Getting Immigrant Rights on the Agenda at Netroots Nation in Pittsburgh
I just returned from three jam-packed days in Pittsburgh, PA for the 2009 Netroots Nation conference of progressive bloggers. Not only did I really like Pittsburgh (or the parts I visited) and get to hear Bill Clinton defend his legacy, the conference was a great chance to get immigrant rights on the broader Progressive agenda. I’ve been frustrated that more U.S. citizens, especially those on the left side of the political spectrum, are not taking up immigrant rights like they could. I look to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and how lots of people saw it as an American issue, something that concerned all of us, not just African-Americans who had experienced injustice. While this struggle still continues, I see immigrant rights and just humane immigration reform in much the same way: the means to create the nation we all believe in. Our current system falls well short of our American ideals (to say the least).
Of course, I wasn’t the only person who cared about immigrant rights at Netroots. Many of my talented colleagues and friends also trekked to western Pennsylvania and organized several interesting and worthwhile panels on the topic. In the panel I helped organize, we tried a different tactic. I’ve often seen how conference participants tend to go to panels on issues they already care about. I suspected that if “immigrant” or “immigration” were in the title, the folks who showed up would be people who already care about the issue. So we dubbed our panel “Stepping it Up: Creating Powerful Multiracial Alliances with Progressive Bloggers” (yes, I admit it’s ambiguous). We also took a different approach to the issue of immigrant rights. We suspected that progressive bloggers stay away from the issue precisely because it intersects with race which they’re afraid to discuss. With the help of four excellent panelists (Rinku Sen, Kyle de Beausset, Jacki Esposito and Cheryl Contee), we examined how immigration enforcement and criminal justice unjustly affect communities of color in the US today. We did slant the presentation more towards immigration and tried to give participants frames by which they can start discussing immigrant rights.
Here are some of the comments we got back from the evaluations:
- “I don’t work on immigration but the session gave me an idea of how to include it in my work.”
- “I learned a lot of new facts (disturbing ones) and aim to talk about this issues more on my blog and offline.”
- Most helpful aspect: “resource and info/context about immigration situation and reform.”
- “Would have liked to hear more in depth about places for intersection between black.brown/white, etc. bloggers.”
- “Liked the array – seemed bloggers come from diverse issues.”
- “Interesting. My work is different but not your fault.”
- “Although would like to address wider racism beyond immigration.”
- “You guys rock. This was great and thank you for what you do.”
About 30-40 people came to the session, a small percentage of the 2,000 people at the conference. But we asked participants to tweet notes of the entire session with the hashtags #NN09 & #StepUp. I realized later that this helped get the issues into the Twitter feed at the conference. So even if folks didn’t attend the session, if they were following #NN09 on Twitter, they had an “ambient awareness” of the discussion.
While I think these type of sessions are important, I wonder if immigrant rights advocates could take another tactic at the next Netroots Nation and other progressive spaces. For example, I think we should have organized ourselves in advance and ensured that we sent someone to almost every other session where we could have asked questions linking the issue at hand with immigrant rights. For example, I intended to go to some of the “Green” sessions and point out that many anti-immigration activists and nativists are trying to link their agenda to immigration. Granted, I did hear that there was a guy with a big yellow sign that made himself a nuisance in every session he went to by taking the mic and derailing the larger discussion. Any linking of issues ought to be done respectfully and connected to the topic at hand.
While I had some logistical and diversity concerns about Netroots Nation (i.e. the conference was held in the Convention Center which swamped us and there was NO food included with your registration fee), the conference was an interesting experience that really showed me the challenges in building transmedia activism, as my friend Lina Srivastava has been developing thinking on. I met someone who called me out for not blogging more here: “Once or twice a month is not enough!”
With all this in mind, I’m in the process of organizing a conference call with my immigrant rights colleagues as a debriefing from the conference. I’m also hoping that they comment on my perspectives in the comments here.