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West Side: When Everything At Play Isn’t Enough

Three weeks ago, I knew nothing of the West Side. Give me a map and I would have never been able to point out the place. Ask for an adjective about the area and I would falter, unable to find an honest reply. A neighborhood in name only, St. Paul’s West Side was simply invisible, entirely insignificant to me and my future.

And then I was assigned to analyze the area inside and out, and everything changed.

Researching this region neither nuances nor complicates a contemporary understanding of intercultural communication. Rather, understanding particular city pockets supports current conceptions. According to Intercultural Communication in Contexts, positive and negative aspects arise when dealing with cross-culture relations. Examinations allow us to learn about others and ourselves concurrently, yet a proliferation of prejudice may be born from the very same interactions (pg. 4).

An absolute appreciation of culture requires an equal understanding of the interconnected contexts that shape it. The history of the West Side, for example, formed the initial impressions of America for all original immigrants who inhabited the area. Jewish citizens saw it as a mere stopgap, a simple settlement meant to be anything but permanent (Nelson & Lyons 2006). Finding sufficient finances to be the only ticket onto the train ride out, perhaps even the iconic Neighborhood House was created not as a community anchor (as presently described by the Twin Cities Daily Planet), but an exit. Assisting residents to succeed, the establishment effectively provided the priceless economic and interpersonal tools necessary for social mobility beyond the West Side.

Jews didn’t hesitate to take this opportunity, and soon the West Side became associated with Hispanic populations instead. Even when faced with total relocation as a result of redevelopment for the oft-flooded flats, however, this cultural group chose to embrace its heritage and secure a community with visible personality (Twin Cities Daily Planet). Thus, District del Sol was born with meaningful Mexican influences.

Although obviously oblivious to the outcomes at the time, the founders failed to foresee the long-lasting impacts of their good intentions. As discussed in our final presentation last Thursday, the West Side of St. Paul now falls victim to stereotypes as being exclusively Latino. Past presumptions of a poor neighborhood managed to survive for a century as well, as recounted during an interview with a young local: “Many times people refer to West Side as the ghetto, where there is a lot of violence and only poor people live.” Evident here, economic and social standing sprung straight from neighborhood history all act in tandem to determine today’s intercultural communication.

The West Side community is not only physically separated from greater St. Paul by the wide berths allotted to the Mississippi River, but the area is also socially segregated in terms of immigrant culture. Immediately, language literally prohibits communication out of a new resident’s home culture, impeding interaction with others in or out of the neighborhood. In this sense, Neighborhood House continues its historical mission for education through English classes, even encouraging intercultural communication among the locals in the process. When asked about interactions across ethnic groups, a woman employed at the Neighborhood House enlightened me with the organization’s contributions to the community:

“Well, I would say generally they stay with their ethnicities, with their people, so to speak. But in our English classes they’re all intermingled and they try to get them to know each other’s cultures well. So they’ll have cooking classes during English class and one week they’ll make Somali food, the next week they’ll make Hmong food, the next week they’ll make Karen food, the next week they’ll make…whatever! And so they each get a taste of each other’s culture, and then they’re like, ‘Oh, we really aren’t all that different! Oh, you use cilantro too! Oh, I thought only we used cilantro!’”

Previously as foreign to one another as the country they now inhabit, immigrants are able to break through cultural barriers through the facilitation of intercultural communication in a common context that everyone can relate to (in this case, food preparation). While only one example of many, this anecdote nonetheless provides an uplifting outlook to the potential ease of initiating free-flowing conversation between people with wildly different backgrounds.

The typical identity of a West Side resident (if there even is such a thing) is an entity torn by local pride and outsider observations. Driven by dark and dreary mass media (mis)representations, the neighborhood has received a serious stigma:

 ”The news only talks about the negative stories, the violence and the poverty…It sometimes makes me not want to tell people where I am from. I am afraid they will judge me as something I am not.”

A direct product of conflicting or incomplete intercultural communication, this reflection from the local interviewee mentioned earlier shows how poor understandings disempower these people. Natural identity development is forever at odds with what the world perceives a West Sider should be, and many are left lost between embracing heritage and casting aside culture to escape discrimination.

The topic of my previous post, political power with regard to the West Side provides a source of hope to maintaining one’s true identity. Influential government figures are actively invested in the support and improvement of the neighborhood, and outstanding organizations like the West Side Community Organization and Riverview Economic Development Association provide pathways for local engagement to enhance self-esteem. Still, is this enough? Can but two (admittedly important) politicians change an entire area within Minnesota’s main metropolitan area? While helpful on the individual and community scale, are pushes for personal pride making a measurable difference through the Twin Cities’ grand scheme?

Being the critical pessimist I’ve become (college is to blame, I’m sure), I have to answer “no.”

I have lived in St. Paul for nearly three years. I’ve explored the city, wandered its streets, and gotten lost for long lengths of time. And yet, I had never heard of the West Side.

As long as this problem persists, as long as outside populations are unaware of the unique diversity only seen in St. Paul’s West Side, intercultural communication is insignificant. Culture cannot influence communication between neighborhoods because communication doesn’t exist between neighborhoods. Like nearby nations refusing to cooperate with one another, these independent areas operate in lieu of any external interactions. Boundaries, whether physical or imaginary, contain more than our homes on a map. Entrapped in our own comfort zones, immersion in other sections, in other cultures, is out of the question.

Fortunately, the problem is a potential solution.

Intercultural communication can open doors, build bridges, and facilitate relationships between detached groups like those sprinkled across the Twin Cities. Pulling from the Neighborhood House employee’s recollection again, all we need is relatable common ground to create connections. As an Environmental Sciences, Policy, and Management undergraduate student, I do not have all of the answers, and cannot provide a checklist to achieving a society of honest and open relations. I do, however, know the end goal. My power post ended on a simple and straightforward but significant statement, and I believe it belongs here as well:

We need intercultural communication.

Now how do we get there?

References

Almli, M. (2011, February 07). Videos feature history, culture of St. Paul’s West Side flats and District del Sol. Twin Cities Daily Planet. Retrieved fromhttp://www.tcdailyplanet.net/news/2011/02/07/videos-feature-history-culture-st-pauls-west-side-flats-and-district-del-sol

Nelson, P., & Lyons, L. (2006, June 1st). Tour Saint Saul: West side. Retrieved from http://historicsaintpaul.org/files/westside.pdf


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West Side Power: A Plea For Intercultural Communication

Power & culture: Two identities tightly tied to such a degree that my previous post on identity proves to be a near-perfect parallel to power relationships involving the West Side of St. Paul. To be true, historical, economic, and geographic aspects act as ongoing constraints keeping this neighborhood from having a fully-realized influence. However, these barriers are born from an undeniable diversity of cultures at the core of this district’s contested power dynamics.

A downtrodden history paved the way for the present power problems pertaining to the West Side. The geographic separation from the greater city of St. Paul marks the origins of still-seen societal oppression, and past widespread poverty among the area’s residents continues to affect outside perspectives. Prevalent populations of various immigrant groups only add to the perceptions of the West Side as being an “other,” some foreign land to fear and avoid.

Separated by more than a river

Modern media representations of the region seek to strip its citizens of personal power. As I state in my struggle to search for even a singular news story painting the West Side in a positive light, it is almost impossible to discover anything but derogatory details dealing with the neighborhood from every major network. When crime is all they see, it’s easy for outsiders to extrapolate these isolated and incidental behaviors to the entire population.  Rosa, a young West Side lifer with invaluable insight into this issue, reflects in her own words:

 “The news only talks about the negative stories, the violence and the poverty. No one hears about the Cinco de Mayo celebration or the welcoming residents that live here…[N]ow that I am working outside West Side and meeting new people, it is hard to be proud. Many times people refer to West Side as the ghetto, where there is a lot of violence and only poor people live. It sometimes makes me not want to tell people where I am from. I am afraid they will judge me as something I am not.”

As a direct consequence to these unfortunate feelings of punctured pride for one’s own community, motivations to take action in support of the area are minimized. More so, migrant groups are often at odds with the English language. Described to deeper depths in my identity piece, a local employee explains common Minnesotans can be quick to judge individuals with poor speaking skills. With unfavorable presumptions already in place and an inability to communicate a rallying cry against injustice, West Side residents could be a people without any power at all.

Could be, if not for the incredible institutions and progressive politicians dedicated to fighting for the subtly persecuted West Side.

With a significant Spanish-speaking minority, the West Side is well-represented by two Latino men in positions of power (as outlined by the Twin Cities Daily Planet). Filling a seat on Minnesota’s House of Representatives for more than 20 years, Carlos Mariani is mindful of protecting underprivileged minority populations statewide. What’s more, his presidential status within the Education Committee further focuses his extraordinary efforts on enhancing educational programs. Similar to Mr. Mariani, Rafael Ortega is also of Latino descent and acts as the 5th district Commissioner for Ramsey County, an area inclusive of the West Side. Cited by the Daily Planet as being, “one of the most power(ful) political positions in the state,” Commissioner Ortega is able to appropriate considerable funding as he sees fit. As the very first minority on Minnesota’s County Board, Ortega surely ensures his West Side constituents receive the appropriate attention.

Ignoring misunderstandings from the Twin Cities at large, the West Side’s internal power is in line with my last analysis on cultural identity. Disheartening depictions do not exist within the tight internal neighborhood community. Cultural exhibitions are embedded into the very environment, providing a sense of place and repairing pride lost to less-than-positive opinions from the outside. A conversation with a West Side worker at Neighborhood House examined the importance of the institution as a beacon, with the power to attract ambitious immigrants and build broken self-esteem by boosting essential understandings of the English language. The previously mentioned Community Plan and organizations like the Riverview Economic Development Association do wonders for the West Side, empowering residents with a variety of assistance and encouraging individual actions for change.

Capitol protest against immigration injustice

Drastic differences between internal and external positions and perceptions of power mimic the West Side’s identity to a “T.” Like culture, these relationships are actively affected by media representations, yet are additionally offset by a strong sense of inner community. In the end, power depends on and speaks to the societal  structure of the Twin Cities, and (I imagine) much of the United States. We need to approach oppression with an open mind. We need to experience an environment for ourselves before blanketing a stereotype to everyone within its boundaries. We need more transparency, more truth, and more tolerance.

We need intercultural communication.

References

McDonough, S. (2010, April 21). Latino leaders: A new political force in Minnesota. Retrieved from http://www.tcdailyplanet.net/news/2010/04/20/latino-leaders-new-political-force-minnesota

Riverview Economic Development Association. (2012). About reda. Retrieved from http://www.districtdelsol.com/about/about-reda.html

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Who Needs Integration?

With a fine-tuned four stage process, chapter five in Intercultural Communication in Contexts simplifies the development of identity for individuals belonging to minority groups in a straightforward step-by-step structure. From an “unexamined” state to the ultimate goal of “integration,” this (literally) by-the-book approach is allegedly the most common course followed by the nondominant sectors of society.

But what does this say about the unfortunate few who fail to follow the rules? What if this plan doesn’t pan out like it’s supposed to? For an area like St. Paul’s West Side, separation and misrepresentation deeply divide the district between insightful insiders and the preconceived public. A neighborhood nestled in the middle of the textbook’s progression with no motivation to move on, maybe integration isn’t always the absolute answer in the search for true identity.

A single city or worlds apart?

The West Side’s impressive immigrant presence is exemplified through my previous postings. Historical contexts created a region rich with recent international residents, and the contemporary culture keeps the people connected to their origins. An enlightening conversation with a local employee and long-term tenant to this distinct territory revealed not only the large number of national newcomers in the neighborhood, but also the diversity of different cultural groups among them. Though formerly comprised of a heavy percentage of Mexican-Americans, the West Side is now seeing a rise in Asian and East African ethnic groups as a display of a dynamic identity that is very much alive.

Current conditions are so comfortable, in fact, that it may seem like the citizens have no need to assimilate at all. Similar backgrounds not seen in other sections of the Twin Cities ensure residents are forever at ease expressing their native traditions and tongues without worry of odd stares or awkward encounters with an established dominant majority.

The implications of this accepting atmosphere cannot be overstated. As detailed by Gloria Anzaldúa in an essay concerning the priceless importance of language in identity development, she writes, “Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity — I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself” (pg. 2951). Freedom of a preferred form of expression throughout the West Side glues personal and community identity together. With that intact, it is all but impossible to pull a person apart.

Immigrant influences are everywhere.

Both personal pride and collective support in the neighborhood become clear by examining the West Side Community Plan. Years of active citizen engagement created an outline for a resident-driven overhaul, with strategies set to improve an array of aspects within the area. Working toward a common goal, community members are imbued with an irreplaceable sense of togetherness and cohesion that only expands upon the West Side’s existing cultural strength.

These unbreakable unifying bonds were brought to life with my most recent visit to the neighborhood. Surrounded by magnificent murals and liberal splashes of Hispanic influences in language and architecture, I was stricken with the feeling of something fresh…but decidedly foreign. I am likely not the first to experience such a phenomenon, and perhaps these happenings have led to the present perception of the West Side as an independent “other.”

Physically separated from the greater Twin Cities region by the Mississippi River that bounds its many blocks, the neighborhood is no stranger to receiving judgment. As described by Historic St. Paul, early immigrants were quick to move out of the area when enough money came in (Nelson & Lyons 2006). These original notions of a neighborhood made up exclusively of poor immigrants might be the fuel behind the external views of inferiority still seen today, as shown in my contemporary coverage of the community through popular media outlets in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Separated by more than a river.

Anzaldúa may speak of the significance of language, but our interviewee identifies the barriers and setbacks that an unusual tongue tends to produce: “[T]hey don’t know the language. So a lot of people are like, “You’re stupid because you don’t know English,” when really, just because they don’t know English doesn’t mean that they’re stupid. But people don’t see beyond that.” Like any repeated phrase, consistent calls relating one’s inability to speak English with their intelligence can eventually lead to a victim that actually believes such ridiculous allegations. With language tied so tightly with West Side culture, citizens no longer need a fear of flash floods to flee the neighborhood. Now, removing oneself from this saddening stigma is reason enough.

Or what if the residents rebelled, and rightfully refused to reach out into a society with such a vocal opposition?

Cultural identity within the West Side could not be even a sliver stronger. Entering the area is to be engulfed in an openly expressed heritage that hearkens back to a collection of ethnic homelands. The experience is extremely exciting, but the feeling unfortunately falls away the instant you cross the bridge back to downtown St. Paul. As long as that’s so, the West Side will always be different, an “other.” A beautiful bubble with a collage of cultures, its citizens may never reach total integration.

But considering the satisfaction of staying home and faced with a foreign frontier full of Minnesotans with mistaken understandings, why would they want to?

References

Anzaldúa, G. E. (1987). Borderlands/la frontera: The new mestiza. (pp. 2947-2955). San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books. Retrieved from http://wolfweb.unr.edu/homepage/calabj/282/how to tame wild tongue.pdf

Nelson, P., & Lyons, L. (2006, June 1st). Tour Saint Paul: West side. [No longer available online.]

West Side Community Organization (2011, December 7). Community Plan. Retrieved from http://wsco.org/?page_id=343

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The Comfort of the Classroom

I entered class on Thursday with passion in my heart and fire in my eyes. Reading Beverly Daniel Tatum’s “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” book about race relations the night before incited a fierce emotional response. It wasn’t pretty, but I needed to let the monster loose.

Early morning discussions began in their usual too-tired-for-serious-talks fashion, but my conversation quickly culminated to a chain of criticisms concerning Tatum’s entire portrayal of affirmative action. The comfort of the classroom allowed my true feelings to flow freely and, seeing red, I ranted without reservation. In any other situation, though, I guarantee my mouth would not have moved a muscle.

Because, as a white American, I’m afraid of being deemed a racist.

With the only early academic exposure to ethnic issuing being middle school textbook talks on slavery and civil rights movements, it’s no mystery why so many white individuals avoid speaking up about the hot topic of race. Combine this background with media coverage of the continued unfair treatment of minority groups and we’ve got ourselves a system that supports silence on the subject.

Considering the successful communication across diverse groups sought after with the contact hypothesis described in chapter four of Intercultural Communication in Contexts, our nation needs more open and thorough conversations regarding race. Ignoring these talks only touts societal ignorance, and feelings of fear or anger often originate from the creation of a separate unknown collective. To combat this troubling trend, Thursday’s experience must expand beyond the building’s closed doors.

Course material on interracial issues should be implemented at the elementary level, integrated with equal importance alongside teachings of basic reading and mathematics skills. Tatum touches on the pervasive public tendency to shield its youth from engaging in these controversial conversations, but I argue that there is no better way to encourage tolerance than by explaining social issues to young impressionable minds.

Some will certainly claim that teaching a six-year-old the ins-and-outs of slavery is an impossible (or even inconceivable) task. While an understandable source of anxiety, Tatum proves these tough issues can be tackled with an actual explanation she gave her preschool-aged son. Simple language and sentence structure keep the content clear, and the infusion of positive depictions of Africans as “really good, strong, smart workers” (pg. 39) ensures the boy does not develop an intuition of inferiority.

Others may worry that these heavy childhood discussions could have the opposite effect, breeding a generation to dislike white people from the start. Fortunately, Tatum, being the masterful psychologist (and improvisational speaker) that she is, once again dodges another dark path:

“Now, even though some White people were kidnapping Africans and making them work without pay, other White people thought that this was very unfair, which it was. And those White people worked along with the Black people to bring an end to slavery. So now it is against the law to have slaves” (pg. 40).

Regardless of your race, no one should be brought up in a society structured to instill fear. And yet, a country devoid of unrestricted dialogue is doing just that. Black, white, purple, or green, we all deserve to dive into constructive conversations about racial issues, and need to if we are ever to find a culture free of prejudice.

In the end, we all deserve the comfort of the classroom.

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Becoming a Minority: Getting to Know the Real West Side

I have already characterized my identity as a Christian white American man living in Minnesota, but last Friday I became a minority. Tasked to explore St. Paul’s West Side neighborhood for a better understanding of the community, I arrived on location earlier than my partner and proceeded to take a quick cruise around the immediate environment. Though technically still in the same city as my current residence, it was as if I’d walked right into a different world altogether. Save for my classmate upon her eventual arrival, I never saw another white person strolling the streets.

This observed sense of diversity perfectly reflects the unique makeup of the West Side. As described in my related historical report, this area’s rich origins made the mixed cultural climate that exists today. And yet, I might have never known the true feeling of the neighborhood without Friday’s fateful visit. Despite a history of ethnic pride and relentless resilience to adversity, popular modern news publications often miss the seemingly-obvious components of the community.

Handle with care

A straight-forward search of “West Side St. Paul” through the city’s own Pioneer Press generates a series of severely negative outlooks. Grandiose stories of gunfights and gang violence rise to the top of the most “relevant” search results. Another article tells the tale of an emotionally broken small business owner and his legacy of food stamp fraud (a newsbreak that immediately identifies the individual as an Iraqi immigrant, as if that fact should hold any bearing on the criminal context at hand). Every story ignores the defined attributes that make this neighborhood the remarkable area that it is. Instead, news coverage depicts the district as anything but an attractive place to live.

Favorable content concerning the West Side does exist to some degree, though the brevity of these blurbs seems to be an almost active avoidance of portraying a neighborhood worth visiting. Unlike the down-and-dirty details narrating the negative news as if they came from an action-thriller novel, the Pioneer Press informs its readers about the Cinco de Mayo festival in a by-the-books (and admittedly boring) fashion. Disregarding the importance of this event to the area’s sizable Hispanic population, article author Frederick Melo begins with, “For Cinco de Mayo, it’s the same parade, different organizer.” Be sure to notify me if you see even the smallest strain of enthusiasm buried beneath that bland introduction.

Emotionally interested need not apply

If you’re wondering why my West Side research is so focused on the Pioneer Press, know that the larger Star Tribune commits an arguably graver crime by treating the neighborhood as if it didn’t exist outright. Nothing but the occasion obituary appears worthy of spreading to the greater Twin Cities area, and this apathetic attitude leaves any outsider with a perspective of ignorance or insignificance.

These unsavory illustrations stray far from the joyous energy and charm I perceived during my short spell walking the West Side. I was a minority, to be sure, although I never once detected any discomfort. On the contrary, my West Side experience is best relayed through the uplifting communications within local area news reports.

The St. Paul Voice is a prime example of a true representation of the West Side. June’s issue in particular shares only the utmost positivity with cover-to-cover coverage of all subject matter that actually affects the community. From upstanding religious leaders to upcoming local events, The Voice runs through issues that neighborhood residents genuinely care about. Absent are the isolated instances of the same crimes that crop up in any community across America, and the paper does away with “police report” journalism in favor of a focus on the local people.

A real face of the West Side

A community plan in progress from the West Side Community Organization emphasizes the ideals and desires of the neighborhood’s citizens. In full support of the topics touched on in the latest issue of The St. Paul Voice, the Community Vision created by some 120 West-Siders to direct the shape of the aforementioned plan brought about the same subjects of value. Gathering input from “a diverse sample of Westside communities, including homeowners and renters, members of ethnic and cultural communities, and established as well as recent arrivals to the neighborhood,” open conversations with the locals collected common themes like economic development and civic engagement as areas of personal importance. Not surprisingly, nearly every single sought-after section in the Community Vision suggesting characteristics of an ideal neighborhood is reflected in the current issue of The St. Paul Voice (and always with the air of cheery gusto, I might add).

Take a peek at the front page of your Sunday newspaper or start your day with a dose of televised local news, and what is it you see? Because of the twisted tastes of too many desensitized audiences, city-wide exposure is most likely limited to depressing statistics and criminal activities. As is evident with this neighborhood analysis, typical tellings of St. Paul’s West Side are no different. Now blessed with the truth, though, I challenge you to do more. Rejecting a reliance on eye-catching reporting, I challenge you to immerse yourself in another environment, if only for a few hours. Passing the people and seeing the sights, you’ll undoubtedly realize the talked-about terrors of foreign neighborhoods are completely nonexistent. I never would have known about the wonders of the West Side, but then I became a minority.

And never looked back.

References

Gottfried, M. H. (2012, March 16). St. Paul man charged in drive-by shooting. Pioneer Press. Retrieved from http://www.twincities.com/localnews/ci_20191014/st-paul-man-charged-drive-by-shooting

Gottfried, M. H., & Gervais, B. (2012, February 23). In St. Paul, West Side fight, shooting results in six arrests. Pioneer Press. Retrieved from http://www.twincities.com/localnews/ci_20027082

Hanners, D. (2012, May 8). St. Paul grocer’s food stamp fraud nets 3 years, 5 months; he must repay $2.4m. Pioneer Press. Retrieved from http://www.twincities.com/localnews/ci_20576921/st-paul-grocers-food-stamp-fraud-nets-3

Melo, F. (2012, May 2). St. Paul: Cinco de Mayo festival Saturday. Pioneer Press. Retrieved from http://www.twincities.com/stpaul/ci_20534873/st-paul-cinco-de-mayo-festival-saturday

The St. Paul Voice (2012, June). Retrieved from http://issuu.com/stpaulpublishing/docs/spv-june-2012

West Side Community Organization (2011, December 7). Community Plan. Retrieved from http://wsco.org/?page_id=343

West Side Community Organization (2011). Community Vision. Retrieved from http://wsco.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Boards_120111-1.pdf

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Conversations of Culture and Comfort: St. Paul’s West Side

The current cultural climate of St. Paul’s West Side is alive with a rich diversity of ethnic groups. Though drawn to the area for different reasons, the historical Neighborhood House acts as a central hub by attending to the basic needs of all who need a helpful hand. Listen as Kelly, a Neighborhood House employee and long-term resident of the area, describes her observations of cultural change throughout the community and emphasizes the priceless role the Neighborhood House continues to play over a hundred years after its inception.

Neighborhood House resides within the new Wellstone Center.

“Have you seen the area change a lot in the last 20 years?”

“For sure”

“For sure? In which ways?”

“Umm…20 years ago, I would say, 20 to 25 years ago it was more predominantly Hispanic, and as the new cultures come into the United States and settle in Minnesota they tend to settle here on the West Side. So, since Neighborhood House has been around…Neighborhood House started as Russian Jewish immigrants who came here. Neighborhood House started as a settlement house for them so they could get acclimated to the new culture, to the United States, but still maintain their own culture. So, the neighborhood itself has been evolving with every new immigrant that comes. It was predominantly Hispanic when I was growing up, then the Hmong came in, and now East Africans are here…although you probably can’t really tell that because most of the stuff around here is still Spanish, is still Hispanic.”

“Do you think that’s going to be changing?”

“It’s totally changing. But the Hispanic culture is still really strong ’round here.”

“So what do you think is attracting so many of these recent immigrants here? Is it things like the Neighborhood House, or…?”

“I think so. Yeah, I don’t know how they find us. It’s hard to know, that’s really kind of weird.”

“Do you see a lot of family? Is it a family lineage, do you think? Could it be…chain immigration at all? Or is it just attractive to large groups?”

“I think it’s just attractive, yeah. I think St. Paul in general…and, I don’t know much about Minneapolis, I’ve lived here…it’s very cultural and open to different cultures, so it’s very accepting. And so I think people obviously like to be accepted, and that we have many cultures here. And the most recent ethnicity to come is the Karen. They’re of Asian descent but they’re their own ethnicity.”

“Have you seen any clashes of culture? Between…?”

“I would say…not necessarily with adults, but there’s…with youth there’ll be clashes. There’ll be a Hmong gang and an East African gang and a Spanish gang doing their stupid kid things. I think it’s more in the youth than adults. Adults seem to get along.”

“While they get along, like you say, do you see a lot of intercultural interaction or do they usually stay with their ethnicities, together?”

“Well, I would say generally they stay with their ethnicities, with their people, so to speak. But in our English classes they’re all intermingled and they try to get them to know each other’s cultures well. So they’ll have cooking classes during English class and one week they’ll make Somali food, the next week they’ll make Hmong food, the next week they’ll make Karen food, the next week they’ll make…whatever! And so they each get a taste of each other’s culture, and then they’re like, ‘Oh, we really aren’t all that different! Oh, you use cilantro too! Oh, I thought only we used cilantro!'”

“Do you think that one of the offhand goals, then, of this community center would be to unite the area? To get more people to come here and use similar services? How do you think that would work?”

“That’s a good question. Well our goal is to…What we generally do is try to meet people’s basic needs: food, shelter…because if you’re hungry you can’t think of anything else except food and feeding your family. If you don’t know English, you can’t get around, you can’t get a job, so we have basic English skills to help them get a job. We have GED classes that they can go to. Most of the people that come here from other countries…they may not speak English but they probably speak five other languages and a lot of them were PhDs or…I mean, have Master’s in their own country and are very high up but then when they come here the degree doesn’t translate because the schooling is different. And so, they essentially have to start all over. Plus they don’t know the language. So a lot of people are like, “You’re stupid because you don’t know English,” when really, just because they don’t know English doesn’t mean that they’re stupid. But people don’t see beyond that. And we’re here to get the basic needs met and to give them a hand to have a better life. But it’s not like, a…it’s not a handout. It’s, a…”

“Like a helpful hand!”

“Yeah! Helpful hand, yeah.”

“I like it…I think that covers it, you helped a lot. You definitely support the research that we’ve already done, but it’s nice to hear it from somebody who’s seen it. Thank you very, very much! We appreciate it.”

-Angella, Luke & Shannon

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Fearing the Unknown

“Roosevelt and the shah spoke for a few minutes, but there was little to say. Then General Zahedi, the new prime minister, arrived to join them. These three men were among the few who had any idea of the real story behind that week’s tumultuous events. All knew they had changed the course of Iranian history.”

Coming at the conclusion of chapter five in Stephen Kinzer’s Overthrow, the preceding paragraphs are filled with immoral international covert operations that would feel right at home in any summer action blockbuster. False political framing, death threats, and obscene amounts of bribery build the unbelievable but true tale of America’s involvement in the successful overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian government from the early 1950s. With the institution posing no physical threat to anyone, distant communism scares and direct economic impacts were the only items influencing this coup that was organized and implemented by very few under veils of the utmost secrecy. And that was enough for them.

The aftermath of these atrocious actions attributed to a current cultural climate of US-Middle East relations far different from what we might have seen had even one of the key men refused to cooperate in the coup. Some, like Mark J. Gasiorowski in an article with The International Journal of Middle East Studies, believe these events were a significant contributing factor to the 1979 Iranian Revolution that resulted in the replacement of a government that liked us with one that certainly doesn’t. Entire anti-American sentiments throughout Iran are possibly the products of a single historical happenstance. Which, of course, was the product of a mere handful of powerful people.

After discovering this disgraceful detail in my country’s history, it’s difficult to tell which is worse: the unjustified acts themselves, or the fact that I had no idea any of this happened. Sure, the Iranian overthrow occurred nearly 40 years before I was as much as a thought, but I rebut that argument by reciting any number of personally less important Civil War facts. The active hiding of this history is in itself a form of brainwashing, giving American citizens no reason to know why any Middle Easterner would resent their nation with such fierce passion.

As a child in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, I remember wondering what we did to deserve this violence. When no one could give me an answer, I ate up the media’s depiction of Islamic radicals and their hatred for anything non-Muslim. As a clarifying preface, I am not condoning terrorism by any stretch of the imagination. But little did I know that the United States might be one of the bad guys.

Present predicaments can never be understood without assessing the past, and this basic fact cannot come to pass while world-changing events are continually swept under the rug and out of the public eye. Like the contact hypothesis outlines, group communications must go beyond the context of the here-and-now if we, as a human race, are ever to hope for peace. Only time will tell if we will be able to confront our mistakes and engage in remedying compromised relations. In the meantime, every dusted off dirty secret makes me a little less proud to be an American.

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by | May 29, 2012 · 10:53 pm