The End of a Long Day

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Following the end of a long day, participants can be seen here using their free time to discuss with one another a wide variety of topics that interest them.

I took this photo on Thursday (March 23rd) night. We started this day at the Queens Museum.  Unfortunately, we did not have a lot of time to explore the museum itself, but we were able to witness a really interesting lecture concerning the beautiful merge between art and activism in Queens. We also got to see the Panorama of New York, which was stunning and also a great reminder that New York is huge and contains far more than just the posh city aspect of Manhattan that is often presented to the public as a representation of what makes New York so appealing.

Though it was a bit hectic during lunch time, we were able to find a really good Vietnamese restaurant in Flushing that left us completely satisfied. Then, we were off to Queens College to receive a lecture on urbanism.

After listening to many interesting thoughts coupled with many critiques of our academic background, we returned to Jan Hus a little more than slightly exhausted.

Claire had spent the day with Courtney near Jan Hus because she wasn’t feeling well. That’s part of the reason why I love this picture so much.

As soon as we returned to the church, I was frantically trying to finish my essay due Friday. In the middle of distressed typing and flipping through pages of my book, I looked up to see multiple conversations happening concerning different social justice issues. I was fortunate enough to witness these many beautiful conversations that touched upon topics within the greater scheme of activism. This, to me, demonstrates one of the greatest aspects of Breakout.

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Butterflies Through the Border

One of the best, in my opinion, community partners we visited while in Jackson Heights was Grameen Vida Sana.

Grameen Vida Sana is a healthcare center dedicated to the well-being of female undocumented immigrants. They are a special in that their entire staff is female, all can speak Spanish, and the physicians are available 24/7.

While researching Grameen, I found descriptions that forced me to envision a perfect concept. I was pleasantly surprised to find, however, that when we visited them, their advertising aligned with what actually existed in their space.

A lot of our information concerning Grameen derived from one of the doctors, named Diana, who learned most of what she knows about being an immigrant without documentation from her own experiences when she came to the US from Colombia.

Dr. Diana was absolutely incredibly and impressive. She explained very real problems that exist within the community, unafraid of discussing the scarier and sadder sides to the many stories that create the members of Grameen Vida Sana. If I could elaborate on every brilliant thing she said, I would. But I would like to focus on one of the programs that she mentioned, specifically because it embodies strength. This program is a result of a strong woman’s story while crossing the border. Dr. Diana spoke to us of a specific patient of hers who was in pain, but could not quite identify the source of her pain. After an adequate amount of time spent searching, the doctor and patient were able to identify bite marks on the patients torso area.

It took a while for the patient to open up to Dr. Diana, but she finally revealed that her pain must have been a result of the stresses and harassment she faced while crossing the border. Her pain could be attributed to the officers placed there to hurt those attempting to enter the US, in ways that included unnecessarily stripping her of one of the crowns on her teeth.

Dr. Diana also mentioned that the patient revealed this story for the first time, after years of being in the US. She had not told a single soul. Following this conversation, the patient is now able to share her empowering story. She is able to speak from direct experience, hopefully with the ability to comfort her fellow immigrants and also to inspire them. Her beautifully journey was celebrated at Grameen Vida Sana during an event titled “Butterflies Through the Border.”

organizing the invisible and isolated

_MG_5436No one can be an immigrant by themselves. Survival requires others.

This came to me yesterday when I was trying to articulate what has dawned upon me with each passing day. I came into this trip with fairly inchoate expectations to learn more about the affective process and identity of being an immigrant — the disruption, loss, fear, grief, hope, assimilation, and haunting inbetweenness of it all. A grim picture, but that was the kind of blue that I associated with immigration. I was thinking about what it means to leave your native land;  how to reconcile “there” and “here.” Of course I was interested in learning more about Jackson Heights and how issues such as race, class, gender, nationality affect the immigrant experiences and narratives. But all of that, ultimately, was a way that I hoped, secretly and selfishly, that I could gain some insight into the immigrant identity for myself.

I realized — through the many meetings and conversations with community partners and academics — that my lens were too narrow and insular. The stories of immigration in Jackson Heights are continuously shaped by outside forces, particularly political and economic ones.  Meeting with community organizations such as Chhaya CDC, Make the Road New York, Adhikaar, Graneem VidaSana, and NICE (New Immigrant Community Empowerment) opened my eyes that, truly, no man is an island (thanks John Donne). And neither is an immigrant.

Adhikaar was one of my favorite organizations that we met, perhaps my favorite one. Its space is fairly modest and is located on a quiet section of Woodside Avenue. It consists of a few ground floor rooms with posters and media clippings hanging on its white walls. The director of organizing and advocacy, Narbada Chhetri, talked about how much of her work was about “organizing the isolated and the invisible.” Combatting invisibility and isolation is especially relevant for Adhikaar because many of their Nepalese immigrants work in domestic care, which means that they’re cloistered in far flung apartments and houses within and beyond New York City.  But isolation and invisibility are often painful threads binding all immigrant narratives. The immigrant narrative is often told in terms of individual hustle and striving; in the aftermath of the loss of one’s native home or culture, one must work hard, sacrifice, and scrap together a living through sheer will and hope. Organizations like Adhikaar, by providing legal services, offering English classes, spearheading worker rights campaigns, and developing their clients to become leaders themselves, actively resist and form a counter-narrative — a narrative of solidarity, care, community, and grassroots, collective power.

What happens to an immigrant and what an immigrant does in response to their conditions relies upon innumerable outside factors. There are the things that an immigrant carries with them: their nationality, ethnicity, gender, generational legacy, mother tongue(s), class background, education attainment, etc. And the things they encounter upon arrival: their neighborhood, the politics of the place, the available jobs, community resources, weather, the presence of people who share their culture, or lackthereof. I could not understand the narratives of the Indian and Bangladeshi women we met in Chhaya CDC if I did not know all the above factors that impinged upon their existence.

Many of the organizations that we encountered viewed leadership development as their most important work: empowering and transforming their members so that they in turn learn to advocate for themselves and serve their own communities. We met Ruth, a middle-aged woman immigrant who initially came to Make the Road New York (a multi-service community organization working for the Latinx community) for their services, but eventually has become invested in the community so that she sits on their education committee to advocate on behalf of public school children. We met Martha Sanchez, a Latina mother who was dissatisfied with the conditions of her children’s public schools, and thus joined the Jackson Heights Beautification Group and their education committee. She began as a volunteer and worked her way up to become a board member; she remains the only Spanish-speaker on the board. Seeing her light up and speak with such verve when talking about the real, material progress she has enacted through her education advocacy (building new classrooms in the local pubic school), I saw how an immigrant could attain a sense of rootedness and belonging by exiting the individual and learning how to serve the community.

During our meeting with NICE, we all went around saying which community partner we most enjoyed meeting. It became clear that Graneem VidaSana was a crowd favorite — it is a hybrid between a health clinic and community center that primarily serves undocumented immigrants in Queens. It has an excellent mission and provides a healthcare in a holistic, caring way (for only $10 a month!). But I think what I was most struck by from our visit was the tangible sense of community and love that radiated from the women whom we met with. The women, many of whom elderly Latina women whose children have grown up, had found a second family in the people within this clinic. The women knitted, danced zumba, practiced yoga, all together. And they extended this warmth toward us — a bunch of fresh-faced college students from Princeton, New Jersey. We were welcomed not just with their free gear (thank you for the canvas bags though!), but with the way they wanted to know, from each of us individually, why we were here and what interested us in this project. From the brief afternoon I spent with them, I could feel the powerful impression that the visit had left on all of us — genuine care and community is rare and viscerally felt when real.

On our last day, our breakout trip leaders had us all do an exercise called “filling your cup” where we went around and said something that we appreciated/liked/admired about each person in the group. I was touched by the ways we had learned to know and depend on each other just in the course of seven days. They surprised me, at the end, with a birthday cupcake, singing happy birthday as the candle-lit cupcake warmed my face.

No one can be an immigrant by themselves. Survival requires others.

Cheers,

Rebecca N.

On Listening

Quite often over the past couple days, as we’ve met with community partners like Chhaya, Make the Road, and Adhikaar, the thought has flipped through my mind: it would be so cool to work here ,or at least intern here. It is immediately followed by the reminder that as a white guy with little to no relatable life experience, I might not be who they’re looking for. It is not a coincidence that Adhikaar is run entirely by Nepali women and Make the Road by Latina women. Maybe these organizations are staffed by a specific demographic because no one else would care to join, but I’ve seen enough to doubt it; rather, the decision has to do with making leadership and empowerment seem accessible to its members. But if it doesn’t make sense for me to directly join, how then do people of privilege like myself engage effectively with such community organizations; is it simply better to remain a sort of cheerleader on the sidelines?

In the Breakout lexicon, this could be framed as the slippery slope from “allyship” to “white savior-ism.” Allyship would involve listening to the oppressed and using my position in society to simply amplify their voices. The more I start elevating my own voice about what a community needs, on the other hand, the more I fall into the trap of assuming that, because I’m well off, I know how to make others well-off. (White savior-ism itself is not a great term, since not all social privilege is racial; both Indian NGO’s I’ve worked in featured some rich Indians with tremendously misplaced confidence in their own understanding of the poor’s needs.) As Christina from New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE) put it, the struggle is to “submit your own ego to the member’s needs.”

It might seem easy enough just to stick to asking for what the people say they need, since is the socially conscious thing to do. However, from what I’ve seen, it rarely works like that. Basically, my arguments for what a community needs based on my own instincts will make a lot more sense to another well-off person than a community member’s arguments; it’s much easier for me to come up with a creative, appealing scheme that would excite donors or politicians than it is for, say, a day laborer who only speaks Nepali.  Since successful fundraising is often equated with success (how can you measure how people’s lives actually changed?), I would probably be tempted to take even more liberties with the existing needs to attract attention. Left to its own devices, this process tends to create large, corporate NGO’s with heftily funded programs that only tangentially meet the needs of its beneficiaries.

For a case study, consider the folks at Queens Art Museum’s Community outreach program. They have been able to leverage their resources to build platforms for local cultural organizations (like the Venezuelan youth orchestra, which has grown from 8-year-olds banging on paint buckets to 300 students in several public schools) and legitimize community demands (such as having a neighborhood square like the cities people grew up in). On the other hand, they do struggle with having to frame all their service in terms of “art,” when it might be more helpful to just serve the community in a cheaper and more down-to-earth way. Moreover, I have to bear in mind that my bias in what is helpful for the community is probably more similar to the bias of their donors than that of community members themselves; their programming may seem more awesome to me than it does to the people (though of course, who can really say?). That being said, Queens Art has taken excellent steps to be a good listener – hiring a staff member just as a liaison to the neighborhood and actively partnering with on-the-ground nonprofits like NICE to fill their artistic needs – and has brought a lot of joy to the community it works with.

I, like Queens Art Museum, have a lot to offer; most of it, besides love and a bit of money, is probably only tangentially needed by the poor and oppressed. So when I serve people in need, I want to learn how to listen openly to what those needs are and then learn how to shape what I offer to those needs, not twist the needs I hear to what I offer.

Ben Taylor

 

A Necessary Change in Title

We began this trip, all the way back at its conception, thinking we would learn how immigrants “become Americans”, but instead we had all of our assumptions challenged. Not every “immigrant” considers the U.S. their final destination and some don’t even want to become anything else – least of all this nebulous idea of “American”. If this trip has taught me anything, it is that this idea of “becoming American” is in fact deeply problematic.

Historically, becoming “American” and gaining the supposed-privilege to drop the origin in your name has meant becoming White. To be able to call yourself simply American was a sign of power built on the exclusion of other groups of immigrants who appeared less “white”. Our discussions with Queens College students refined this idea, giving it words, but also revealing a major obstacle: the majority of people around the globe cannot pass as a Caucasian but immigrants from these places must eventually come to be considered “American”.

Dropping that origin in your name also involves dropping your heritage, relinquishing your identification of another homeland. Pachamama Peruvian Arts, one of the organizations we visited, is exclusively dedicated to cultivating a sense of cultural history in Peruvian-Americans who suffer from the negative effects of its loss. What even is the American cultural tradition? Drive-in movies? The more you think about it, the greater the identity crisis becomes; what do we Americans have that was not at some point someone else’s heritage? The more you explore this term “American”, the more difficult it becomes to pin down some precise definition.

The community partners we met and the people we saw in Jackson Heights are difficult to sum up in one group. There are different languages, countries of origin, political beliefs, etc. in this one neighborhood, but their advocacy for immigrant and refugee rights underlines a key point: being an “American” is hard; becoming an “American” is impossible.

-Katherine Stiefel

Short Montage

When we first arrived in Jackson Heights, I was inspired by Andie’s photography. I decided that I also wanted to document throughout our week; however, I did not have photography skills nor did I have a good camera. I decided that I would take short clips throughout the days during moments that I felt compelled to document. I first intended on this solely being the community partners but, as the week went on, I realized that I wanted to document the group’s journey overall. This ended with me taking lots of travel footage and capturing small moments such as an afternoon nap or Apria’s unfortunate run-in with a pigeon. While the brevity of the video was mostly accidental, once I finished compiling clips, I realized that it truly captured an important aspect of our trip. Our time with our community partners was barely a blimp in their busy schedules and at the end of the day, they did not benefit from our presence. For me, this video also serves to show that what matters most is what we what we do with the discussions and issues we have learned about on this trip and what we take back to Princeton from our short time here.

Video!!!

-Irma Q 2020

From college activism to community organization

“I began my activist work at my predominantly white university,” claimed Angela, a volunteer at Adhikaar who works with Nepali domestic workers and nail-salon staff. Angela, who graduated from Boston University a few years ago, identifies as both Tibetan and Nepali and grew up a stone’s throw away from Adhikaar in Jackson Heights. She said that many of her peers, both at University and those that she grew up with, entered more lucrative careers – especially in the financial district. Parents, especially immigrant ones, often encouraged their children to become “successful” as it is defined traditionally, she explained. She surmised that this push might be one of many reasons why youth who grow up in immigrant communities and families do not often return to work for those same communities.

Yet at many of the organizations that we visited this week, we met powerful and fierce young women with degrees from privileged and reputed universities that were volunteering or working as full-time staff at community organizations. At Chhaya CDC, an organization that works with South Asian immigrants to fight landlord harassment and familiarize them with the American financial system, home ownership and so on, we met Farzana, a young college graduate who interned at Chhaya through the Americorps program for a year before transitioning into a full-time position at the organization. Over lunch, Farzana, who said she grew up in a neighborhood bordering Jackson Heights, expressed her desire to work with the South Asian immigrant community as someone who herself grew up in a South Asian immigrant family. She now works with the home ownership program at Chhaya.

The very next day we were introduced to Yesenia, another Americorps intern at Make the Road New York. MRNY works predominantly with the Latinx immigrant community in Queens on a variety of issues – legal, housing, employment, education and so on. Yesenia, who grew up in another neighborhood in Queens, began to volunteer at Make the Road New York upon graduating from college. “After I had worked here for a while, my supervisor suggested I apply to Americorps,” she said. Being paid for the work she was doing was a bonus – although it came with some restrictions. She explained how as an Americorps member, she could not participate in any outwardly political organization or activity. This prevented her, for instance, from participating in the protests sponsored by MRNY against changes to immigration laws by the new administration. Her work thus centered around the fairly innocuous adult literacy programs where she marshals volunteers to help with English classes for adults. However, despite the limitations imposed on her by her funding, Yesenia admitted that outside of her 9 to 5 office hours, she was involved in several advocacy and activism movements.

Just as dynamic as Yesenia was Elisa, a Cornell graduate who now works for Pachamama Peruvian Arts. Pachamama, which offers classes in traditional Peruvian music, dance and other performance arts for free to the children of Jackson Heights, aims to reinstate a sense of pride in the New York Peruvian community. Elisa, herself a Peruvian-American from Jackson Heights, has been associated with Pachamama from its founding. She took classes at and performed with Pachamama starting from her freshman year of high-school. Four years later, she joined Cornell, where as part of the Peruvian Students Association, she invited Pachamama’s teachers to perform at annual events in Ithaca. After graduating from college, Elisa returned to Pachamama, where she now serves as an Assistant Director and helps manage the logistics of running an institute that serves over 4500 community members through classes, workshops and concerts in traditional Peruvian arts.

The common thread running through all these stories is young women from the community attaining stellar education and then returning to work for their communities. Even as Angela pointed out that immigrants often want their children to move into more lucrative careers, these young graduates are coming back to work with local community organizations as volunteers, interns and even full-time staff. Hearing their stories was important to many of us on the trip as we pondered ways to continue serving after our time at Princeton. While many on the trip are doing incredible activism and volunteering work through the PACE Center and other civic engagement programs at Princeton, I did have questions as to how sustainable it would be to continue this work after graduating. Knowing that 47% of Princeton students enter finance or consulting upon graduation, it is easy to be disheartened, but learning about these brilliant young women helped me gain new perspective on all the paths available to students upon graduation.

By Samvida Venkatesh ’19

Notes from Jackson Heights

As seen and heard in Jackson Heights
Excerpts

03.18.17
the 7 train runs through the heart of jackson heights
pulsing
breathing
alive

diversity plaza

diversity in jackson heights?
ecuador, mexico, columbia, bangladesh, india, china, nepal, tibet

seen: twelve traipsing through the rainy, wind-swept streets
tasted: one slice of beautifully controversial hawaiian pizza
heard: the 7 train

03.19.17
“To know is to have power.”

artivism, canvases of color
no huba una preperacion simplemente…fue una noche platicando con mi esposa la situaciona estaba muy dificil
lo que tenia en mente era estudiar, y lamentablemente no se dia porque

note: starbucks is a meeting place for diversity

03.20.17
“Remember as you come up into the light.” – Billy Collins
as seen on the Q line to jackson heights

seen on roosevelt avenue: a gaggle of schoolchildren crossing the street in twos

03.21.17
Will. works with Chhaya CDC. we are all immigrants here.
heard: the 7 train
pre/post ownership, taking charge of your own situation (financial and psychological significance)
CIVIC ENGAGEMENT
NY does not have one member of the south asian community on the city council?

keep in mind: language, cultural sensitivity, community events, small business advocacy

what really ground the south asian community are the businesses.

smell: pumpkin flower tacos sold in a street cart

03.22.17
health and education
in adhikaar, the NY nail salon bill

activism in Nepal, going from village to village, very grassroots, 8-10hrs. walking
EFE: English for empowerment
domestic workers taken advantage of because of the trauma they face, because of the language barrier they face on top of that

POPULAR EDUCATION

people are taken advantage of because of their poverty, because of their education

how can we continue to rationalize oppression?
material v. community wealth

for me to get success, i’ve had to do a lot of unlearning to get to where i am

how do we facilitate a space that is open to immigrants?
space. sense of ownership, place for these immigrants to feel their own.
popular education, again
biggest issue at grameen vida sana: mental health
empowering women!

we want them to feel that they can fail.

03.23.17
how are we going to be meaningful to the communities that surround us?

we live in a moment now of discontinuities.

What does it mean to call these communities globalized? not bound in terms of space
assemblies v. social communities
heard: the 7 train

seen: a madrid jersey atop a rack of other soccer jerseys
seen: thirty college students sitting in Rm. 115 in CUNY

identity negation
new type of racialization: particular about traditions, but becoming American
colorful before colorblind

03.24.17
if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” as seen on the shirt of Christina, a NICE worker
how have members become leaders? they’ve become INVOLVED AND ENGAGED
emphasis on leadership development
the fear of deportation is not entirely new

heard: the 7 train

an effective coalition is one where everyone is doing a different role.

seen: posters calling for donations to the international relief fund
seen: six latina girls learning traditional peruvian dance

members > ego
pago justo
seen: three empowering women take the stage at nuyorican poets cafe

-Brillian Bao, 2020

thinking about whom diversity is for; relearning how to pay attention

_MG_5275Writing about the breakout trip has been unexpectedly difficult. Partly this is because I make everything more difficult for myself by trying to boil all of my crazy, chaotic thoughts into eloquent, precise sentences.  Part of this has been how tiring breakout has been so far. At this point, I’ve walked dozens of miles, climbed countless stairs (our sleeping room is on the fourth floor of a church, slept far too few hours, and have lost my phone. Dealing with loss and discomfort aren’t bad lessons in life, though, and people have been so kind in helping me.

During the first night of our day in Jackson Heights, we unpacked the walking tour that Professor  Joseph Heathcott, an urban studies professor at The New School and resident of Jackson Heights, had generously given us earlier that day. He’s an urbanist, loves cities, and has been giving walking tours of Jackson Heights for about 20 years now. He walked us through “Little India,” replete with many stores selling jewelry, saris, and food. The nearby street was home to many Bangladeshi residents and businesses, we learn later. He walked us through 37th Avenue, another big commercial street. We ate at this awesome south Indian vegetarian place called Samudra’s. He talked about the architectural design of the place as conceived by the Queens Borough Corporation and pointed out how the buildings are all roughly the same height. He pointed out the Starbucks at the corner of 79th and 37th Avenue; he noted, interestingly, these big-box chain stores have displaced mom and pop stores, they also serve as a kind of common space for mutual encounter among people from different ethnicities, nationalities, and races. In a place so vividly defined by its ethnic particularities (Colombian coffeeshops, Indian diners, Bangladeshi street vendors, Tibetan food trucks, etc.) a standardized, corporate space like Starbucks serves as a “neutral” (for lack of a better word) space for people of different backgrounds. As I passed by business after business crammed in every kind of position (underneath, beside, above), I realized increasingly how dependent these ethnic communities were on the commercial sector. Businesses — restaurants, general stores, pharmacies, street vendors — served as a kind of public organisms for culture, giving it impetus, visibility, movement, and a concrete form. As William Spisak from Chhaya CDC talked about, commercial activity lies at the heart of communities, particularly in the south Asian community.The entrepreneurship of the free market system seems to sustain immigrant communities in vital ways. Yet these market forces are also the reasons why rent prices are rising, families are getting displaced, and mom and pop shops shut down. I left the walking tour thinking about the relationships between the economy and immigrants, and how the market is so essential yet unreliable as a vector for culture.

That night, we debriefed the walking tour. People mentioned that Professor Heathcott gave his walking tour with an academic, almost voyeuristic, distance to the actual places and people in front of us. He was gesturing to shops and people and talking about them without actually talking to them. Someone noted that he didn’t bring up any personal anecdotes or stories of the neighborhood when talking about it, and thus gave the impression that he lacked a deep personal connection to the communities. I had not noticed this myself while the tour was happening, which made me think about my own blind spots. Yet judgement of others is easy when we disregard or ignore ways we fail ourselves. Another person pointed out that while Professor Heathcott may have been problematic, he was still a professor who has devoted many years to studying cities, had lived in Jackson Heights for years, and has given walking tours of the neighborhood. We, in comparison, know almost nothing about Jackson Heights. If he was giving a tour that trafficked more in generalities than specifics, we were the tourists asking him to give one in the first place. We were the Princeton students dropping in for one week to get a “taste” of Jackson Heights and, who in effect, were being voyeurs. For whom is this diversity of Jackson Heights? The people here don’t really live in order to create or preserve diversity. The name “Diversity Plaza,”  as Professor Heathcott said, is incredibly redundant. Because diversity is implicit in everyday interactions in Jackson Heights; the only people who need to name this embedded aspect of life “diversity” are those looking from the outside in. For those living from the inside, diversity is not a conscious choice, but a reality embedded in their daily living. Diversity does not call to mind simply a rich feast from which we may be dazzled and admire from afar, but its own problems, struggles, and fault lines of tensions. However much we may squirm at the vague generalizing, feel-good concepts used to describe Jackson Heights (“diversity,” “melting pot,” “tolerance”), those were the same reasons we chose this neighborhood for our breakout trip in the first place. We came to Jackson Heights for the same reason new people are moving in and gentrifying the neighborhood: the allure of living in a hyper-diverse, multicultural place. Then, for and by whom is this diversity being used?  How do we seek out and learn from diverse immigration community partners while avoid veering into utilizing people as a means for an end?

I ended our nightly debrief with a knot knuckled in my head. Our premise was going to be flawed, or at the very least, constrained. There’s almost always going to be something problematic in what we do; we can’t escape it. And yet we are here in Jackson Heights as students to learn. We can’t spend our whole week in Jackson Heights worrying and debating over whether we can, or should, be here. The fact is that we are here. Many people have devoted money and time to make our trip happen; we aren’t going anywhere. So given the limits of our task, how do we go forward?

One of the simplest and perhaps unexpectedly difficult ways to address this issue has been prioritizing being awake and present. I didn’t realize how physically tiresome breakout would be, but by the end of the day 1 was incredibly depleted from walking, subwaying, standing, cooking, and talking from basically 8 am to 9:30 pm. Taking care of the body and mind so that I can be present and attentive with our community partners has been an unexpected and challenging priority, and one that is essential for studying the people in Jackson Heights respectfully.

Perhaps one of the most valuable ways of this breakout trip has a been relearning how to walk, look, listen, observe — in a word, exist. As a New Yorker, I’ve been to Jackson Heights before, but always as a passerby heading to a particular restaurant, subway station, or store. The streets were a distance from X to Y that provided some curious sights for me to passively receive. Now I was here to gather information, to learn, to read the neighborhood as a text (a text that can never be fully finished). What kinds of businesses existed here? Did they belong to a particular ethnicity or culture? Who patronized them? Did people greet each other? What languages was I hearing? When did the traffic in the neighborhood ebb and flow? What is the architectural design of the buildings? What was the effect of the elevated train rumbling above our heads, a white roar filling our ears, silencing our mouths? Paying attention and asking these questions about a space we’re in requires inhabiting the world in a different way. Our co-leaders, Stephen and Andie, have given us exercises to practice this in a more concentrated way. A group of us entered the Jackson Heights local library two days ago. We were tasked with making three observations that interested us. While I have always considered myself relatively observant, I was surprised by how much more I noticed and retained when mindful of this task compared to if I had simply visited the library absent of any intentionality. While walking as a group has constrained my usual mobility in ways I didn’t anticipate, it has also forced me to slow down and measure my time differently.

Stephen reminds us not to not take up the width of the sidewalk, to not stand in front of staircases or entrances/exits, to refrain from stopping in the middle of the road to take pictures. The idea is to make our presence the least disruptive to the lives of the local residents as possible, or as much as a group of 13 college students can be. Especially in a congested city like New York where people are constantly negotiating for space, you almost invariably end up in someone’s way. The common refrain to be mindful of our space — at first mainly from Stephen and now from group members as a whole — reminds me constantly to prioritize the environment over myself when walking around Jackson Heights and be sensitive physically as well as mentally to the neighborhood.

We’re about halfway through our breakout trip now, and I realize that a lot of the knot in my head has become loosened through meeting with our community partners and hearing the specific, human stories that the staff generously shared with us. Particularly thinking about Adhikaar — a women-led, workers’ rights-focused social justice group for Nepalese-speaking community — and Grameen VidaSana — a clinic and community center for undocumented women of Jackson Heights, particularly the Latinx community. Hearing each leader open up about their own personal narratives and motivations for being involved has enabled me to see the individuality that lies behind and motivates the collective, public action taken by these groups. The women we met — Monica, Ruth, Isabella, etc. — are beautiful, resilient women and leaders. The community partners reminded us that diverse immigrant communities are not some kind of multi-colored feast to dig into (ask a white Jackson Heights resident about diversity and they will, for sure, bring up food) but that implicit in the name of diversity is struggle — the struggle to connect, build, and resist. As someone who could only  blandly imagine representations of diverse people before coming to Jackson Heights, meeting with Chhaya CDDC, Make the Road New York, and Adhikaar  was very special because I was encountering women-led, immigrant organizations who worked so hard to serve their communities, and along the way preserve the diversity of their neighborhood. However diversity was not the end goal; instead they were focused on meeting needs, respecting human dignity, appreciating difference. Along the way, diversity comes about. Meeting with the community organizers and hearing their initiatives, hopes, and accomplishments made me increasingly understand what diversity and immigrant identity mean through community and political organization from the perspectives of immigrants themselves. In this way, perhaps, I could discard the voyeuristic (fetishistic?) outsider’s viewpoint diversity and immigrants and try to see how the people themselves saw and changed their communities themselves.

Cheers,

Rebecca N.

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