering the unique histories and needs of various vulnerable groups and how those have affected their place in society. That is a major tenet behind the Black Lives Matter movement—highlighting rampant inequalities and requiring a new era to find ways to create a more just and inclusive society. With the Mellon Foundation’s Just Futures initiative, multiple colleges and universities across the U.S. will center the role of the humanities in re-envisioning the future for social justice, especially with the vast racial and climate disparities present across the world. We have much to learn from underrepresented populations—they have lessons and life experiences to share, and the world must listen.


Feature photo by Katie Moum.