Four refugee women sitting around a small round table covered with papers, listening to a teacher.

Founded in 2002, the Refugee Development Center (RDC) has been addressing the needs of newcomers to Lansing and the mid-Michigan region for over 20 years. The center’s long-standing relationship with MSU’s Center for Community Engaged Learning (CCEL) is a prime example of the ways that community partnerships can be mutually rewarding and offer unique benefits for everyone involved.

The RDC provides programming that revolves around one main goal: to provide the support and education newcomers need to integrate into their new community and thrive. The Center provides a variety of formal and informal learning opportunities, including tutoring and mentoring, English language classes, financial literacy training, and a drop-in center where refugee neighbors can work on basic literacy, computer access, resume writing, college applications, and more. 

Mariah Shafer, Outreach Director for the RDC, provided insight into the welcoming atmosphere of the center. “When I started at RDC I fell in love with it,” she told CCEL’s Kara MacKenzie. “I saw people working really hard to build their lives and people stepping up to support and be there as kind of a partner during that experience, and I thought, this is what I want to do.”

In recent years, the need for an open and inclusive space for newcomers to gather and learn has become increasingly apparent. In 2022, the RDC served 1,113 newcomers, who came from 60 different countries and spoke 75 different languages. That year, 447 newcomers participated in English language learning, and RDC staff completed over 650 home visits.

As a grassroots nonprofit organization, the RDC relies heavily on volunteers. In 2022 alone, the organization worked with 239 volunteers, and Shafer says that there is always a need for more. “We need more people to give volunteering a shot and try it out, even though they might be afraid that they’re not good enough or that something’s gonna go wrong,” she said. “This really is the best place to spend your time, and it changes your whole day. Just by showing up and being an encouraging person and sharing a smile, [you can send] a message of welcoming and inclusion, that their struggle and their efforts are important, and that that relationship is important.”

18 adults with diverse appearances wearing nametags and formal clothing and standing close together, smiling for the camera.As a community partner with MSU, the RDC has had a relationship with the university since its inception. Over the years, that partnership has included CCEL’s volunteer programs, research projects with the university, relationships with on-campus departments, and more. “For our kids and our families to know that MSU is a potential opportunity for them in the future is a significant part of this relationship,” said Shafer, adding that the partnership isn’t one-sided. “There have been a lot of opportunities for both entities to learn from each other. [We’ve seen] reflection and honest communication and a high-staked interest in doing the best that we can do collectively. That partnership is just critical for us.” 

This partnership, which places an emphasis on cultural awareness and critical reflection, has proven to be beneficial for student volunteers as well. In their work at the RDC, students can improve their cultural competency, make connections in their local community, learn about themselves and others, and build their capacity for creating meaningful social change.

For Shafer, who has been with the RDC since 2007, this work has been particularly impactful. “There's a lot of problem solving, negotiating, and learning that happens every day, and meeting people on a regular basis who have different life experiences and histories. It can be really humbling, [but] I find great joy in that and seeing how well everybody works together.”

The impact of the partnership between the RDC and MSU has reverberated across greater Lansing, mid-Michigan communities, and beyond. RDC’s daily interactions with newcomers counter the false narrative of the “dangerous immigrant.”Two refugee children, one in a gray and black sweater with black buttons down the front, sitting at a table, looking down at a piece of white paper while listening to a kind-looking young man in a gray sweatshirt.

"They’re opening businesses, they’re populating our schools,” said Shafer, a reminder of the many assets that newcomers bring to the area. “They want to work, and [when] they start working, they’re paying taxes. If they’re not working they’re buying goods, they’re paying taxes, and they’re invested.”

If there is one thing that Shafer wants people to take away from their work, it is that immigrants simply want to build a life for themselves and their families. “[They] did not choose to flee their homes … they have been forced to migrate,” she said. “People just want an opportunity to live a safe life, and we’re just one tiny piece of that. They’re working so hard to do that every day.”

If you want to contribute to the RDC’s mission, you can learn more about volunteering, fundraising, and events here: Link.

Written by: Kara MacKenzie

Communications, Marketing, and Events Program Assistant

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