In past years, Pittsburgh has seen the emergence of several exciting programs and initiatives all aimed at increasing resources and creating a welcoming atmosphere for our city’s immigrant and refugee populations. Hello Neighbor is the most recent of these efforts, led by Sloane Davidson. Vibrant Pittsburgh recently reached out to Sloane to learn more about the interesting mentoring initiative and the state of Pittsburgh’s welcoming resources. Read our conversation below.
Vibrant Pittsburgh: Can you tell us a bit about Hello Neighbor and its history?
Sloane Davidson: Hello Neighbor is an idea that I have sketched in just about every notebook I have had for the past 15 years. I would sit in meetings for jobs I had in my 20’s and dream about starting a mentorship program that helped support vulnerable communities. I have always valued the two-way street of mentorship having been both a mentor and mentee.
I’m a native Pittsburgher but lived away for 15 years. It wasn’t until I moved back to Pittsburgh in 2015, that I really solidified what that could look like. Part of that process was completing my Masters in Public Policy and Management at The University of Pittsburgh over the past year. I was able to ground the concept for Hello Neighbor in an academic environment, and my professors and fellow classmates were incredible in supporting Hello Neighbor and helping bring it to life.
In looking back at my varied career and various cities I’ve lived in, it was my time with international communities that I enjoyed the most. I started researching refugee resettlement and the process refugees go through. I wanted to help support a refugee family in my neighborhood. I was introduced to a Syrian family and invited them to Thanksgiving dinner at my house. This was immediately following the presidential election and the attention on refugees and refugee issues, and so I think it was a bit of a perfect storm where I had this nascent idea and then had so much momentum behind me and in front of me that I felt like I couldn’t not do this.
VP: How does Hello Neighbor work?
SD: Hello Neighbor is a time-boxed mentorship program. Currently the program is four months (June-September). Mentors and mentees are trained and go through orientations and then get together about once per week. Throughout the program I have 10 events that I produce to bring the whole cohort together. We have picnics in the park, movie nights, educational trainings and fun activities at museums and other places to bring everyone together. I’m focused on the mentor experience as much as the mentee which I think adds a nice balance to the program and to the heart of what we’re about.
VP: What aspect of Hello Neighbor are you most excited about?
SD: The mentors and mentees. We have 25 families in the pilot, refugees from 6 countries, mentors from over 20 zip codes around Pittsburgh. We have 86 kids under the age of 18. This is a group effort and group initiative. I had the idea, I built the platform and put this all together but they are the ones bringing it to life. It’s incredibly exciting.
VP: Who are you already working with throughout the city to achieve HN’s goals? Who would you like to partner with in the future?
SD: Pittsburghers are great about this. I could provide such a long list of people and places who have lent their support, advice and partnership. Organizations like the Andy Warhol Museum, the Heinz History Center, and the Pittsburgh Pirates are already generously helping Hello Neighbor in our current pilot program with tickets and custom tours and experiences for our mentors and mentees. I really want the refugees in our program to feel comfortable and confident in Pittsburgh, and many places around the city are lending their help to make that happen.
VP: How do you feel the Pittsburgh area is doing in terms of supporting our immigrant and refugee populations?
SD: I think that politicians and the media would have us believe that refugees are the problem and they are different from us. That’s simply not true. I believe when you put two families together, they will find common ground and create a bond. That is what Hello Neighbor is all about. Pittsburgh is a city built by and for immigrants. Pittsburgh is a city that is known for its bridges, and in Hello Neighbor we are building bridges everyday between communities so it’s a really powerful narrative to bring to life here. There are many programs, nonprofits and people in this city working on these issues that I admire and am inspired by and aspire to be like.
VP: What should immigrants/refugees do if they want to participate in the program as a mentee?
SD: Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. They can also nominate themselves, or another refugee or immigrant they know through a form: https://www.helloneighbor.io/#get-involved Part of growing into the next iteration of Hello Neighbor is providing translations and language support so people interested in Hello Neighbor will start to see those changes over the next few months.
VP: When will applications reopen for mentorships?
SD: I’m incredibly focused on the current class of mentors and mentees. I want their experiences to be 110% of what they thought it would be. If I do that, I’ll have ambassadors for life and will be making a real difference in people’s lives. I’m excited to launch the second application cycle for mentors and mentees later this year with the next class starting in early 2018.
VP: What can people do to help/contribute now?
SD: As a scrappy new organization, every dollar counts! We are currently operating under a fiscal sponsor as we finalize our own nonprofit status. New Sun Rising, a well-known and well-respected Pittsburgh organization, is our sponsor. People can visit our website to learn more about about Hello Neighbor and then make a donation through the website.
VP: Is there anything else you would like us to know about Hello Neighbor?
SD: I think it’s important to remember that refugee is just one label. Before they were forced to flee their homes, refugees were mothers and daughters and fathers and sons and storekeepers and schoolteachers and engineers. We are all so much more than one label and I think that is bigger than Hello Neighbor. This is about showing compassion and humanity towards others. If Hello Neighbor can spark something in people, as mentors or just as people who are inspired by this program, for me that’s a huge win.
If you have additional questions about Hello Neighbor, you can contact the organization at info(at)helloneighbor(dot)io. For any questions about this piece, please contact Jocelyn Codner at email@example.com.