Dialogue open to `everyday people'

October 06, 2007|By GREGORY KANE

It was the end of a busy six-day period for April Yvonne Garrett this week when she moderated a community discussion in East Baltimore about immigration.

"Close your eyes," Garrett told those assembled in a room at the Enoch Pratt Free Library branch at Orleans Street and Central Avenue, "and imagine yourself in their position."

The people Garrett wanted her listeners to empathize with were the Mexicans they'd just seen in the documentary Al Otro Lado (To The Other Side), which presented the issue of immigration from the point of view of Mexicans who enter the United States -- quite often illegally -- to seek employment.

Less than a week before the immigration forum -- co-sponsored by Wide Angle Youth Media and an organization Garrett founded called Civic Frame -- Garrett held a fundraiser that featured as guests Cornel West of Princeton University and journalist Tavis Smiley. It must have been quite a hectic schedule for Garrett, but don't think she's going to let up.

Garrett is the president of Civic Frame. The goal of the nonprofit organization, according to its exquisitely designed Web site, is to "use media arts and intellectual work to encourage civic dialogue and critical thinking about pressing social issues."

OK, so Garrett doesn't actually, thank goodness, talk that way. The City College graduate is quite the fascinating speaker, especially when she's moderating one of Civic Frame's many public forums. Her very first was on affirmative action, held on the Baltimore City Community College's Liberty campus several years ago.

Since then, there have been other forums held in various cities (there are Civic Frame affiliates in 11 other American metropolises) on mental health, the working poor, race and ethnicity in America and the death penalty, to name only four.

Garrett was the first in her family to attend college. She has a degree in Islamic studies from Kenyon College, one in education from the Teachers College of Columbia University and another in African-American religious history from Harvard. Her work as president of Civic Frame is now her full-time job -- "I hope it will be my life's work forever," she said -- but she previously worked at Emory University, Columbia University, Harvard University and for the national office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Working at so many universities allowed Garrett to experience an exciting intellectual atmosphere. She enjoyed the discussions that academics and students would have about critical issues of the day, but she noticed one thing was missing.

"The work was really vibrant," Garrett said of the studies being done in higher education about issues such as the death penalty and the working poor, "but it wasn't trickling down to the communities. It wasn't reaching everyday people."

The idea behind Civic Frame is to take those discussions usually held on college campuses and bring them to people who, ordinarily, might not go anywhere near a college or university. That was certainly the case at the Pratt library on Orleans Street on Tuesday. Black, white and Latino residents who lived nearby dropped in to view Al Otro Lado and snippets from a shorter film produced by Wide Angle Youth Media that focuses on the lives of five young Baltimore Latinos.

To set up the immigration forum, Garrett talked to several people who work regularly with Baltimore's Latino population. She invited Anna White from the Mayor's Office of International and Immigrant Affairs to advise recent immigrants on the city programs available to help them. Garrett had Leon Faruq of Operation Safe Streets talk about efforts to curb violent crime in East Baltimore.

"For us, it was the beginning of a conversation about immigration," Garrett said. "This is not a one-shot deal, and there are so many levels to this conversation. It's a very complicated issue, and people feel very strongly and emotionally about it."

Garrett said she's found that Civic Frame forums tend to be "intimate" and "personal," in the sense that no two attendees may leave feeling the same way.

That was certainly true of Al Otro Lado. I most certainly did empathize with one immigrant who got caught crossing the border and justified his actions by saying that he needed a house and a bank account as a requirement to enter the United States.

"If I have all that, why would I come here?" the man asked. "The government of Mexico doesn't care. They eat whether I work or not."

But there were other illegal immigrants who flagrantly used the G-word -- i.e., gringo -- in referring to Americans. For them I have a word of advice:

You'll get a lot more sympathy for your plight if you stop using the word.

gregory.kane@baltsun.com

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