Immigrants Use Storytelling to Become Leaders

NALP alumni on the rooftop of One Hudson Square in Manhattan at the New American Leaders Project alumni conference and training session. (Photo by Áine Pennello for Voices of NY)

NALP alumni on the rooftop of One Hudson Square in Manhattan at the New American Leaders Project alumni conference and training session. (Photo by Áine Pennello for Voices of NY)

When California native Uduak Ntuk ran for a seat on the school board of the Long Beach Unified School District in April, he knew he wouldn’t win based on name recognition.

“What does Uduak mean? Where does that come from?” said Ntuk, recalling questions from the campaign. During phone calls to voters, some assumed Ntuk was Muslim and told him they would not vote for him.

So in order to connect with voters, Ntuk did what many immigrant candidates traditionally worry would be sure to backfire – he told the story of his immigrant background, of his father’s journey from Nigeria to the United States in search of a better education and of his mother’s missionary mindset that led her to work as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa.

Personal storytelling, although not new, is becoming an increasingly popular way for immigrant candidates to connect with native voters – even though many candidates initially think their immigrant story will highlight their differences rather than their similarities.

“At first glance they say, ‘Oh, there’s no affinity or affiliation,’” said Ntuk.

But hearing how immigrant candidates grew up in the U.S. and established common values can cause voters to empathize.

Panelists (l.to r.)  Jorge Montalvo, NALP alumnae Linda Sarsour and Gigi Li and Sonia Kotecha speak on 'How Being Appointed Prepares You for Elected Office' (Photo by Áine Pennello for Voices of NY)

Panelists (l.to r.) Jorge Montalvo, NALP alumnae Linda Sarsour and Gigi Li and Sonia Kotecha speak on “How Being Appointed Prepares You for Elected Office” (Photo by Áine Pennello for Voices of NY)

“It defangs people’s stereotypes or hesitancy of some of the immigrant background as not being American or not being from the community,” said Ntuk at the New American Leaders Project alumni conference last week.

NALP, established in 2010, is the only organization that prepares pan-ethnic candidates for civic leadership. The organization works exclusively with first- and second-generation immigrants to prepare them for leadership roles. Some alumni, such as Linda Sarsour and Gigi Li, now serve as community board members in New York, while others serve on local boards of education.

All the individuals who come to NALP are trained through modules that focus on fundraising, campaign finances, building a support base, working with campaign managers, and combating xenophobia and racism.

Storytelling is also a main focus of the organization, as trainers go over candidates’ stories again and again, shortening them into 15-second sound bites which participants recite, pretending they are on camera.

“For a lot of people who are first- or second-generation immigrants, they’re often not comfortable saying my parents immigrated,” said Sam Shim, who currently serves on the Board of Education in Worthington, Ohio.

“But I think it’s a powerful story. My parents immigrated, we lived in a middle-class neighborhood, they struggled but they really cared about education. People can connect to that because we’re all from somewhere else,” said Shim, a NALP alumnus. “Just being able to get to the point where you can tell your story is big because I don’t think it’s intuitive to a lot of people to tell the story about their life in order to win an election.”

“For us, it’s about building a positive narrative of immigrant presence in this country,” said Sayu Bhojwani, NALP founder and president.

“The story about immigrants has often been one of being victims, of being dependent and for us, there’s a really important trajectory around saying we contribute to society and there are these positive values that we bring and really owning the American narrative as an immigrant narrative,” said Bhojwani at NALP’s alumni conference held in New York June 18-20.

Supporters of the approach say storytelling became more popular with immigrant candidates after the success of President Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. The campaign drew on the notion of the “public story” that was advanced by Harvard sociologist and former organizer Marshall Ganz.

“Some people say, ‘I don’t want to talk about myself,’ but if you don’t interpret to others your calling and your reason for doing what you’re doing, do you think it will just stay uninterpreted? No. Other people will interpret for you. You don’t have any choice if you want to be a leader,” wrote Ganz in Sojourners Magazine in 2009.

The alumni conference served as NALP’s third and final training session this year.

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