Building Civic Engagement and Reframing Movements: For Youth, By Youth

Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result, they shape the goals we seek, plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions. In politics our frames shape our social policies. To change our frames is to change all of this. Reframing is social change” – Don’t Think of an Elephant!, George Lakoff 

Referencing George Lakoff’s work on conceptual metaphors, East LA Nancy recently put out a call on the blogosphere for  immigrants to start reframing their own movements, messages, and struggles.  She expresses her skepticism of the seemingly pro-immigrant language heard at the DNC in Charlotte — foreign terms like “Aspiring” or “New Americans” — and points out the hypocrisy in how the cries (and arrests) of peacefully protesting DREAMERs outside were ignored.

Nancy describes 2 prominent frames in the messaging of the DREAMER movement:

  • polarities, like the “good/bad immigrant” frame (DREAMERs = good / parents, criminals = bad); commonly used in the earlier years of the movement; whose effect is divisive rather than unifying
  • values-based or humanistic frames (key works: rights, dignity, respect, equality); used more recently by DREAMERs; inclusive, unifying rather than dividing

So she asks, “Do we continue with the current framing and messaging around immigration or do we challenge ourselves as a movement to truly reflect and redefine our values and ourselves?”

I know both aims can be achieved: communities/members acting as their own spokespersons AND exercising the right to frame their own message.  The best example I can find is the work of an organization called Many Languages, One Voice (MLOV) based here in the District of Columbia.  Part of their hard-earned successes are the result of community organizing.  [If you aren’t entirely sure what I mean by organizing, think about this quote: “If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime.”]

Getting back to the point, how does ELL organizing in DC relate to the DREAMERs? MLOV’s student-led youth organizing body— S.M.A.R.T. (Student Multi-Ethnic Action Research Team)— is comprised of high school students who have one thing in common: English is not their primary language. Nevertheless, they have worked collectively to bring their voices to the deciding table when it comes to school reform, creating student groups and dialoging with key government agencies and officials. In the end, MLOV believes the students themselves are experts in the issues they face, yet disproportionately represented in the decision-making process.  Their visions for ELL-friendly schools in the future are grounded in student-led (thus, participatory action) research and methodology. 

Furthermore, MLOV and S.M.A.R.T.’s messaging includes many examples of the humanistic frame now being used by the DREAMERs. Their “ELL Student Bill of Rights,” for example, promotes the message that ” “language is a right” and that students deserve “equal opportunities” (echoing the words of the DC Language Access Act).   Click here for the PDF doc on their website.

Like the DREAMERs, these ELL organizers are learning a lesson that can’t be taught in the classroom: civic engagement and building community power.  

Plus, these youth are quite savvy media users and producers — definitely worth following. For a preview, check out a fun clay-mation video made by  S.M.A.R.T. talking about a common issue ELL students face in school and how adults can effectively act as allies.

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Broader Movement Part Deux

You probably didn’t hear this story about “Hizzoner” Mayor Vincent Gray.  Heads are rolling at the Wilson Building, making for a continuous media frenzy around the investigations at the expense of most else. [No, ribbon cuttings don’t count, Mr. Gray]. But regardless of being yesterday’s news by now, this “story” is worth re-examining for a few reasons. What am I talking about? See for yourself:

There’s an old maxim in politics: When the going gets rough, it’s time to get tough on immigrant convenience store clerks. Especially those who speak limited English and sell rolling papers and individually wrapped cigars to pot smokers in a poor part of the city. (Alan Suderman, Washington City Paper)

One reader commented, “Is this even legal?”

Good question. I’ll be honest: I’m not a lawyer, and despite having read the DC Language Access Act more times than I can even recount, it’s a question I’m not qualified to answer. What I can say though, is that it’s extremely, extremely shady.

Let’s examine the evidence:

It did not seem like many of the foreign-born clerks would be able to read the letters without some assistance, as they often appeared to have no idea what the mayor was saying. Majett said it’s a common ploy for immigrant clerks to claim poor English skills whenever dealing with the DCRA. “We always get that,” he said. And Gray said they were still getting the message. “They don’t speak English well, but they understand this is an enforcement visit,” he said.

We have a few problems here:

1) DC government was interacting in an official capacity (i.e. “enforcement visit”) with constituents who are protected under the DCLAA, 2) knowing full well that “they don’t speak English well.” But here’s the clincher: 3) In saying “we always get [immigrants “pretending” not to speak English],” DCRA and other government agencies have found an excuse to unilaterally violate the Act.

I bring this issue up not to draw any more attention to Gray’s administration, but to think about the implications of this and other anti-immigrant discourse in the public sphere. How can Gray, or any Mayor for that matter, achieve “One City” with this kind of behavior and rhetoric? How can people like me hope for a “broader language access movement” (as the title suggests) when we can’t get basic things right?