My experience working as a family engagement fellow in South Mobile County, Ala. has changed me forever, teaching me the true meaning of community and the ability for everyone to be heard and be whole.
The county suffered two catastrophic disasters: Hurricane Katrina destroyed Bayou La Batre, the shrimp capital, and the BP oil spill nearly killed the shrimping industry and the oyster beds. In particular, these disasters affected members of the Asian community — Laotians, Vietnamese and Cambodians— who have made their living from the seafood industry.
Recently, I was challenged to plan a community meeting and realized I would have to provide translators and interpreters to address communication barriers. As the meeting began, I was prepared to facilitate what I thought would be an ordinary community gathering.
As I arrived, there were 10 people of Asian descent patiently waiting for me. They sat in silence watching my every move, never uttering a word. I walked around the room to greet each of the guests, and they smiled and looked in my eyes. I was informed that several other people were getting off work from the shrimp plants and sure enough, within the next few minutes, an additional 15 people arrived.
I began by explaining the agenda and the importance of each guest understanding that the meeting was intended to give each one of them a voice.
A gentleman raised his hand and asked me if he and others would be able to talk because they have attended other meetings where no one allows them to speak. I reassured him that they would have the liberty to express their concerns.
As the meeting began, I hit a language barrier – for the first time in my life. I spoke and everyone had a blank look. Then, the interpreter spoke and everyone’s expression changed. Some smiled, nodded and agreed. As the meeting continued, people began to communicate their needs, which included workforce training, child care, education and employment.
A large number of people in the Asian community in South Mobile County work primarily six months a year during the seafood harvest season. Then, work stops. One problem is that many cannot speak, read and or write English so they cannot apply for other employment opportunities without a translator or interpreter.
At the meeting, community members remarked: “How can we survive in the land of opportunity without someone helping us? For six months, we are citizens and not only survive but we thrive. Then, for the other six months we are poverty stricken.”
Over the next hour and 30 minutes, I listened to concerns and pleas for help. As I fought back tears, I realized that I now faced the task of helping to provide a voice for those who often find themselves silent in English.
After documenting the concerns, I explained how we would prioritize them by voting. Everyone smiled because they felt empowered and encouraged to vote their conscience. For about 20 minutes, I experienced the unbridled joy of people who now had hope that their voice would be heard.
As I concluded the meeting, people walked up to me and asked if they could hug me or be photographed with me.
“Thank you ma’am for allowing us to be heard.”
“Thank you ma’am for caring.”
Those were just a few remarks that were shared with me.
The meeting concluded with me thanking community members for allowing me to experience life as an Asian community member. For I am not just my brothers keepers – I am my brother.
Melody A. Patterson is a family engagement fellow for the Federation of Child Care Centers of Alabama, which works to improve the lives of families.