The role I play in the community’s diversity initiatives via my position is perhaps the one I most cherish as we strive to help enhance the way of life in the Greater Wilkes-Barre area and region. Population 43,123 last count, the make up is 92.3% white. Post 9/11 the area is experiencing an influx of immigrants not seen since the discovery of Anthracite coal in the 1800′s. The area has a majority make up of Irish, Polish, German and Italian descent. The new immigrants are largely Latino.
Very close by is the not so sleepy hamlet of Shenandoah. It’s been in the national news lately and not for positive reasons. Luiz Ramirez was beaten to death there. The case has caused a lot of emotion throughout the region if not the country. Many people are on the fence. He was an illegal immigrant in a small white town. The influx of immigration, most of it legal, causes a stir and natural resistance to change.
The downtown campus of the local community college occupies the basement of the building I work in on the Public Square. It is a very inviting place that offers education to anyone willing to invest the required energy to learn. ESL classes are among the curricula for immigrants. Most are from Latin America and the other onsies and twosies are from Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe.
For years I have maintained a professional relationship with the college. Throughout the past several years I have worked with it in various capacities as a consultant and instructor. I love the fact that I’m only a few steps away at my not-so-new-anymore job. As soon as the Director of Community Outreach learned I was going to be upstairs he enlisted my aide in co-managing an English conversation group of ESL learners once weekly at lunchtime.
I have ESL experience going way back to my own college days in Philly with project LEIF and Cuban exiles. There was the year I spent in Spain tutoring English to a village in Mallorca. Currently, I spend three to five hours per week tutoring English gratis via Skype to people from all over the world, mostly as a result of relationships gained through a very cool website English Cafe. I share, I help, I learn, I’m happy.
One day after the weekly English conversation group concluded its session, Peter and I somehow came up with the observation that there are lots of native English speaking professionals in our community that learned Spanish either in college or through life experience. He is one. I am one. I’m fortunate that my language skills have played a large part in my professional branding as a bilingual. It’s no longer a learned language, it’s my co-language. But, what about those who don’t get the opportunity to practice and are or fear getting rusty?
A one week yearly trip to Cancun doesn’t cut it. Bring on the Downtown Spanish Language Conversation Club.
We put our heads together and scoured our contact lists and came up with a combined list of prospects. It included native English speakers and also native Spanish speaking professionals. I created a simple flyer in Publisher and sent it. We didn’t know what to expect. I took a chance and sent it to the local media. After all, this was an event of a different sort in our community. The print media has been very supportive and generous with column space and coverage in the print edition and the online version. While comments to the Editor haven’t always been as supportive, the negative ones are waning.
Our meeting this month of 23 was at a downtown legal firm. We shop them around, take them to different businesses. We expose the businesses to the group and the group gets to learn about the businesses. The businesses feel good hosting a diversity event, the group feels good being accepted and each month it grows. The conversation partners get to learn about each other and different cultures in a non-judgmental environment where everyone has lots of questions as we explore different topics, all in Spanish. We have formed a new community partnership that is very exciting and promises to be a model for other types of downtown grassroots cultural exploration and events.
We’re all OK.