A Welcoming Week reflection: How can we create a culture of knowing and not just seeing?

A Welcoming Week reflection: How can we create a culture of knowing?

Welcoming America | October 31, 2016

Central to Welcoming America’s work is the idea that communities can only thrive when all are valued. We just wrapped up a successful Welcoming Week, with more than 350 events across the country where people came together to celebrate the contributions of all residents, including new Americans. We hope that many new connections were made, as people got to know their neighbors and learn more about their stories and what they have in common.  

This Welcoming Week, we also were grateful for the partnership of YMCA of the USA, which shares a vision with us of building more inclusive communities where new Americans and long-term residents can all thrive.

We welcome a guest blog from Andrea Champagne of the YMCA of Greater Providence, which reflects on the need to move from simply seeing our new neighbors to knowing them, and why it’s so critically important to take that step:

I just finished a Zumba class at our YMCA. The instructor is a Moroccan-born Muslim woman in full hijab. Next to me was a 60 year old African American woman; in front of her a Latino gentleman. An Asian grandmother turns around and yells, “Let’s keep it moving everybody!” Whoops and cheers erupt from the class. “How wonderful,” one would think,” all walks of life coming together!”

Recently I overheard two young boys, about 11 years old, talking with my desk staff about an issue they were having down in the pool. I had just recently taken one of the boys on a tour with his family. They had moved to our city from Iraq. The other boy had also just joined with his family. I remember being so impressed, and also a little sad, at the way he translated everything for his mother.

I came out of my office and asked the boys what was up. They told me there was another boy their age in the pool who had accused them of belonging to ISIS. This boy said he was going to join the military and go to Iraq and blow it up. I asked the boys if they would feel comfortable pointing this boy out to me and they said sure. When we arrived on the pool deck, the lifeguard was already talking to the boy about the incident. We talked about our core values and how important it was that everyone demonstrates them. We talked about safe spaces and how critical it was that the Y be one of them. He said he understood. The boys said they still wanted to swim. I cried the whole way home.

As I reflect on the incident, one thing continues to resonate with me. When I was walking down stairs with the boys, one of them told me about the boy in the pool. “He knows me because when I first came here a few years ago he was in my class.” He knows me. I didn’t connect it at first. He knows him like I know the people in my Zumba class. He doesn’t know him at all. He just sees him. Our Y is an amazingly diverse population of people, but how can we create a culture of knowing and not just seeing?

By Andrea Champagne, Senior Director, YMCA of Greater Providence

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