Time to talk about immigration: Welcome to Shelbyville

Janine Vanderburg, JVA Consulting

Over 250 people jammed into the Aurora Fox Arts Theater in Aurora for a special screening of Welcome to Shelbyville, a film directed and produced by Kim Snyder that weaves the narratives of different groups of residents—white, African American, Latino and Somali—in a small southern town as they grapple with the changing demographics of their community and their beliefs about themselves and others in their town.

Following the movie, Joe Wismann-Horther of the Spring Institute for Intercultural Learning facilitated an audience conversation, asking thought-provoking questions like:

What are things from the film that are uncomfortable and that you’ve heard in our own community?

Diverse members of both immigrant and refugee communities and “receiving” communities shared honest and painful experiences that mirrored those in the movie:

  • A young Muslim woman shared the challenges she faces when asked why she wears a veil
  • A consultant shared the negative attitudes about refugees that she has heard during group facilitations
  • Others shared how they felt unsettled by the conversation in the movie among a group of Christian ministers when they realize the potential to convert Somali refugees: “These are the people we have been trying to reach—now we don’t even have to get a passport.”

It was also an opportunity to educate the audience about what the refugee resettlement process is like. One refugee explained the challenges of the resettlement process and the need to be self-sufficient eight months after arriving in this country; others expressed their desires to help others from their communities resettle and the feelings of frustration they have felt through the sometimes systemic barriers to offering that help. Paul Stein, director of the Colorado Refugee Services Program, explained that refugee resettlement is the “local completion of a foreign policy commitment,” adding that refugees now receive eight months of resettlement assistance compared to the 36 months of assistance they used to receive in the 1980s.

Mostly, audience members acknowledged the importance of bridges between immigrant and refugee communities, which could be organizational, or individuals like Luci, the ESL teacher in the movie who explains to her students how they should approach a newspaper reporter who writes negative stories about immigrants, and who helps bring together the different communities around food, music and conversation. As one audience member stated: “We can help bridge the cultural divide through the gift of hospitality.”

This comment had parallels to the conversation that followed of a comment Senator Michael Bennet made in a Meet the Press debate on Sunday:

“And what I’ll tell you is this, my favorite rooms are the ones where there are Democrats, Republicans, unaffiliated voters and Tea party people, because when folks are together in a room, they actually have to listen to each other.  I think one of the things that we are facing right now is that we’ve stopped listening to each other in our politics.”

On Monday night, in the movie and in the conversation that followed, people were both saying tough things and listening to each other.  I came away feeling inspired and optimistic about the ability of people coming together to break down the barriers that distance us, and thinking that if we could all watch this movie between now and the end of the year, how 2011 might be different.

A shout-out to the people who brought this event here and who work hard every day to make the vision of integrated communities a reality:

  • Meg Allen, Denver Coalition for Integration
  • Jordan Garcia, Immigrant Ally Organizing Director, American Friends Service Committee
  • Rich McLean, St. Therese Catholic Church
  • Jenny Pool-Radway, Original Aurora Community Integration Collaborative
  • Kit Taintor, Colorado African Organization
  • Jamie Torres, Office of Support Services, Denver Office of Human Rights and Community Relations
  • Joe Wismann-Horther, the Spring Institute for Intercultural Learning

Screenings are taking place tonight in Longmont and Glenwood Springs, and on Thursday in Grand Junction. Click here for times and locations.

Resources:
For more information about the film, see http://welcometoshelbyvilleonline.org/wordpress/

For more information about how you can get involved in Colorado, see http://welcomingcolorado.org

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