Sunday, November 1, 2009

Tread Carefully Arizona - Endangering Immigrants, Endangering Ourselves

Here we have it, reason enough that law enforcement and immigration officials should NOT work together in a way that makes undocumented people in our cities fear the police. This is a warning to all those in Arizona who are about to make life extremely dangerous for those in their state.

(Note: the position that law enforcement and immigration officials should NOT work together is an argument outlined in an Op-Ed in November 2009 by outgoing Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton, who we thank for endorsing a vision of community policing that helps reduce crime.)

So, here's the situation:

Take a community of undocumented immigrants. They are working multiple jobs to try and support themselves in the US and send money home to support the families they've left behind in countries like Guatemala, Mexico, and El Salvador.

These are good people, family-oriented and hard working.

Individually, throughout a city, they begin to receive phone calls telling them that if they don't pay upwards of $5,000 that one of their relatives in their home country will be maimed or killed.

They are instructed to gather the money and go to a money transfer outlet, like Western Union. The money is transferred to somewhere else in the US, where it is picked up.

If these immigrants don't pay...they have every reason to believe their loved one will be on the receiving end of significant violence. --- This is extortion, plain and simple.

This is also happening. Reports from some of our least politically powerful citizens are too afraid to speak up publicly, but the word is spreading. At least one little boy in another country has already had his finger cut off.

This is an international network. The calls appear to be coming from Guatemala, but the money is collected in the US, and the violence is not isolated to either of these two countries.

To pass laws that allow the victims of these crimes to fear deportation if they report this level of extortion is a complete travesty!

This is clearly an issue for the FBI, and my strongest hope is that my colleagues who are telling me about this activity will have the confidence in our system to report these heinous crimes. How to approach this carefully has been our conversation so far.

Unfortunately, there remains a lot of fear among immigrant communities, and inviting them to come forward really only appears viable if they believe they will be truly and honestly helped.

An atmosphere that lets them know their very presence in the US is despised is hardly a way to support honesty and justice.

And, just think about this, if WE don't help support them when they are in need...what in the world would make us think that they would support US if we ever needed their voice?

Confronting our Fear, Inspiring Others

What do you do when someone does something that requires critique?

Do you:
a. Keep your mouth shut so you avoid risking the relationship
b. Say what you need to say, as directly as possible, not worrying about the person's feelings, and risking that the person may no longer wish to associate with you further
c. Work to find language to express what you need to, working to use the info to build the relationship, hoping to inspire consideration and new understandings

When it comes to confronting race issues...all three seem like pretty common paths taken. In my life, I've found myself using all of them on occasion, depending upon the larger set of power dynamics that change with each discrete situation. (Not that they are all equally helpful! I'm trying very, very hard to create a practice where choice "c" occurs without any trepidation.)

Lately, I was confronted with the choice again....but in a new way. This time I was removed from the situation, not part of the original event. And, therefore, I had to negotiate how to..

1) support my colleagues to express themselves
2) raise the issue to those in higher positions of authority in a way that doesn't break down the initial trust I'm trying to form on campus around these issues.

The last thing I need is to become the "gotcha" girl on campus, always ready to catch your mistake!

The choice is clear for me, but the path took some time to clarify. The information had to be shared, both with the instructor at our College who used some course content in a way that reinforced stereotypes, and with the Chair who oversees the program.

But, how I would do that was essential. I needed to give myself enough time to approach this in a way that invited self-reflection, from one colleague to another, as opposed to a reactionary stance that either "told on someone" or "shamed and blamed".

In the end...what did I do? How did I respond? I spent a good deal of time speaking with my colleagues about their capacity to use their voice to name what they observed (supporting them to witness for themselves), and I also used my own in order to support us all becoming more aware of 1) how we teach, 2) the messages we deliver, and 3) how damage can occur even in a room where everyone is laughing.

It's one of those things that seems completely obvious to anyone familiar with this work. Yes, of course, have the conversation. It's basic ally work!

The trick is, each situation feels different and holds a different sense of precarious footing. Understanding and supporting each other to keep making those "right" choices to the best of our ability felt very, very, very important.

In short, I had to support my colleague of color who was hesitant to approach a white male instructor. She had had so many experiences being invalidated in past situations that she felt the entire endeavor was likely either fruitless or to inspire additional pain. Instead of dropping it, however, we approached the instructor together, as a team. We offered our praise for what had been done well, and then we offered our recognition that some subtle bias was present in the ppt shown the session prior.

Thankfully, this instructor responded favorably (a bit to our surprise). He had been wholly unconscious of how his image choices would affect students, and I do believe he is likely to rethink his choices in future semesters.

Even though this may seem like a fairly minor issue, it was actually rather anxiety provoking for both myself and my colleagues. Neither of us relish confronting race issues head on. But, we did...and we had an opportunity to share our experiences with others at a lunch gathering on campus a few days later.

Perhaps the best part, however, was that three days later I was approached by one of my other colleagues who had been present at the lunch. She wanted to offer a compliment to us for having offered ourselves as a model. She then reported that, for the first time, she approached a presenter after a college presentation to inform the speaker about some areas where discrimination and bias were recognizable. She let me know that before, she wouldn't have had the courage to face up to the need to speak directly to the presenter. Instead, she would have complained to friends later and just sat steaming.

The point? We support each other to take risks when we take our own risks. When we form communities in which we can share our experiences, we become models that those around us can use to challenge themselves.

I'd lost sleep over the earlier situation for a couple of weeks. But that night, hearing that my colleague and I inspired someone else to action....I slept soundly.

Drowning in the Work

Close to two months since my last post and I have a list of things that could be, should be, said. What happened? I became inundated with the work. This wasn't really surprising, as I saw it coming. In fact, the truth is that I invited it. For a few months I decided to do something different. I decided to say "yes" to anything that sounded like a good idea, even if I wasn't sure that I'd have time to accomplish it.

I now have various projects and issues being worked on, about 5, in addition to my full-time job, and it leaves me precious little energy to sit and ponder in front of the computer this way.

Pondering? I do plenty of that. In the car, in the shower, and walking the dogs. So much has transpired that the self-reflection necessary to witness it all has been required. I just haven't written it down.

Perhaps the best moment, inspiring just 1 of the projects, was an early October experience where, for the first time, I ended up (note that I'm acting like I didn't help set things up this way :) leading a group of my college's faculty and staff through an initial dialogue on race.

It was an open invitation. The session would occur after a major meeting on a Friday evening. My colleague and I imagined maybe 10-13 people might attend. We had 23. This included the Provost and the President of the College (who showed up to truly participate, not simply observe).

The session went really, really well...perhaps the best experience I've had leading dialogues/workshops about witnessing so far. For several, they mentioned that this is the first time they've really spoken to people about race in the workplace and how nervous they were walking in the door. It was really gratifying to know how many thought we should really continue this process and dig in to how race and racism are present on our campus.

And, so now...what did that mean?

It's now my (volunteer) role to help prepare and facilitate the workshops for the rest of the year.

I'm really not complaining. It's amazing to have the opportunity. My only recognition is how essential it will be to do this well....and take the time to ensure that I can do this well!

And, this is just 1 of the many...and I'm drowning with this work...hoping to find my strokes so that it feels like swimming again soon. Even in the midst of the turbulence, though, the water is healing.