Take The BRIDGES Pledge On Immigration

Posted by knetzler on Aug 11, 2017

By Cynthia Ham

A version of this piece appeared in the Aug. 10, 2017, edition of The Commercial Appeal. 

“I am a Bridge Builder. I am a leader who can lay aside individual, social, economic and cultural differences to work for the benefit of all.”

That’s the pledge more than 1,100 students take each year as part of our youth leadership programs at BRIDGES.

Knowing what you know now, as an adult, could you take that pledge? Could you live it out daily, in a truly impactful way, on a complex, controversial issue like immigration?

Try it for a moment. Take your political affiliations and your policy preferences, your cultural heritage, your income and education level, and set them all aside. Focus on what’s at the center of this debate: People. Particularly youth.

Every day I hear heart-wrenching stories about families being torn apart over immigration issues. Children asking their parents if they’ll be sent to a country they’ve never known. Families struggling to function normally while living in constant fear and limbo about their futures. Refugees facing persecution or violence if forced to return to their countries of origin.

These stories make me reflect on the values we hold most dear at BRIDGES: empathy when we lack understanding, compassion for those different from us, and a fundamental belief that diversity makes us stronger.

Bridge Builders participants learn how to suspend judgments, put down the smartphone, and listen—really listen—to the experiences of others you can’t know yourself. We create a safe environment for courageous conversations that break down barriers and build trust.

But of course, embracing these values requires us to reject others. We resist stereotyping and “otherizing.” We refute the assertion that any human being can be “illegal.” And above all, we reject fear as a tactic to divide our community.

How can Memphis ever benefit by spreading fear? How are we better off if our neighbors are too afraid to go to work or the grocery store? If victims of violent crimes are too afraid to report them to the law enforcement? If parents are too afraid to enroll their children in schools?

Fear is in no one’s best interest. It’s destructive to us all.

And so what can we do about it? We challenge youth to step outside their “bubbles” of safe and predictable interactions, but I, too, have to step outside my comfort zone—to find a path to better understanding and supporting those who are affected by immigration issues but who don’t live in my neighborhood, travel in my social circles or interact with me at work. How can I be an ally to those I’ve not yet met?

First, I can educate myself on the complexity of the issues. I can identify and intentionally challenge my own biases. I can seize every opportunity to broaden the conversation with my friends, relatives, colleagues, and neighbors.

I can seek out volunteer opportunities to support those in need of assistance. I can mentor immigrant and refugee youth who are scared and need someone to listen. I can donate to organizations that provide legal services or family support.

I can speak up if I believe something is unjust. I can hold my leaders, on every level, accountable for the impact of immigration and refugee policies on my community. As a privileged person with a deep desire to build bridges, I must acknowledge that my staying silent will only reinforce walls.

And above all else, I can underscore the dignity of humanity, and especially the impact on young people, as my core guiding principle.

The wellbeing of all youth—the future of our city and nation—has lived at the center of our work here at BRIDGES for three decades. It must live at the center of our community as well.

Cynthia Ham is the President and CEO of BRIDGES.