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  • Writer's pictureImmigrant Connections

Building Bridges Between Educators and Immigrant Communities in Louisville

In August 2022, Jaclyn Muñoz and I (Laura Gardner) of Immigrant Connections co-facilitated a unique professional development session for educators at Kenwood Elementary School in Jefferson County Public Schools (Louisville, Kentucky). Through this one-day PD, teachers conducted site visits around town to learn more about the key institutions in the lives of their immigrant and refugee students from Somalia, Burma, and Latin America as well as those who practice Islam. The day also included a multicultural lunch cooked by six of Kenwood’s immigrant and refugee families as well as time to debrief from the morning site visits. The day concluded with a panel of immigrant and refugee community leaders who had helped plan the day.


The principal of Kenwood ES, Jill Handley, and her Assistant Principal, Jameelah Henderson, are passionate about building bridges between staff and the various immigrant and refugee communities represented at their school. Furthermore, they are some of the most out-of-the-box administrators we’ve worked with, with a deep commitment and passion for equity.

Like many schools across the U.S., the majority of teachers at Kenwood ES are white females born and raised in the U.S., while the majority of their students are immigrants, refugees, English Learners, and/or students of color. This gap between students and teachers is important to consider because significant research shows that teacher awareness and understanding of diverse students facilitates student achievement.

Ms. Handley and Ms. Henderson were looking for ways to help grow their teachers’ awareness and understanding of their immigrant and refugee students and families. Ms. Handley had heard about a highly successful five-week “cultural immersion” class Immigrant Connections offers for teachers in the Washington, DC area. As a part of this experiential professional development, teachers visit local mosques and other faith-based institutions, international grocery stores, immigrant and refugee non-profit organizations, and more.

The reason we offer this type of experiential learning is because it is important to experience that “fish out of water” feeling that many of our newcomer students and families go through when they come to the U.S. In one of our favorite articles, Dr. Lynn McBrien talks about how having cognitive knowledge about immigrant and refugee populations is not enough. In other words, we can read books and watch films about particular populations or cultures to build our awareness and empathy, but that alone won’t get us where we need to be. Dr. McBrien emphasizes that teachers must experience affective (emotional) shifts as well as an opportunity to practice new behaviors.

In the classes we run in the Washington DC area, we jokingly say that our goal is to make teachers temporarily feel “lost, alone, confused, and afraid.” In all seriousness, it sometimes takes feeling deeply uncomfortable in order to develop that empathetic lens, particularly if one is white, English-speaking, Christian, and/or other majority identities that have resulted in experiencing little to no oppression.

Ms. Handley and Ms. Henderson loved our approach, but they didn’t have five weeks to work with. They wondered if we could facilitate something like this for their staff in one day. We tossed around ideas and decided we would break up their 70 teachers into four groups. Each group would focus on a particular community: 1) Somalis, 2) Refugees from Burma, 3) Latino / Hispanic community, and 4) the Muslim community. We would need to come up with 2-3 site visits for each of the four groups, that they could accomplish in 2.5 hours.

My first “wondering” was whether we could partner with leaders from each of the four communities and if could they be paid for their time and expertise. This was a non-negotiable for me. All too often, parents and community members from minority backgrounds spend an incredible amount of physical, mental, and emotional labor educating those of us in the majority (in this case, mostly white females) about their backgrounds and cultures. Yet, rarely are they paid for their expertise. At Immigrant Connections, we are adamant about elevating the voices of immigrants and refugees and making sure they are compensated accordingly. Luckily, in this case, everyone was in agreement and we worked this into the budget from the beginning.

Once we completed the necessary paperwork and contract, we got to work identifying the community leaders. We started off with some contacts from the ESL teachers at Kenwood and also reached out the main immigrant and refugee organizations in Louisville. Some of the leaders we identified quickly, while others took a little longer. Within the community of refugees from Burma, there are actually a number of different ethnic minorities. For example, there are the Chin, Karen, and Karenni communities as well as many more. We quickly decided we couldn’t only have one leader for this group, so we selected two (one Chin and the other Karen).

Once we had all the community leaders identified (or “tour guides” as we sometimes called them), we worked with them to design the site visits. We had most of the plans made before arriving in Louisville, but Ms. Muñoz and I came two days early so that we could meet our “tour guides” and visit each and every location that we were sending teachers to. Most groups visited a non-profit organization important to their community, a faith-based institution such as a mosque or church, and a grocery store. Here is a complete list of the site visits.

We worked with the “tour guides” to make the site visits as “hands on” and interactive as possible. For example, the group that visited La Casita Center got to see first hand what it takes to put on a huge Back to School event for the Latinx community. The teachers helped make sandwiches and pack food for the event while learning information about the Latinx community and its needs. For the grocery store visits, each group was given a list of items in the main language of the store (Spanish, Burmese, or Somali) and sent on a “scavenger hunt” of sorts.

On the day of the PD, all went smoothly, minus one incorrect address! One highlight of Latino/Hispanic group was visiting the store Regalos y Novedades Anamari. This is a shop that sells everything needed for quinceañeras. They even have a mechanical bull, which they set up for the teachers to try! See here for the recording on Facebook!

One highlight of the Somali group was visiting the Somali mall. The mall is full of vendors selling beautiful clothing, carpets, jewelry, food, and more. Some of the teachers bought a bunch of extra hijabs (head covering for females) for when their female students need them (if it rips, something gets spilled on it, etc.).

One highlight for the Burma group was learning about the differences between the Chin and Karen cultures and languages. In many cases, resettled refugees from Burma have been incorrectly lumped into one category and called “the Burmese.” Yet, the Burmese (also known as Burmans) are the largest ethnic and linguistic group in Burma and are in fact the ones persecuting the ethnic minorities, such as the Chin and Karen, so this is an important distinction!

The Muslim group was happy to visit two mosques. For many in the group, it was their first time being in a mosque. Everyone respectfully removed their shoes to enter and asked excellent questions about the services on Fridays and other occasions. They also got to hear from students who attend one of the K-12 Muslim schools in Louisville.

After the site visits, everyone returned to Kenwood for a multicultural lunch. Immigrant Connections paid six families to cook for the teachers and we had a feast! We got to try recipes from Somalia, Honduras, Burma, Albania, Cuba, Turkey, and more! Kenwood’s family liaison was instrumental in reaching out to the families and coordinating the lunch.

After lunch, we had an hour to debrief from the morning. We started our debriefing by breaking into the same groups we had been in for the morning site visits, so teachers could process what they had experienced together. Next, everyone broke into their grade level groups or teams. The Principal and Assistant Principal had strategically assigned teachers from the same grade level to different cultural groups so that collectively, each grade level team got to experience all of the site visits. Members of each grade level team described the site visits they had been on and lessons learned. Everyone brainstormed how they could apply what they had learned to their work with students and families.

The final part of the day was a panel of all of the “tour guides” and community leaders who had helped plan the day. This was important because no matter which site visits one participated in, the panel provided teachers with an opportunity to ask questions about any of the cultures or religions represented. We had originally brainstormed some basic questions to ask each panelist before opening it up to teachers, but we decided to scrap that and just do a free-flowing “Q and A” session the whole time, which worked well!

All staff who participated in the day completed an evaluation of their experiences. Teachers were asked "How will you apply your increased cultural awareness to your work with students and families?" One teacher said “I will actively listen to students and their families and encourage them to share stories about their heritage, and ask questions to expand my knowledge about where they are from. I will continue to let my students and their families see that I value their differences... and be cognizant of incorporating diversity in my lesson plans and units.” See here for more of the excellent feedback from the teachers and staff who participated in the training.

All in all, it was an extremely successful day and one that could be replicated in any school or district across the U.S.! If you are interested in partnering with Immigrant Connections to facilitate a similar type of PD for your teachers and staff, contact Laura Gardner at

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