By Stephanie Harp

When Nsiona Nguizani first arrived in the U.S. from Angola in 2012, he lived in seven states in only six months. “I spent all the dollars that I had, traveling, eating in restaurants. So that was a very challenging time. I was going around trying to figure out a way to stay.” He would hear from a friend of a friend that some place was better than where he was, and finally he heard about community support in Maine. “By that time, I’m living in Boston. When I heard about it, I moved from Boston to Lawrence [Massachusetts], and from there to Maine.”

Now a permanent U.S. resident, he has been the cultural broker for the town of Brunswick since August 2019. “I don’t want people who come here after me to go through this same thing. So let’s figure out how to help people learn these things,” he said. Most of the families and individuals he works with arrived at the Portland Expo in 2019 to seek asylum, and now live at The Landing, the housing, business, and recreation complex at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station.

Nsiona Nguizani, Brunswick’s cultural broker

He’s made a chart that he calls the Nguizani Circle, with pie-shaped sections to represent the challenges that immigrants face and what they need to know. “Nguizani” means understanding, he said. “People can come together. This is the thing that every immigrant has to go through. You need to know at least something in each one of these [components] to make it in a new life. The life is so different, the culture is different.” Working with local agencies and organizations such as The Emergency Action Network (TEAN), Midcoast New Mainers Group, and Midcoast Literacy, he has identified a lead volunteer contact for each component, which include basic needs, health care, cultural brokerage, language, transportation, workforce integration, and others.

Lead volunteer for workforce integration is Nate Bowditch. As a former state commissioner of economic and community development, Bowditch has connections throughout Maine’s business community. “My wife and I have spent upwards of 15 years living overseas. And two-thirds of that was on African continent, where I was always welcomed and always treated well,” Bowditch said. He has lived or served as a consultant in Ghana, Liberia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and Zambia. “Suddenly in my white home state, these families from this area where I was treated so well, they are here.” Because he’d worked in economic development, he knew he had both the knowledge and connections to help.

First and foremost, it was wonderful to have six people in the business who simply want to be there,” he said. “They are wicked reliable. They probably produced twice as much as a lot of our 18- and 19-year-olds in the same period of time.

— Marshall shepherd

Those seeking asylum generally must wait about a year after they arrive before they receive work permits. Once they do, Bowditch meets with them to assess their English language proficiency and schedules. “There might be a husband and wife with two or three kids. When are they available to work? What skills do they have? What jobs are they willing to do and what are they absolutely not willing to do?”

Bowditch spends most of his time contacting businesses. “That was something I could take the time to do. Pick up the phone.” He asks some of the larger businesses about their experiences working with people whose English is limited. He’s developed good working relationships, especially with several area employers like Wild Oats Bakery and Cafe, Bowdoin College, and others such as Coastal Landing Independent Living, Coastal Shores Assisted Living, the new Hannaford Supermarket at Cook’s Corner, and Mölnlycke, an international medical manufacturer based in Sweden. These and others are located either at The Landing or only a short distance away.

Chopping carrots and making pie crust

In December 2020, Wild Oats Bakery moved from downtown Brunswick to its brand new, custom-built facility at The Landing. They already had 60 employees but needed 80 for the new facility and hope to employ even more within the next year. In May 2021, when Bowditch told Wild Oats that he was setting up interviews with several businesses, the bakery asked to be first on the schedule. “We wanted to snag who we can,” said Marshall Shepherd, whose family owns the business. They told Bowditch, “We’ve never dealt with people who don’t speak English, but we’d love to have diverse employees.” Wild Oats hired all five of the people they interviewed. Then a sixth person arrived with them. “Great, let’s have you, too,” Shepherd said. “So basically all six of them started that following week. And it was great.” They placed the new employees in a variety of positions, from dish preparation to janitorial work.

But the sudden addition of six new staff members with limited English was a new experience for Wild Oats. “Language has definitely been our biggest challenge,” said Shepherd. All the newcomers spoke Lingala, which Shepherd quickly learned is not available in Google Translate. But Portuguese was a second language, so the bakery had its materials translated into Portuguese, only to learn that several of the employees spoke French instead. After translating the documents into French, they learned that not everyone who spoke French could also read it. “There was a lot of show and tell: ‘Here’s the knife you want to use, and here are the carrots you want to chop.’ We were begging Nsiona to come in and translate for one hour,” he said. They depended on two of the employees, whose English was stronger, to help explain things to the others.

Shepherd has talked with the town of Brunswick and with Nguizani. “What all of our businesses in the area can use is if we can have a translator for one day a week, one hour a day, that we share with other businesses, starting in the morning. ‘Here’s your task and let’s go over it.’ We’re the guinea pigs,” he said.

Another challenge has been scheduling conflicts with the new employees’ meetings with lawyers and doctors, and especially childcare, which caused two of the original employees to leave. “Childcare is a huge issue for that whole population,” Shepherd said. “We were happy to keep everyone, despite the schedule problems. Then we learned that one woman – because schools started opening up and her older daughter went back to school – the woman had to stay home to provide childcare.” Two other employees found jobs that were more convenient. “The two that remained have been absolutely stellar. A couple of weeks ago, they brought a friend who is absolutely stellar,” he said. Currently, the first two work in the savory kitchen, making pie crust and biscuits, chopping vegetables, and slicing meat. The newest employee is on the baking team, making pastries, cookies, and bars.

In broad terms, any time we can bring on employees who have different experiences, different backgrounds, different perspectives, different identities, that all adds to the college’s ability to learn, grow, expand in different ways

— Brian Robinson

Wild Oats is among the businesses pursuing a partnership with Midcoast Literacy, which has offered to provide a customized, onsite, English language tutoring class that is specific to the bakery. Midcoast Literacy reviews the employee handbook and takes pictures of the equipment. “We have to provide these folks the space to do the tutoring and the time,” Shepherd said. “While these folks are working for us 40 hours a week, we pay them for the two hours of tutoring, even though it’s on our time. It’s beneficial to us for them to learn English. … Once we get that in place, we’ll definitely be hiring more folks.” The arrangement is a win-win for everyone. The new arrivals learn English and the bakery has workers who can better communicate. After the lessons – which will be during a lunch break or before or after work – the employees can immediately use what they’ve just learned, reinforcing their new knowledge. The onsite availability minimizes transportation and childcare barriers. “We’re hoping to start in the next few weeks,” he said “As that comes about, it will be even easier to invite more New Mainers to join us.”

Learning through higher education

Three residents of The Landing have been working in housekeeping services at Bowdoin College for about four to six weeks. Brian Robinson is the school’s director of talent strategy and deputy Title IX coordinator for employees and visitors. “As an employer, we are committed to thinking about working through the different challenges for any new employee. Certainly for the New Mainers, there are some additional challenges, whether that’s cultural, language barriers, or understanding work dynamics for individuals who come from different places of work,” he said. “So we’re kind of learning on the fly as we go.”

When Bowditch approached Bowdoin about hiring residents of The Landing, the school already had been working with Portland Adult Education, Catholic Charities, and other organizations to hire individuals in the job market, and several New Mainers already were working in the school’s dining operations. Bowdoin, too, relies on community partners to understand how to support new employees. “Our responsibility is to kind of learn and adapt, to figure out what we can do.” Contextualized English language learning is in place to address acronyms and jargon within housekeeping operations, which has a staff of about 40. “They start to learn how we speak in the context of the work they’re doing,” said Robinson.

It was a perfect time for this to happen. Nsiona and I placed over 30 people in jobs in the last four or five months.”

— Nate Bowditch

The college sees the current situation as an opportunity benefit. “In broad terms, any time we can bring on employees who have different experiences, different backgrounds, different perspectives, different identities, that all adds to the college’s ability to learn, grow, expand in different ways,” he said. “The college certainly is committed to recruiting and hiring for diversity. Inclusion is a big part of who we are as a culture, as a community. The fact that these individuals are new to Maine sort of helps us in that regard, as well. We’re looking at the bigger picture. Where can we find individuals who are talented, smart, hard working, and where on campus can we find meaningful work for them to do?”

In December 2020, just as Wild Oats Bakery was opening up at The Landing, Bowdoin held a campus-wide training in diversity education for all faculty, staff, and students. The session addressed implicit bias, microaggressions, and historical context of structures. “This helped create a foundation by which all of our community can learn and understand, and have that baseline,” according to Robinson. The event was led by the Office of Inclusion and Diversity, and 95% of students, faculty, and staff participated. The college is committed to providing students with the “tools, knowledge, and experience, to come out of school with robust, well-rounded education, and understand ways of thinking,” he said. “For us to be able to hire and have faculty and staff that also represent a wide range of views and perspectives and identities, etc., it ties in with the mission of the college, for sure.”

Perfect time to hire

For Wild Oats Bakery and Cafe, as for Bowdoin College and so many other employers, these new employees became available at a time when businesses needed them. Wild Oats had to lay off most of their employees when they were forced to close for six weeks in spring 2020, then the bakery continued with the planned move to a new building that was double the previous size. Marshall Shepherd said, “On a single day, when [President Joe] Biden opened up the country, on a single day, every restaurant was given permission to start hiring. We were competing against 10,000 other restaurants and service industry businesses. Everyone needed to increase their capacity in hiring.”

Workforce lead volunteer Nate Bowditch agreed. “It was a perfect time for this to happen. Nsiona and I placed over 30 people in jobs in the last four or five months.” At first, the jobs were entry level, paying $12 an hour. “Now almost nobody pays less than $14.75, and many over $15 an hour. The average wage rates have gone up and up and up to be able to attract workers,” he said.

To other businesses that may be considering the leap into hiring new arrivals with limited English skills, Shepherd has a message from the Wild Oats experience: “From a productivity standpoint, it’s just unbelievable. They are hard workers. They know what it’s like to work with their hands. They want to be there. They need the money. They had ridiculous challenges getting to this country.” He admits that the first few weeks were exhausting, and at times it still is. “If we put in the effort – obviously training takes twice as long – but the return is tenfold. It’s just wonderful to have people of a different mindset, different age, different cultural background. It makes our other employees appreciate what they have.”

Brunswick Cultural Broker Nsiona Nguizani’s goal is to place at least one member of each family living at The Landing. “It’s been a great experience for most of them, and challenging at the same time because the way we used to work back home is not the same as here. The culture and the work are different.” These have been the first U.S. jobs for all the new residents. Based on how things are going so far, both the employees and the employers will have many more opportunities in the future.