Community Engagement Program encourages dialogue

By Ashley Berger

On the evening of Nov. 18, the Commonwealth Honors College at the University of Massachusetts hosted a panel on immigration issues facing the United States today. The panel is the second in a series of discussions called the Civic Engagement Dialogue Series, presented by the Community Engagement Program (CEP), a part of ComCol.

The panelists included executive director of the Alliance to Develop Power (ADP) Caroline Murray, the program director for the Western Massachusetts Office of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) Jeff Napolitano and Mexican immigrant Luis Perez.

The entirety of the panel was presented in English and translated into Spanish for the accommodation of all in attendance.

Doctoral student Jennifer Cannon gave a brief introduction before acknowledging CEP director John Reiff.

Reiff stated that the mission of the CEP is to synthesize and promote issues ranging from academic learning needs, fostering leadership, promoting a more just society, organizing opportunities for students to be involved in and getting students involved with community organizations to promote service experience. Further, Reiff said the CEP hopes students who engage in these academic and service outlets will be able to bring that experience back to the University to teach people about it and encourage others to get involved.

“We have the opportunity to learn from people working in the community,” he said.

Cannon stated that one way to bring about and incite change is through the arts, particularly poetry.

“Poetry that is fierce, passionate, and transformative [force],” she said.

She introduced English professor Martin Espada, who has been dubbed “the Latin poet of his generation,” by some, published 17 books, had work translated into 10 languages and is a former tenant lawyer.

Espada opened the night by reading a few poems in both English and Spanish. The content of the three poems consisted of Spanish stereotypes about a janitor and marrying to get citizenship; both issues which would later be touched lightly upon in the latter half of the discussion. The last poem was a poem about September 11, with a focus on undocumented food service workers who perished in the tragedy.

Espada ended his segment of the discussion by asking the audience to think about illegal immigrants’ status as people.

“These people were invisible in life and even more invisible in death. Next time someone says something about illegal immigrants, remind them that they are people, and they die too.”

The first panelist to speak was Caroline Murray, a fast speaker who began her portion of the dialogue by giving out Scott Brown and Deval Patrick’s numbers (the reason behind which she would explain later). She described the mission and philosophy of her group, the ADP; saying that the organization has some 10,000 members in Massachusetts and that all these people come together because of their shared values and principles.

The main vision of ADP is that people should control decisions which affect their lives and that, by engaging in the political arena, that ADP can help create and control the political and social institutions which shape how people live their lives. Murray also emphasized the need to achieve a balance between the individual, the environment and the government.

In the hopes of making its members’ dream a reality, ADP utilizes three key strategies, the first of which Murray said is community organizing. In this area, the ADP helps people speak out for themselves in areas like workers’ rights, immigration, public sector jobs, financial reform, housing justice and voting. The second part of ADP’s task is developing a “community economy,” in which the ADP mainly tries to inject cash flow into the local economy to work with and stimulate small business growth. Community building comes in the form of various events, celebrations and recognizing people, she told the crowd.

Over the course of the five years ADP has been active in the immigration rights movement, Murray discussed four main lessons she has learned which she feels it will take to see any type of change on the federal level. One was that she feels organizations need more power, and that she sees the way to gain more power as encouraging more people to become involved in politics and social justice. The second is that organizations need more tactics than simply lobbying, because she said she feels political officials are so used to that strategy. She encouraged more drastic measures, like calling congressmen and storming into their offices. She emphasized that organizations needed more “movement” moments; ones in which people come together to incite change. Finally, she emphasized that she believes every vote matters, and that the more people who vote, the more that numbers will increase in support of certain legislation.

“By escalating mobility, we can radically challenge power. The face and color of the United States is changing, and we need to continue and engage people,” she concluded.

Jeff Napolitano of the AFSC took over next. Napolitano focused much of his presentation on issues the federal government’s role in shaping immigration policy in America. He went into detail about the fact that 400,000 undocumented people were deported by the Obama administration last year, and said the President could have stopped this “mass deportation.” Napolitano further added that there is no law which prevents such deportations in the United States.

Napolitano also spoke about the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which will be presented during the “lame duck” session of Congress currently underway. The AFSC supports the bill, because, as Napolitano said, the organization believes all undocumented youth should have the opportunity to attend college or enter the military. However, Napolitano was careful to acknowledge that the legislation could use some revisions to help provide citizenship instead of just residency. Residency would still leave the potential for these immigrants to be deported after their arrival home for committing minor offenses. The AFSC also, Napolitano said, is in favor of the idea of adding a community service option as a means of achieving residency and citizenship.

“Legislation is always a compromise, so let’s not start with the compromise. Let’s think bigger to achieve change,” argued Napolitano.

The final member of the panel, Luis Perez, delivered his discussion in Spanish. A Mexican immigrant who migrated to Florida and eventually Springfield, is working closely with the Pioneer Valley Project (PVP). Founded in 1996, the endeavor is working to respond to social, economic, and political issues concerning its members. Perez discussed his journey to the country and how he walked four days without food to cross the border. Currently, the PVP is working to distribute food to those less fortunate, as well as improve safety around the area. Perez thanked everyone in the audience for attending because, “It showed that people are interested in the situation in the country.”

Ashley Berger can be reached at [email protected]