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An onslaught of controversial policies, coupled by widespread media sensationalism, seems to have overwhelmed the American electorate.
At first, perhaps, we called our congresspeople - but how many of us have stuck with it? How many of us, pledging anew to get involved, to resist, to advocate, have done so, sustainably and effectively? Being politically active is suddenly en vogue, but many of us forget that these are battles others have waged for a long time.
Among these many battles include treatment of underdocumented individuals and families. In the last several months, in response to regressive politics, there has been a resurgence in advocacy regarding DACA, pathways to citizenship, among other relevant issues. But the fight for security and opportunity has long been waged.
December 18th is International Migrants’ Day, a day authorized by the United Nations in 2016 to recognize the courage of those who have sought out better lives. This day is a built-in call to action, a moment we should be forced to reflect: what is it that we have done and continue to do to help our fellow citizens of the world? This question hits close to home for me, as I recognize my own productive advocacy continues to diminish.
I grew up in Athens, Georgia, the home of the University of Georgia. As a high school junior in 2011, I had no interest in applying to UGA, citing its proximity. Soon this proximity would have new meaning, as I learned that Policy 4.1.6., approved by the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents, systematically excluded underdocumented applicants. Most states have regressive admittance policies, which require underdocumented students to pay out-of-state or even international tuition rates, but the university system’s was particularly harsh: no admittance, at all. This meant that while I’d casually shrugged off the idea of going to UGA, it was not even an option for many of my classmates, who too had grown up with the university in their backyard.
In 2012, inspired by the work others in my community were already doing and by my relationships with underdocumented peers, I sought to develop a local ideas festival to support underdocumented students, through discursive and fundraising efforts. Together we developed DREAMFest, a local ideas festival centered on supporting underdocumented students in my communities.
Through remarkable efforts by many people, including my educator Ian Altman and the DREAMTeam, our Clarke Central High School group established DREAMFest, which was a success in its initial year. There were many challenges, as I struggled to find the right balance between advocate and ally. Local idea festivals are special because they are student-centered. Throughout the process I learned and continue to grapple with today, the uncomfortable juxtaposition between empowering and supporting others in their own quest to self-empowerment. In the national dialogue today, this is something too often forgotten. I don’t have many of these answers, but I do know that effective allyship requires constant self-reflection and recognition of one’s own social location. DREAMFest raised a good amount money, helped bring light to an important conversation, and spurred sustained student-led advocacy.
It has been my pride and delight to see DREAMFest remain a part of my community, each year bringing a new and different incarnation more committed to lifting up the voices of underdocumented students. It has evolved from the series of panels and benefit concerts into open forums, musical acts, and storytelling by brave students. Each year has been unique and authentic.
I am particularly inspired by the efforts of U-Lead, a community organization that developed around the same time as the first DREAMFest, in which community members support underdocumented students’ quest for educational opportunity, through education, scholarships, and many other kinds of support. Although the University System of Georgia’s regressive policies still stand, U-Lead has worked alongside motivated students with remarkable results. They started with about 15 volunteers and have since grown exponentially, to about 50-60 volunteers each week. This year, U-Lead has funded 43 students with over $130,000 in scholarships.
In spite of limited structural change, many organizations continue to do good work in Athens. There are things we can do, too, regardless of where we are. Here are some tangible suggestions, offered by U-Lead Director JoBeth Allen:
We can learn about pending legislation, both positively and negatively affecting immigrants, and make regular phone calls to legislators;
We can make friends at work, school, community events etc. with members of the undocumented immigrant community and be there for them in times of crisis. Follow their lead in navigating social systems, provide stability for their children, and advocate for them if they are detained or deported;
We can work side-by-side immigrants in faith-based and community organizations to address local policies.
I was raised alongside students with varying levels of documentation. My life and education has been enriched by this diversity of perspective and experience. As International Migrants’ Day approaches, we must remember the ways we have benefited by those around us - those labeled most recently as “migrants.” And we must double down on efforts to be useful and productive.
This practice of fearmongering catches us when we are complacent, and complacence is compliance. Let us commit ourselves to a practice of radical inclusion, recognizing the bravery of those who seek a better life, and the good fortune we have to work alongside them.