Celebrating Diversity—Exploring Naperville’s growing global community

September 2014 View more

TraceyWhen Saily Joshi moved to Naperville more than 15 years ago, she used to have to hike to Devon Avenue in Chicago to enjoy the spices she craved in traditional Indian food. However, today, she doesn’t even have to buckle her seatbelt to find the same type of cuisine.

“Now, I have three Indian grocery stores within walking distance and a number of Indian restaurants just a short drive away,” said Joshi, Naperville resident and community advocate. “This just highlights the change in the population in Naperville. There’s enough of a community to support all of these (ethnic) businesses.”

By The Numbers

Large group of smiling people.While the majority of Naperville’s population in terms of race is white—about 76 percent—census numbers reveal the area has continued to diversify and grow over the past decade.

One of Naperville’s fastest-growing ethnic groups is of Asian descent. According to the 2010 Census, about 15 percent of the population is Asian and about 17 percent is foreign-born. This is a stark increase from the 2000 Census, where only 9.6 percent of the city’s population was identified as Asian.

Diversity Boom

Joshi noticed the growth in Naperville’s Indian population firsthand after she created a Facebook page last year titled “Indian Community in Naperville.” Now with a few hundred followers, she continues to share and promote culturally diverse family events around Naperville.

And Joshi’s not alone in her awareness of Naperville’s growing diversity. Last year, the City of Naperville established Cultural Outreach Programs to help foster connections with residents of varied and diverse cultural backgrounds. The first two pilot programs focus on the city’s Chinese and Indian populations and each has a chairman to serve as an ambassador for the community. According to Joshi, this new social structure and bridge to the community developed as the area’s Indian and Asian populations continue to be attracted to Naperville’s quality schools.

Expanding Cultural Boundaries

While they enjoy celebrating their own heritage, Joshi is continuing to broaden her family’s cultural perspective beyond Indian culture. In the past few years, Joshi’s family has attended Latino, Chinese, and Native American cultural events all in Naperville.

“That’s one of the beautiful things about Naperville. If you are interested in learning, you really can get a world education,” Joshi said. “There are so many events and restaurants you can take advantage of—and you don’t ever have to leave the city.”

Educational Opportunities

NMAG0914_SmallFeature_iStock_000025784423Medium_800pxEducational institutions in Naperville are also expanding their opportunities to celebrate cultural diversity. Dorothy Pleas, director of multicultural affairs at North Central College, said her office works to promote a perspective that celebrates various identities through programming and training on campus. North Central is home to a number of multicultural student organizations, including the Black Student Association, International Club and Raza Unida—a group focused on raising awareness of the culture and heritage of the Latino world.

“North Central College students are, for the most part, very open to exploring cultural diversity,” Pleas said. “I think that students entering college often have not been encouraged to discuss difficult topics, especially race and ethnicity. These topics can be difficult or awkward to discuss, but are very important. As educators, we are called to assist students in being global citizens and to be able to work with individuals of diverse backgrounds.”

Higher education isn’t the only arena focused on increasing cultural awareness and diversity. Throughout the past decade, Indian Prairie School District 204 Parent Diversity Advisory Council has worked in an effort to positively impact the academic achievement of a diverse student population though outreach and various initiatives, according to District 204’s website. Naperville School District 203 recently formed a diversity task force and presented an action plan to the school board to evaluate its diversity practices among staff and students.

At nonprofit Xilin Asian Community Center in Naperville, staff members educate children by combining Eastern and Western philosophies and work to help Asian immigrants transition smoothly into American society. In addition to providing public health, language classes, and senior services, Xilin provides the Asian and non-Asian community an opportunity to participate in Asian culture, language, art programs and events. Xilin has partnered with North Central College for the last nine years to host its Annual Lantern Festival at Pfeiffer Hall for an evening of Asian-inspired dance and choreography.

Sharing Cultural Diversity Through Food

Spreading cultural awareness remains a priority for many ethnic organizations in Naperville, as each group finds its own way to enjoy their heritage and customs. For the Amici Italian American Club of Naperville—a social group focused on the appreciation of Italian culture and traditions—it’s through food.

“Being Italian, our most successful events involve food and wine when we are permitted,” said Wayne Piccin, president of Amici. “We also have wine tasting, olive oil and balsamic vinegar tasting, a brunch, bocce and a cooking class called ‘Cucina Italiana’ where members show off their specialties and offer samples to taste.”

The Amici Club meets monthly at the Naperville Municipal Center and raises money for its annual higher education scholarship to be doled out to a high school student of Italian descent

While Piccin said Italian language’s prominence faded for some time following World War II, the interest in the language is growing among club members. As a result, Amici formed a group called Parliamo Insiemé Italiano that meets once a month so members can learn and practice speaking the language.

Piccin said the city of Naperville has been supportive of Amici from the beginning, and he hopes the group will eventually be a part of an annual festival promoting the wide variety of cultures in Naperville.

“We want to promote the Italian way of life and the culture,” Piccin said. “Our lives are so intense these days that we need a break to relax and enjoy life.”

Creating a Global Community

A big part of spreading cultural education and understanding begins with Naperville’s children.

“Naperville is becoming a global community,” Joshi said. “We can all start by teaching our children to be curious about other cultures. We should teach them to respect other cultures. To a certain degree, to even study them in their curriculum.”

As Naperville’s diversity continues to grow, the support from the community translates into a desire by many ethnic groups to give back to the community.

“We you first come here and you’re an immigrant, you’re in survival mode,” Joshi said. “Now that the community has matured, it is our turn to give back. We want to give back.”