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Getting Immigrant Rights on the Agenda at Netroots Nation in Pittsburgh

August 18, 2009

Picture 12I 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. Picture 10So 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.”Picture 11

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.

3824004368_f6a1ccff0eWhile 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 LawrenceCCheld 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.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. persistancej permalink
    August 23, 2009 9:54 am

    I have to admit I followed a link to your blog that mentioned the use of hashtags as “community memory.” via @kanter.

    After reading the piece, this quote got my attention: “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.”

    Like hashtags, the language of “civil rights” was\is intentional in strategy and scope. It’s not about “black rights”, “gay rights”, “women’s rights” (all of which matter to me), rather about extending the promise at the heart of the great american experiment that says, rights, must be applied equally and fairly to all.

    I often wonder at the reasons why rights groups move away from the efficacy of the language of the Civil Rights Movement, vs. joining and, extending the impact of the work of an historic effort that changed our world.

  2. August 18, 2009 9:15 am

    Good writeup, Will. As per your email, I am not interested either in discussing further the issues of “session participation.” Actually, not even within a small group, or not this one, or not now. The problems I saw there and voiced in the thread ayer are very much real…but the barriers to honest communication of the issues remains as well, and I have spoken my peace and am satisfied. I refuse to let history be rewrit in public at my compas or my own expense, and will continue to keep it real as needed. But as it is not a concern for the entire group…or if it is, it is not of interest, I don’t wish to present a distraction and am done with it. 🙂

    Moving on to your post:

    In the civil rights era was much contention, from my understanding. It wasn’t as if all of the US was behind them. But then again, you didnt say all of the US, only “many people.” Regardless, that contention and resistance to human and equal rights for all people remains to this day, and rises up in the shape of all those being animated by the idea that the census is changing and the US cultural demographic, who bring guns to obama rallies, and beat up and kill latinos in the street (again, as just happened in marcelo lucero’s hood)…and it also rises up in the willful blindness that pervades the white progressive blogosphere.

    Immigration issues have been purposely ignored even when incidents of constitutional violations, or oppression that would normally ignite the blogosphere occurred against brown people. I know, because I was trying to do what you are doing now in 2007, but I gave up trying to get the larger blogosphere to take on the cause and just focused on my community, who is supportive and sees it the same. Immigration only became an issue the “Left Blogosphere” was willing to hanlde after Rahm, and then Markos, commented that it was a Democrat asset, rather than a “third rail.” Even now, the human rights angle is not what is centered. More often than not the larger blogosphere looks at la lucha in terms of legislative wins, those often marred by capitulations to “harsh” enforcement.

    It’s frustrating, but there does seem a momentum and a gradual awakening to the harm being done to human beings. It’s hard for some to see because it’s happening to asians and mexicans and guatemalans and such. Also because to admit the nation is exploiting these people and their sweat and blood is also to admit that the US is living on those labors and a key part of that exploitation, which goes back to individuals and our lifestyles, too. So there are obstacles to overcome.

    I like your ideas about seeding an awareness throughout the many different sessions and panels. As immigration and immigrants can be tied into every single current issue very easily, I see that as a good way to begin to weave an organic and recognizable grasp of the complexity and depth of the issue.

    I will remain working from my angle and my heart, as I’ve done for years. I look forward to what the call and the future will bring. Thank you for organizing this.

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