#5 The State of Affairs in This State
In reading more closely into this issue as it pertains to Vermont, I was struck both by the instances of behavior and prejudice that seem to belong to another time and yet are perpetuated, and by the incredible and meaningful work that many people are doing to make life in Vermont, specifically in the institute of Vermont education, more comfortable and inclusive for New Americans and English Language Learners.
One woman, Isra Kassim, who is Somali Bantu, came from a refugee camp in Kenya as 2006, and entered high school as a freshman, remembers “overhearing the staff make disparaging remarks about her refugee community.” They would tell her that she was “different,” exempt from these remarks, but praising a thoughtful and intelligent student for diverging from her perceived background is inherently offensive. There are other instances of bigotry and hatred, overt or covert, occurring in schools and the communities, both of which are relevant as schools are really concentrated extensions of a community.
Understanding this, it is essential to explore the steps being taken to counteract these exclusive practices. Burlington and Winooski, with the highest numbers of ELL students, are the only two districts that have hired full teams of linguistic liaisons, though some have similar positions or a liaisons for a single language as the need dictates. However, the liaisons in those two districts are serving a much bigger and more unifying purpose than simply translating to families; they have become essential figures in helping New Americans connect to and understand Vermont communities, and the presence of people with whom both New Americans and more acclimated Americans can identify is important. Much of this work, it seems, requires people well versed in both Vermont norms and the norms of the immigrants’ country of origin; one of the largest and most easily solved issues originally facing Burlington South Vietnamese liaison Son Do was the fact that many New American parents had different expectations of what a relationship between themselves and the school would look like — “Families expect teachers to be the main instructors, while American teachers expect parents to be involved.” Cultural liaisons are able to communicate clearly with parents about all the steps that need to be taken and the meetings and events that need to be attended, but they also take care of matters if a child doesn’t have transportation or is sick, and they give cultural presentations to educate schools about the background and needs of the New American students and families. In the case of Son Do, he has become a lot more than an employee of the school. Families understand his unique position and the merits it presents and ask him to help them navigate life in the U.S., not just as it relates to education, but he doesn’t refuse these requests, and has certainly been immeasurably useful to the success of many families in which the parents work so hard to be able to support their children that they don’t have time to take classes and learn English.
Another incredible example of people working to make change within schools is the Refugee Outreach Club, Inc., which was started fairly recently by a CVU student and has since spread to other schools. They aim to help students get “involved in the international community with service locally and globally,” and one of the ways in which they have done so is by volunteering, through the Heritage Learning Program, to tutor Burundian students.
I think that both of these approaches to the issue share a factor which is essential to the cause, especially here: community. Linguistic and cultural liaisons are so incredibly effective because they share common experience with New American families and are able to provide a trustworthy, understanding pivotal figure. Note also that this doesn’t involve group seminars or lectures on how to understand the Vermont education system, it happens on a personal level and through conversation. This is also true when students are tutoring students; there is a connection between similarly-aged people and a general understanding of goodwill. Vermont communities, because of their close-knit connections, can be hard to penetrate, especially for people who don’t know English in this primarily monolingual society. However, this problem also provides a solution, and I think that this comes in the form of community-based efforts that attempt to understand the experience and perspective of everyone involved. These approaches unite people, and a lot of this has to do with education that goes both ways— part of the liaisons’ job is to educate the school community about the New Americans and their culture, and this simply has to happen in order to create a culture of mutual understanding. Otherwise, we risk further division.
This has left me intrigued about everything I researched, and I’m starting to think about the people I could possibly reach out to later in the year. I really like the idea of speaking to the liaisons and the students and families they work with, and I think that the Refugee Outreach Club could be a valuable resource, especially since they are rooted in student culture.
Sari, Kymelya. “Translating School to Immigrant Parents.” Seven Days. Da Capo Publishing, Inc., 9 Sept. 2015. Web. 09 Oct. 2016.
“About.” Refugee Outreach Club Inc. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Oct. 2016.
Sari, Kymelya. “Leading Ladies: New American Women in Vermont.” Seven Days. Da Capo Publishing, Inc., 9 Mar. 2016. Web. 09 Oct. 2016.
Featured Image is by racky salzman