Engage and Connect

President Obama is committed to making this the most open and participatory administration in history. That begins with taking your questions and comments, inviting you to join online events with White House officials, and giving you a way to engage with your government on the issues that matter the most.

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Latest News

  • Tapping into the Economic Potential of Local Food Through Local Foods, Local Places

    In Jefferson City, Missouri, federal local food experts meet with community leaders to determine a successful site for a new farmers market

    In Jefferson City, Missouri, federal local food experts met with community leaders to determine a successful site for a new farmers market. This partnership was made possible by Local Foods, Local Places which helps communities integrate successful local food enterprises into their economic plans.

    At USDA, we understand the enormous market potential of local food. Industry estimates suggest that local food sales in America have nearly doubled in recent years, jumping from $5 billion in 2008 to $11.7 billion in 2014. We’ve invested more than $800 million in 29,100 local and regional food businesses and infrastructure projects over the past six years to help farmers, ranchers and rural businesses tap into that market.

    Indeed, local food is a national phenomenon that has significant impact on every state’s economy. But local food is not only a business opportunity for agriculture, it can also be a development tool that allows communities to maximize the impact of what is grown and made locally. Local food projects can help grow local food economies and drive downtown and neighborhood revitalization, which is what the Administration’s Local Foods, Local Places initiative is all about. And this year, the initiative is particularly focused on ensuring that kids and families in need have an opportunity to benefit from the development of local food systems. This initiative is part of the White House Rural Council’s “Rural Impact” effort to improve quality of life and upward mobility for kids and families in rural and tribal communities.

  • From Abuja to New York City, an LGBT Activist Story

    Mone Aye

    Micheal Ighodaro is being honored as a White House Champion of Change for World Refugees.

    I have been thinking about all the Champions out there—President Obama, David Kato, Nelson Mandela, many like myself. I am sorry for putting myself in line with all these great champions, but if there is anything I have learned about been a champion of change, it is that when you become a champion of a particular cause  you live and dream that cause and it becomes the reason why you are alive. The great Muhammad Ali said, “Champions aren´t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them – a desire, a dream, a vision.”

    Growing up in a country like mine with a parent who was really struggling with the idea of who I was or I wasn’t, I was forced to leave my parents’ house at the age of 17.. I dropped out of school and ended up in the street like several others.  I was living in a room with four other young gay men. The oldest was 18. We struggled to take care of ourselves, doing unspeakable things to survive. Activism isn’t just a title. These experiences defines why I call myself an activist because being an activist  means  more than fighting for Gay rights, it is about survival. 

    After I attended the International AIDS Conference in 2012, a media organization based in the US decided to amplify my story more than I would have liked or wanted. This made it too dangerous for me to live in Nigeria. I moved to New York not sure of where I was going to stay or how I would eat. I got to this city I now can proudly call home with just a single bag. I moved from couch to couch, staying with well-meaning friends who have now become family.

    I moved to more permanent housing just after a month after I got to New York. But then this well-meaning person who offered me his home was shot and killed in the streets of Brooklyn. I was shocked beyond words. I was then introduced to Housing Works, which is a non-profit organization based in New York. Housing Works got me an emergency housing, linked me to some legal assistance so I could start my asylum application process, and got me temporary medical insurance. They did all this without pre-planning or having the funds for it.

    The housing they got me soon became a room for two, because as the days went by the number of LGBT asylum seekers grew. As these new asylum seekers were introduced to the ‘’rushed and unfunded asylum program’’ at Housing Works. I starting talking to service providers in the city, filling out several forms to understand the process. Before I knew it, we had a program that was catering for 15 asylum seekers--mostly from Nigeria. I am proud to say that as of today the program has almost 40 asylum seekers who are being provided stable housing and other services. Access to health care including treatment for HIV is a key part of those services. I am proud to be working at an organization called AVAC to help end AIDS among LGBT Africans and all people.

    My refugee application process took less than three months, but I have friends who have taken about two years just to get an interview with the immigration officer. Some are detained for months and sometimes years. These are part of issues we still need to address in our efforts to reform the immigration system. The efforts of Housing Works in New York and the great work that Immigration Equality continues to do needs to be supported and funded because they are on the frontline of saving our lives and providing us an opportunity for a new life in America.

    Micheal Ighodaro is the Program and Policy Assistant for AVAC.

  • The Butterfly Effect

    Mone Aye

    Marwan Sweedan is being honored as a White House Champion of Change for World Refugees.

    Reading through the Epic of Gilgamesh one will reach the conclusion that the secret to immortality is embedded in the change that survives one’s death. The change could be a thought or an adventure that produces a good deed that benefits all of human civilization. Inspired by this realization, I was motivated to bring changes to myself and to the community I reside in. I chose to join community service groups which, indeed, is an excellent tool to serve that purpose. The groups I joined serve high-skilled immigrants. We train them, advocate for them, mentor them, and most importantly we are trying to engage them in their local communities and give them the opportunity to impact their communities positively and become shining examples of success.

    My story started in August of 2008 when I reached the United States as a refugee with a degree in medicine. I arrived at a time when the recession was at its peak and I faced a significant challenges and stress when attempting to navigate the system alone with no help. I drained all my resources and capabilities trying to make sense of the new system I was now a part of. Later on and with the assistance of Upwardly Global, an organization that helps professional refugees, I managed to find a subsistence job and generate some stability through their advocacy and networking. And with the guidance of Mr. Chris King, my mentor, I started to understand the system and my new environment. I pushed my way through struggles trying to unlock my potential and gain a medical license and be able to practice in the U.S. and advance in my education. Searching for methods to achieve my goals I realized that many if not all immigrant doctors like myself face similar issues. 

    I reached out to Upwardly Global and Global Talent Idaho (GTI), and I suggested these organizations start a task force to resolve matters of immigrant doctors and they responded to my call. Joined by GTI, Upwardly Global, family and members of the local community, I launched the task force. We call it GT-DOC. Its mission is to help medically underserved communities by increasing their access to better health practice via well trained immigrant doctors who are willing to practice in such areas. We started to network and reach out to a variety of resources.

    I tried to juxtapose the obstacles that the immigrant doctors face in the U.S. and the needs of the local community to health providers so as to generate reasonable solutions that address both issues.  The biggest challenge GT-DOC is facing so far (and all the refugees as well) is the bureaucracy and the rigidity of the system that constrains refugees’ ability to be productive and innovative. Soon, I realized that these immigrant doctors’ problems were part of larger challenges. So, I started to organize the immigrant community, including by bringing together specific groups to be able to define their needs, challenges, and solutions. My next step was to reach out to community leaders to present their problems and offer potential solutions.

    Promoting such cooperation and development in a community is difficult work. Sometimes we succeed and establish what we are hoping for; and most of the time we fail, but never stop trying. I learned by joining such efforts that perhaps we will not experience the change in our lifetime but the generations to come may benefit from that change. My efforts may inspire others to change and pass it to others and so on. That is the butterfly effect I am seeking, and that's how development happens. I always looked upon this nation as the symbol of change in this world. Thus, I am honored that the White House and all that it represents recognized me as a Champion of Change.  

    Marwan Sweedan is an advocate for GTI, a partner with Upwardly Global, and co-founder of GT-DOC a task force that help immigrant doctors to return to practice in USA.

  • Successful Integration for New Americans

    Mone Aye

    Gatluak Ter Thach is being honored as a White House Champion of Change for World Refugees.

    Integration is complex. I think it is significant to recognize what it takes to create an integrated community. This task requires knowledge of processes and resources. Successful integration as part of a “New American Dream” is a role both hosts and New Americans should play. Even though resettlement agencies, both at the national and local levels, play their roles by providing refugees, pre- and post-resettlement services, successful integration is not realized in a few months or even years.

    Lack of cultural knowledge as well as connections to important elements constrain integration. Knowledge of the English language is one of the most important things to gain integration. When I first arrived in this country, I didn’t know English. It was difficult for me to navigate the complex American systems. I pledged that I would do everything I could to change it.  I decided to learn English well enough to enroll in a learning center in Nashville before I transferred to a two year college and then Tennessee State University where I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science with minor in mathematics.

    After I realized I needed to heed my family’s hopes that I settle down and get married, I thought of a little girl I met in Itang Refugee Camp in Ethiopia before I left. This girl was about eleven years old, but I promised to marry her when we both grew up. I provided her a small photo of me and told her not to marry anyone else unless she heard I died. I called and asked my brother in Ethiopia to find out more about where she was. I asked him to look for the girl who used to come through our compound to fetch water. I reminded him that after she approached us with her sisters and friends, we asked her to give us her water, and she would give us her water and return to a river to fetch more. Because of her generosity, I started to call her “my future wife,” and all of our family members and friends called her “Gatluak’s wife.” 

    My brother got back to me with great news about the girl. After I spoke with her and her family, I decided to go to the camp in Ethiopia to marry her. In the spring of 2004, we were married in a traditional wedding in the refugee camp. I returned to the United States and petitioned for her to join me. After she landed in Nashville, I realized Sudanese women faced unusual challenges to integration. I knew my wife needed to learn English since I could envision how difficult our lives would be, especially if Kuoth Nhial (God of Heaven) blessed us with a child.

    I thought of what to do to help her. I bought a whiteboard and put it in the front seating area in our apartment to teach her the ABCs. Before I knew it, ladies from the Sudanese community joined her. Some of women walked miles for the English lessons. My apartment wasn’t big enough for these women and their children. I started to ask some Sudanese friends, “Guys, we need to rent a place where women can learn English because they really need our help,” and that was the beginning of the Nashville International Center for Empowerment (NICE), formerly Sudanese Community and Women’s Service Center, which serves refugees and immigrants from 72 different countries through a variety of programs. My work is to ensure refugees and immigrants are successful integrated into their new community through economic, social and civic empowerments. 

    Dr. Gatluak Ter Thach is the President and CEO of the Nashville International Center for Empowerment. 

  • How Do We Best Tell a Refugee Story?

    Mone Aye

    Nadia Kasvin is being honored as a White House Champion of Change for World Refugees.

    I think of myself as an accomplished person, having made my way from Crimea to the United States more than 20 years ago.  But even after living in this country for many years, I sometimes find myself wanting to say, “Just because I speak with an accent, does not mean I think with an accent. Look at me. See me. Listen to my ideas.  I am not invisible.” 

    I have dedicated my life in this new country to helping refugees and immigrants be successful.  That task requires navigating cultural norms, social customs, housing, transportation, health care, and many other necessities that are new to refugees.  Yet sometimes my greatest hurdle is changing local attitudes toward the people I serve.  Many have never met someone born in another country.  They may not know our plight, our hard work ethic, our family story or our struggle to succeed in our new country. But once our stories are known and our desire for independence is understood, barriers disappear and our similarities trump any differences. That’s why our organization, US Together, celebrates the life of every refugee from initial hardship to accomplishment.

    These stories are inspirational. There are so many to tell -- like the young woman from Democratic Republic of Congo who made her way here after a life pierced with gender-based violence.  She overcame her personally tragic past and opened her own business within a year of arrival to the United States. Or the story of a refugee from Bhutan who opened the first Nepali restaurant in his new adopted city, or the engineer from Ukraine who went on to create his own IT firm. Or my own story, one that starts as a refugee from Ukraine who co-founded a non-profit organization helping refugees and immigrants. Our entrepreneurial model is unique, utilizing our interpretive services as additional earned income in several cities, employing the very refugees that we work to resettle.  

    Not many people fully appreciate the economic impact of new Americans. In Columbus, it is substantial. But to prove this point we need more than anecdotal stories. All of us working in Refugee Resettlement would love to have the research staff to track changes in our refugees’ employment and income status. We would like to be able to tell you how many refugees open their own business, and how many of our children go to college, and what professions they choose. Rarely do agencies like ours have the capacity for such an extensive follow up. But I have heard enough stories to know the numbers would impress. How can we best communicate our struggle, integration and success? Maybe there are other ways for an immigrant with an accent to be heard.  I invite everybody to participate in this discussion. Let me know your ideas. 

    Nadia Kasvin is a co-founder and director of US Together, Inc., www.ustogether.us, a statewide mutual assistance and resettlement organization from Ohio, dedicated to providing a host of resettlement and integration services for refugees and immigrants from all over the world.

  • Building Bridges for Refugees from Burma

    Mone Aye

    Mone Aye is being honored as a White House Champion of Change for World Refugees.

    I was born in a camp for refugees from Burma, located in Thailand, and lived there until I was 19. In 2007, when finally given the opportunity to, my family applied to come to the United States and was accepted. We moved to Iowa, as do many refugees from Burma, and, finding it to be the perfect place for our family to settle down, we’ve made it our home ever since.  Living in a new country with a new culture and having to start our lives over again has been challenging for us. When we first arrived, we didn’t know much English, so even getting to doctors’ appointments was difficult. There were services available to us, but, with cultural and linguistic barriers, we didn’t know how to access them.

    In 2011, I co-founded the Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center (EMBARC) along with 5 other ethnic community members: Mu Law, Ree Reh, Ro Sang, Thway Kaw Paw, and Henny Ohr, our Executive Director. We wanted to combine the efforts of the ethnic minority members living in Des Moines to achieve a better quality of life. Although EMBARC has dedicated staff, volunteerism is essential to the sustainability of the organization.  Members of the Board, primarily refugees from Burma, volunteer their time to assist newcomers and provide direction to the EMBARC administration. They are inspired by their common goal of helping refugees succeed. Other refugees provide critical support to newcomers through activities coordinated by EMBARC, such as its Refugee Navigator and AmeriCorps Refugee RISE programs. These programs are designed to empower those they seek to help by providing them with resources to create self-sustaining, community-based support systems.

    I have served as the board president for the ethnic community-based organization (ECBO), EMBARC, since its formation. From the initial community meeting in 2011, EMBARC has obtained 501(c)3 status, and received a significant federal grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Administration for Children and Families. EMBARC continues the practice of supporting the oppressed and helping refugees from Burma succeed. It has programs to address current needs and to determine any new initiatives that may be needed. EMBARC understands the needs of the refugee community; we understand their resources—both tangible and intangible—and encourage and model success and independence, while showing compassion in leading folks to resources.

    In 2014, I became a United States citizen. As an individual that was born displaced, I personally consider my citizenship to be one of my greatest accomplishments. In 2015, I passed the last of my HiSET (GED) exams and am looking forward to earning a college degree. I have a family, a job that serves my community (Bilingual Outreach Worker for Des Moines Public Schools), I teach English classes on Saturdays, and do whatever it takes to ensure the safety and comfort of my community members as a board member of EMBARC.  

    Mone Aye was instrumental in establishing the Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center (EMBARC), a non-profit created by and for refugees from Burma in Iowa. 

  • Helping Refugees Thrive, not just Survive

    Netsy Firestein

    Anna Crosslin is being honored as a White House Champion of Change for World Refugees.

    According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the world is presently facing the most serious displacement crisis on record. Nearly 60 million people are residing outside their homeland or are internally displaced. Much of the dramatic growth is attributable to the Syrian crisis.

    In recent years, approximately 70,000 refugees have been resettled annually in America with 600 sponsored to St. Louis by my organization, the International Institute of St. Louis (IISTL). While some relocate to other communities after arrival, St. Louis has also benefited from secondary migration of refugees from other U.S. cities, sometimes in significant numbers, like Bosnian refugees in the past two decades.

    Resettling refugees is a win-win for the refugees, themselves, and for communities which welcome them. Refugees are offered a safe haven and a chance to begin again in a more secure environment. Cities like St. Louis benefit from a source of new population and entrepreneurs, both imperatives for success in today’s economy.

    Offering refugees a safe haven in America is merely the first step. An array of easily accessible transitional services is essential for timely and effective integration. For 37 years, I have led the International Institute of St. Louis, working to ease the transition of immigrants and refugees. IISTL is St. Louis’ Welcome Center, serving 7,500 immigrants and refugees annually from 80 countries.

    In addition to serving as Missouri’s largest refugee resettlement program, IISTL is also St. Louis’ largest site for English classes with 1,300 students as well as St. Louis’ immigrant employment center with 500 job placements annually. IISTL programs offer micro-lending and financial education. In all, IISTL has helped start or expand more than 600 refugee-owned businesses since 1999 with a positive economic impact of $160 million.

    We do not have all the answers, nor are services perfect at IISTL. However, I have a couple of observations. First and foremost, the one-stop service approach we use in St. Louis has eased the access of refugees to core AND supplemental services. And language classes are more easily accessible.

    Second, we cannot effectively resettle refugees if we, the thought leaders in the field, do not educate our communities about inclusive immigrant integration. We must work to encourage our elected officials, corporate leaders, and faith communities to engage newcomers in culturally and linguistically appropriate ways. It is essential that we create welcoming communities which include numerous local residents who appreciate newcomers and actively engage in integrating them into community life.

    To that end I have worked with area leaders to found and operate the St. Louis Mosaic Project. Mosaic is a nationally recognized multi-sector led immigration attraction initiative affiliated with Welcoming America. The initiative aims to make St. Louis the “…fastest growing major metro for immigrants by 2020.” Mosaic is our immigrant attraction mechanism; IISTL is the retention component. Together both are building a stronger more vibrant community for all, new arrivals and long-time residents alike.

    Born in Tokyo and raised in America, I am uniquely aware of the challenges that language and culture present to refugee newcomers. As a Japanese-American, I grew up with a foot in two cultures, in two worlds. My American-born father was an Air Force linguist; my mom was a Japanese national who struggled to learn English and achieve U.S. Citizenship. Widowed early, Mom, out of necessity, became a restaurateur, meanwhile raising four children, all of whom are college graduates. Mom, with help, embraced the American Dream, and refugees today can continue to do so as well…with the right array of supportive services at the right time.

    Anna Crosslin has served as President and CEO of the International Institute of St. Louis (IISTL) for nearly 37 years.

  • A Life and Death Decision

    Netsy Firestein

    Sasha Chanoff is being honored as a White House Champion of Change for World Refugees.

    In the past two decades of work with the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program, there is one situation that stands out, a life and death decision point in my work that changed me and opened the doors to starting RefugePoint.

    In February of 2000, I was part of a small U.S.-funded rescue team that went into the Congo to evacuate people who were being massacred there. Our mission was to get out 112 survivors who were stuck in a safe haven outside Congo’s capital, Kinshasa. My boss David at the International Organization for Migration, where I worked at the time, had overseen six months of evacuations that had flown out nearly 2,000 people who would all eventually come to the U.S. For this final evacuation flight, David told me that under no circumstances could we include anyone else beyond the 112 – doing so would jeopardize the mission due to the complexities of operating in a country at war.

    When my colleague Sheikha, my operations partner on the mission, and I arrived in the safe haven, we took photographs and biographical data details for the 112 people to create our flight manifest. Then, a man working in the safe haven pointed to a large, 20 x 20 tent in the compound and told us we needed to take a look at the new arrivals in there. They were not on our list, but Sheikha and I went in anyway.

    As we stepped through the tent door, it was as if time stood still for moment. There were 32 widows and orphans huddled together. They all looked emaciated and traumatized. The man who brought us in told us that these people had been in a prison camp where many of their family members had been executed. Sheikha leaned over to a little girl holding a doll and asked, what’s your doll’s name? Suddenly the doll’s eyes popped open and we realized it was a tiny baby who looked more dead than alive.

    That night Sheikha told me we had to try and take them. I argued that we couldn’t, that we needed to stick with the program and not put the others at greater risk. I wondered, could I live with myself if we left the widows and orphans there and they were killed? I didn’t think so. But could I live with myself if we tried to take them and failed to get everyone out, as David had warned? It was an impossible situation. Sheikha finally convinced me to try, and David agreed as long as the U.S. Embassy was on board. They were.

    We managed to get everyone to the airport on the final evacuation day, but on the tarmac the Congolese government officials began scrutinizing our list and the photographs and stopped us from boarding the widows and orphans. For a few tense minutes it looked like we wouldn’t get anyone out. They finally let us board everyone and fly out.

    Later all those evacuees resettled to the United States. I’ve watched over the past fifteen years as they’ve rebuilt their lives, joined the work force, married and had children, gone to college, and become U.S. citizens.

    That experience in the Congo opened my eyes to refugees who were off the radar and yet needed resettlement as a life-saving solution, people like the Sudanese Lost Girls in Kakuma camp who were overlooked during the Lost Boys resettlement, or refugees who had fled to urban slum areas after attacks in refugee camps. This is what inspired me to start RefugePoint, so we could reach other refugees in life-threatening situations who have slipped through the safety nets and disappeared into the cracks in the system.  For me it all goes back to that seminal decision point, which changed how I think and act.

    Sasha Chanoff is the founder and executive director of RefugePoint, an organization that finds lasting solutions for the world’s most vulnerable refugees.