If you walked up to anyone on the street in Chattanooga 20 years ago and told them that, within a couple decades, this city would be one of the most cosmopolitan places in the Southeast, that person would have probably laughed at you. But when taking inventory of today’s demographic landscape, it becomes apparent that we live in a very diverse and culturally nuanced city, especially when compared to most of our regional peers.
The Hamilton County Department of Education offers the clearest window through which we can view the racial composition of our citizenry. Across the county school system, students and their families hail from over 35 countries, and more than 40 languages are spoken. Besides English, the top five languages in our schools are Spanish, Arabic, German, Kirundi (eastern Africa), and Malayalam (India). Simply examining the people group most commonly associated with the first language on that list can help put diversity trends in perspective. The Latino population in Hamilton County is expanding at a staggering pace. The 1990 Census reported that Latinos didn’t even make up a full percentage point of the total county population, while estimates for the year 2020 show that number will likely hit 12 percent.
Growing with our international community are a host of organizations, each working to connect new people to the city they now call home. From Bridge Refugee Services to La Paz Chattanooga, and the Chamber of Commerce’s International Business Council to Chattanooga State’s Cultural Ambassadors and International Achievers initiatives, there are more entities working today than ever before to create a stronger, more inclusive city and county. And what’s exciting about these various organizations is that they’ve been started as grassroots nonprofits, as well as by traditional heavyweight trendsetters in the area.
If we are going to maximize the human resource potential of our region, though, it cannot simply be left to a confederacy of mission-minded businesses, 501(c)(3)s, and places of worship to engage new residents. Rather, it will take the entirety of a population to open welcoming arms and incorporate all those who call themselves Chattanoogans. On Monday, La Paz Chattanooga hosted the Latino Leadership Awards to kick off Hispanic Heritage Month.
A half-decade ago, when I decided to relocate back to Chattanooga, I did so because I truly believed I could craft a better future for myself here than anywhere else. It was opportunity that brought me here, and opportunity is the driving factor luring almost all of our new neighbors. Whether we’ve come here from Honduras, Germany, India, or Knoxville, we all ache to succeed, and non-natives have chosen to uproot—leaving family, friends, and the familiarities of daily life—to a place that celebrates opportunity. Chattanooga is an exceptional city, and I thank God I live here every day. It’s up to us to create and sustain an environment that will allow everyone to contribute to its future good standing. As individuals prosper, so will the collective, and it is in the best interest of us all, and our posterity, to eliminate the barriers prohibiting the pursuit of success by any one person.
When Chattanooga first celebrated Volkswagen’s decision to locate here, I remember the “Willkommen” signs that popped up everywhere. It seemed the entire town couldn’t say “welcome” enough. I hope we can learn to share that excitement with all of our recent and coming arrivals, saying bienvenidos, bon bini, bun venit… welcome.
David Martin manages Development & Communications at La Paz Chattanooga. He received the 2013 Civic Impact Award from the Young Professionals Association, and is a 2013 graduate of Leadership Chattanooga.