Thursday, October 8, 2009

Constructive Dialogue & Engagement

Thursday, July 23, 2009

I don’t even know where to begin… The presentation at the Seasons last night went better than I could have expected. When I first arrived about 20 minutes before we were scheduled to begin, there was one person there. I spoke with her briefly, and she was clearly supportive. I imagined that’s what the group would look like and started to adjust for a very small group conversation. By the time we started shortly after 7:00 p.m., the place was fairly full! The best part of it was that there were people of all walks of life – the newspaper article and the coverage on the radio station did the work. The word of mouth invitations and the respect for the work of La Casa Hogar showed itself in the ability to convene a community conversation. And that is really what it was. Carole, the director of La Casa Hogar, did the introductions and welcome, acknowledging the other two sponsors of the event – Central Lutheran and the United Church of Yakima – whose willingness to officially sponsor the event also lent credibility to the conversation.

I moved around greeting people who had arrived. The first group I met were two older gentlemen and a woman who identified themselves as members of “Grass Roots of Yakima Valley,” a group opposed to illegal immigration. Carole had previously indicated that the woman in the group is part of the Minute Men. There were several pastors of congregations. Workers from the field who said they came because they heard the interview in the radio. Women from one of the English class at La Casa Hogar came as a group. Many other people from the community, including a number of young adults – I already miss hanging out with college students! One of them was carrying newspaper articles from about 10 years earlier when a series of immigration raids threatened to cripple the harvest season in the valley…

I started my presentation by asking people to raise their hand if they were born and raised right there in the city of Yakima. Four hands went up… I thanked those “locals” who serve as hosts to the rest of us “immigrants.” As has been the case in other presentations, the simple acknowledgment that most of us live away – across the state, the country or the world – from where we were born sets up the basic idea of the “pull and push” of immigration. People move either “pulled” by opportunities or “pushed” by fear. As an example, I outlined Yakima’s own history, starting with a population of 1,503 in the 1900 census, to the estimated 83,000 it has reached. I talked about the impact of the canals that brought water into an area that had been primarily desert and shared what I had been hearing and learning all week from growers and field workers alike about the impact of technology and trade on their daily lives. A grower who came in the late 1930s as a result of the economy crash of the Great Depression said the city ended at 35th Ave when he came. A worker who came from Mexico in the early 1990s said it had reached 65th Ave when she came. A pastor who arrived just eight months ago said the city was reaching the small rural community he came to serve around 106th Ave…

As people called out one Biblical character after another, we talked about those characters’ experience of immigration. I moved through the macro changes in economics, trade, production, transportation technology, political changes, etc., that have resulted in huge movement of people worldwide. Yet some people are excluded form this mobility by increasingly more limiting migration policies that do not match our economic realities and trade decisions. Postville, I said, happens in the crash between these two trends. We viewed the trailer to Luis Argueta’s documentary, abUSed - The Postville Raid and followed up with a few comments about why the Postville raid demands our attention – as the clear, unavoidable evidence of the need for a change in immigration policies. I finished my presentation in about an hour, and it was followed by an hour and a half of good, meaningful conversation. There was a good feeling in the space, as people dared to speak and engage, even when they disagreed. Carole asked people to indicate in the cards they received when they came in if they would like to participate in on-going conversation, and she said she had much more engagement than she has had before. 

There were many powerful comments, but two that have stayed with me. One was from a field worker who said: “Thank you for your words and courage. In 35 years this is the first time I hear a pastor, priest or any religious leader talk this way about immigration.” This was a powerful comment, but also a strong call to action to the religious community. He also said, “Anyone who doesn’t want me here, I invite them to join me out in the field tomorrow for three hours in 90 degree heat, and then we can return to the conversation.”

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