A Deep Breath – Remembering Ourselves, Remembering Our Children

Meet Kate Flores & Lyssa Howley. Kate is the Executive Director of Voces, a Latino/Hispanic community-based organization in Battle Creek, Michigan. She is a wife and mother of two young children within a bilingual and bicultural household. Lyssa works as a project manager at BC Pulse in Battle Creek, Michigan and serves on the Board of Directors at Voces. Thank you both for creating strong, healthy, and equitable communities. Read their collaborative post on unaccompanied children. For days we sat in front of our computers, fingers poised ready to type. Inhaling deeply and hoping coherent thought would come with the exhale, but words fail. Fifty-two thousand children seeking refuge have crossed our borders since October 2013. Fifty-two thousand. Children, like the ones whose faces fill school bus windows, drawing hearts and promising lifelong friendship through initials written on fogged glass. LA + CB= friends forever. Children, with their infinite curiosity and countless questions. Why do frogs jump? Why is your hair brown? Why? Why? Why? As the two of us considered what to write for this blog, we had to start by acknowledging and owning our profound grief. The grief that takes our breath away. The grief for each and every child. For the devastating situations they come from. For some of the unwelcoming responses they encounter when they arrive. For the ambivalence, anger, blame, dissension, and even threats of violence that characterize many of our country’s conversations – in the papers, in Washington, in the streets, in city halls, and at the border. Please, take a pause and breathe deeply with us. Deep breath in. Deep breath out. Two years ago, we had the opportunity to participate in a three-day diversity and leadership learning lab. During the lab, we were able to engage in in-depth, intense conversations about race, difference, and equity. Frustrated by comments made that seemed to disconnect immigration from race, we called a group to the center to address the issue directly. It was a group of five or six people, a mixture of immigrants and others who could, in simple terms, be considered supporters and non-supporters. As we anticipated, the conversation started with what is usually expected with immigration conversations: “fact” throwing. Each side throws a different figure or fact that fits their argument. Immigrants steal jobs. No, immigrants contribute to the economy. Immigrants use benefits and cost money for health care, education, etc. No, immigrants pay taxes and are not eligible for public benefits. Etcetera. Etcetera. Clearly, we were not getting anywhere. We acknowledged that, and then took a different approach. We got vulnerable. One of the group members was a member of Kate’s family (who will be left unidentified for privacy purposes). He began to tell his personal story of living in the country for eight years without immigration papers, despite his relationships with U.S. citizens. Finally, he had an unusual opportunity to obtain a greencard. We experienced a shift in the conversation. Kate’s family member was vulnerable. Kate cried. But a door was opening, and the other participant, the “non-supporter,” met Kate’s family member in this space. Instead of judging, he started asking questions: How did you cross the border? Why didn't you just come legally? Why did it take you eight years to apply for a greencard? Most importantly, he listened. What was notable about this conversation was that it gave us an in-the-flesh experience with a different way of having the immigration conversation – finally a way that actually helped us get somewhere. Three critical ingredients were: 1. Respect and valuing the worth and humanity of every person involved, regardless of immigration/citizenship status or personal opinion; 2. Starting from the assumption of interconnectedness and that all sides are inevitably bound in a relationship and that relationship is vital to maintain, and; 3. Communicating, listening, and engaging in dialogue from a place of curiosity, respect, suspension of judgment and willingness to step into someone else’s shoes – not from a win-lose mentality or via oppositional debate. When we think of these ingredients in relation to the current national context, we still feel despair but also perhaps a glimmer of hope. What if, as a state and as a nation, we took a collective deep breath and remembered that we are talking about children, human beings? Children who fall down and scrape their knees, who laugh uncontrollably at the most random of things, who have dreams and nightmares and really just want to be held by someone who cares for them. Children who desperately need love and compassion, now more than ever. What if, instead of blanketing these children and families in insensitive terms like “waves” or “invasions” of people or “illegal aliens,” we remembered that each and every one is a valuable human being that comes with their own story that deserves to be heard with compassion and competency before their fate is decided? What if we paused and stopped arguing about how and why these children are coming, who is to blame, and who needs to do what and when? What if our first reaction wasn't anger, but curiosity? What if our first response wasn't accusation, but questioning? What if we recognized and started from the assumption that we really are all in this together – within and across our national borders – and our ongoing relationships matter? What if we consciously considered and chose who we want to be as a people, a state, and a country, centering ourselves in our core values and higher selves? What if we saw the possibility of Michigan housing some of these unaccompanied minors as an opportunity to demonstrate these values, rather than a burden we have to bear? What would it look like for us to welcome these children rather than shame them? For us to be compassionate human beings rather than just desensitized problem solvers? What if we imagined these children were our children? If we subscribed to the idea that because of who they are, they are welcome here. What if we looked deep into their eyes and saw their grieving mothers and fathers? If we saw ourselves in the pain of those they left behind? What if we remembered our own fragility and held these children more gently as a result? What if we let love and compassion guide our decision-making, rather than fear?