Sunday, September 26, 2010

One Community: Eighty+ Languages

On Saturday morning we went to the ribbon cutting for the new Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center in the Gulfton/Sharpstown neighborhood in Southwest Houston. I'd been hearing about this new campus for months, hearing how absolutely terrific it was, like nothing else in Houston. The new center is a colorful group of five buildings set among mature oak trees on four acres. It will serve a community of people who speak over 80 different languages. I am blown away. Apparently, this neighborhood, about which I've heard only stereotypical things like 'troubled, rough, dangerous', is one of the most culturally diverse in the country.
Angela Blanchard is NCI's CEO. Has been for over a dozen years and she's grown the organization along with the help of a really good board and well trained staff. Susan Baker, James Baker's wife led the charge for funds to make this campus a reality. The Bakers were on hand for the opening ceremonies.
Angela introduced twelve staff members who each came to the podium to offer a welcome greeting and each spoke in a different language. Before they were through, I was in tears. Tears were close to the surface for the remainder of the speeches.

This is how life is supposed to be. Folks working together on common goals with respect for one another's skills and knowledge. Newspaper headlines and stories began to fade away. The fear and anger and hate now being stirred up in this country is abominable. For an hour or two, I witnessed a different model.

Here's what NCI's website says about the way that they work in neighborhoods within communities:

"Neighborhood Centers Inc. has adopted the “asset-based community development” approach to our work in Community Based Initiatives. This model, developed by John Kretzmann and John McKnight at Northwestern University, proposes that individuals and organizations within neighborhoods have assets upon which economic, political and social strength can be built.

"We know that significant community development can only take place when local residents are involved – when they are committed to investing themselves and their resources in making their neighborhoods stronger, safer, more vibrant and more inclusive, regardless of background, age or income.

"Our approach also recognizes that individuals and communities already possess skills, knowledge and resources that can produce powerful benefits when neighbors are linked with neighbors."

I like what their website says about immigrants too:

"While foreign-born citizens come to the United States for many reasons, immigration is ultimately about one thing: The promise of America.

"Immigrants truly believe in this nation and all we have to offer. Their faith in the American ideal is strong, and reflects the same spirit that's been a cornerstone of our country since its founding more than two centuries ago.

"That’s important, too. Because in the ongoing debate over immigration policy, the image of the newly arrived has often been mischaracterized.

"The fact is, those who come here are largely hard working, family oriented, and have a passion for the values we all share – the values that will continue to sustain us people, and as a paragon of freedom, long into the future.

"But perhaps just as important, most of them have come to America because they have chosen to be Americans.

"Neighborhood Centers Inc. is not a legislative or enforcement organization. We don't advocate a specific immigration policy. Our mission is to ensure that when people arrive in Houston – regardless of their origin or status, or whether they come to pursue a better life or to flee political oppression – they have the opportunity to pursue not simply the American Dream, but the Human Dream.

"Our hope that a better understanding of the immigrant community will help shape policies that preserve this opportunity – and keep the promise of America alive for anyone willing to work for it."

Can an organization get any better than this? There is a lot more information on this website page about immigration myths versus facts. Worth a click to read.

It was so good to see friends and people I know from my days working in Houston's East End. Wonderful to see folks who are actively engaged in building strong, productive, healthy neighbprhoods. Wonderful to see diversity as an asset. As I've heard Angela say, "We look for strengths and then that's what we work with."
After the ribbon cutting, we walked out into a courtyard and there met Councilmember Sue Lovell who was escorting the Bakers. I introduced the councilmember to Earl and she said, "So, you're the reason we don't see Mary Margaret anymore." I'd told her a month or two ago that I was seeing someone and she'd kidded me about it then.
Earl reached over to shake James Baker's hand and introduce himself. Earl reminded him that he'd made a belt for him long ago. Then James Baker smiled and said he remembered that belt and also that he ordered a second belt for President Reagan. He said that the president's belt is now in the presidential library in California. They chatted some more and Susan Baker shook hands too. You just never know who'll you run into, do you?

I am left to reconcile the politics and powers that be in this country with the reality I experienced on this four acres in the middle of Houston, TX.

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