Tonight at City Hall, the Council Chamber was packed to the rafters, largely for the public hearing regarding the re-establishment of a City Commission on Immigration. From up in the nosebleed section, I was able to scribble notes from all the community speakers in the back of a Michael Lewis book I just picked up. All the notes are below:
[I also want to interrupt myself here to say that Stephen Greene of LDNA and the Green Building Commission spoke just prior about the Stretch Energy Code, which also passed 9-0.]
City Manager Bernie Lynch led off by describing the proposal for a 13-member commission, which would have its members serve staggered three-year terms. Its purposes would be immigrant-related advocacy and advisory to the City Council. It would address issues of economic and social integration, raise awareness of immigrants' many contributions to our society, and would advise the City Council on issues affecting immigrants. It would serve to encourage understanding between immigrant groups and larger community, in addition to performing as a clearinghouse for the concerns of individual immigrants.
Mark Goldman, who served on the board of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association from 1999-2003, led off by showing a copy of today's USA Today, which highlighted Lowell in its "Around the 50 states" daily roundup of news stories. The USA Today piece was specifically referring to the fact that Lowell would be voting tonight on the re-establishment of a Commission on Immigration. Mark spoke about how his ancestors escaped Tsarist Russia around the turn of last century, and how grateful he was that their trek led them to America.
Next to speak was ONE Lowell's Victoria Fahlberg, who thanked the Mayor, the Council, and the City Manager for introducing the motion. Victoria spoke of her own experience of moving to Brazil in 1989 and not knowing anything about that nation's language or culture. Drawing on her personal experience, she talked about the importance of offering a "helping hand" to newcomers, and specifically stated that an Immigration Commission could help immigrants looking to start a new business, learn ESOL, gain access to health care, organize rallies, and learn about government programs like WIC and Head Start.
Reverend Cecilio Hernandez followed, and he emphasized the impact of new immigrant groups on his church, and the importance of cultural immersion in our city for ALL residents, new and old alike.
Police Chief Ken Lavallee talked about how the Commission would be positive for the City, as it would help create a "needed dialogue" between the police force and the communities it serves and protects.
School Commitee Member Jackie Doherty emphasized the importance of the family-school connection, which helps to strengthen academic achievement. Because so many of our public school children are immigrants or children of immigrants, the Commission would help foster better understanding between those students the local government.
Next to speak was Jose Gabriel, who originally hails from the Azores. Jose mentioned the power of the quilt which he saw just before walking in to the meeting, and how the various flags woven together represented immigrants wanting to be integrated into the city.
A Lowell High School sophomore named Morin (LNU)* who is also a team organizer with UTEC talked about the power of people working together, and mentioned the struggles of being a member of a large immigrant family.
Russ Smith, Executive Director of the Lowell Small Business Center, offered some statistics: 57% of his clients are either from immigrant communities or are people of color, and 39% of the small businesses started locally are founded by immigrants. Smith spoke of the "tremendous potential" that the Commission would have to improve life for all city residents.
Next to speak was either Lynn or Linda (LNU)* who has worked for the past 20 years with at-risk elders. She talked about the rewards she has enjoyed after helping some of these elderly immigrants earn citizenship.
Ann Marie Page of the Centralville Neighborhood Action Group talked about Lowell being a "city of immigrants," and spoke on her group's behalf to say the Commission ought to be created.
J. Dayne Lamb was the next to bear a periodical as a prop; she cited the esteemed British weekly The Economist, which recently wrote that America's greatest strength is that "people want to live there" and praised immigration for "keeping [us] young, strong, and growing." The "Ponzi scheme that works" definitely presents some challenges, but is on balance a tremendous national asset; as such, Dayne supports the Commission because it can serve as a "bridge" for immigrant groups in Lowell.
Small businessman Ben Opara spoke about the great opportunity for the City that the Commission would provide, and scored personal points in my household by citing the advantages in terms of both health and beauty that the children of mixed marriages enjoy. [I say this because we're about to begin a 'mixed marriage' in July, and we might start growing the family within the next couple years...and if we have a daughter, she can't leave the house until she's 30!]
Ryan Berard talked about a former classmate of his, who comes from an immigrant family, and who now serves in Iraq. Ryan described this friend as a "true patriot" who embodies so much of what is great for our country.
Another gentleman spoke after Ryan and he did not introduce himself. He was of African origin and he talked about his cousin who had served in Iraq for five years. He also spoke of his experience on a race relations commission and praised Lowell because it "accepts immigrants."
UTEC's Executive Director, Gregg Croteaux, talked about the Governor's Advisory Council on Refugees and Immigrants, and encouraged the Council to support the Commission.
Bobby Tugbiyele, a Downtown Lowellian who works with Community Teamwork, talked about his family's Nigerian ancestry and mentioned how language and cultural barriers sometimes render immigrants as "The Forgotten" members of society. He talked about the success stories he sees every day, such as a recent Nepalese immigrant building his skills and recently being hired by a private sector firm.
Munsong Sut talked about his experience coming here as a refugee fifteen years ago. He said his goal was to help keep families together.
Fernando Barrientes spoke in Spanish with Sandra Mangado interpreting. Barrientes spoke powerfully about how people sometimes only see the negative aspects of immigration, but how a Commission such as the one being discussed (I would say 'debated' but no one spoke against). Barrientes had just gotten in from Colombia on Monday, but came up to Lowell from Washington, DC in order to speak at the meeting.
UML grad student Lyneth Torres of ONE Lowell and the Starbucks at Drum Hill spoke in favor of the Commission and urged Councilors to support it.
The last community member to speak was Victoria Nayiga, a native Ugandan who wished to thank everyone in the Greater Lowell community for its welcoming spirit towards the growing African American community here.
Mayor Milinazzo entered a letter from Robert Forrant into the record as well.
Every single Councilor spoke in favor of the commission, often citing family experiences or echoing the themes presented by the community members, before the 9-0 vote in favor.
* LNU = Last Name Unknown