By Kevin Walker, President and CEO, Northwest Area Foundation
Let’s talk about who we really are as a country.
Events of this summer have brought me back to the most recognized words from a poem on a plaque affixed to the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” These words were once so beloved that they became a cliché from overuse.
But today’s incendiary debate about immigrants and refugees creates an urgency to remind ourselves that the concept behind these words by the American poet Emma Lazarus is no cliché. Not when parents and children are being forcibly separated and a sitting president chooses to say “go back where you came from” to citizens he deems insufficiently American.
In fact, I think the concept is fundamental to this country.
PRESIDENT’S BLOG SERIES: NO. 3
Who belongs here?
The poem is saying, essentially: Bring your ideas and your hopes and your family here. This is a place where you can thrive and contribute. We can build something great together if you bring your talents here.
I know for sure that’s what drew my people here from Ireland and Germany and other places I don’t even know about. That, and desperation—a yearning to breathe free, earn a living, and build a future.
Remember, the first immigrants from Europe did not arrive to an empty landscape. There were millions of people here already who had been here for countless generations. And those indigenous peoples of this continent are still here.
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
(Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus,” 1883)
“The poem is saying, essentially: Bring your ideas and your hopes and your family here. This is a place where you can thrive and contribute. We can build something great together if you bring your talents here.”
Funders like me must stand up and speak out.
I didn’t think I necessarily needed to add my voice to remind people of this. Many of the nation’s top thinkers have already spoken out on issues involving immigration, othering, and belonging, including NWAF’s friend john a. powell, a thinker I particularly admire and learn from.
However, this summer someone I deeply respect kicked me in the butt and really made me think about the need to stand up and speak out. In mid-July, as the board chair of Philanthropy Northwest (PNW), I was talking to my colleague Kiran Ahuja, who is PNW’s CEO. She’d just written a column for the Chronicle of Philanthropy in response to the president’s attacks on four progressive congresswomen of color.
“As a foundation CEO, there’s more I can be doing. It starts by using my voice to spread the message and speak up for the truth.”
I said, “Yeah, so glad you wrote that,” as if she’d checked a box on a to-do list.
Then Kiran explained that her piece called on her fellow leaders in philanthropy to speak out and act up, to start a conversation about what it means to be an American. And I was like, “So good! Right on. I’m totally with you.”
But later I found myself thinking . . . what am I, myself, doing, aside from cheering Kiran on?
And I knew the answer: Not enough.
Here’s what the Foundation is doing to support immigrants and refugees.
We envision a future in which the people of our priority communities—explicitly including immigrants and refugees, along with Native Americans, people in rural areas, and communities of color—thrive on their own terms. Because of this, we seek to support immigrant- and refugee-serving organizations across all aspects of our funding strategy, helping people connect to good jobs and grow their financial capability.
“I think we need to welcome newer Americans, just like my forebears were allowed to build new lives on this land. We are in this together.”
One example comes from our funding for the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO) in Portland and OneAmerica in Washington State, announced in the first quarter of this year. The groups are using this funding to provide a wide range of services from language training to financial skill building to policy advocacy. Since 2017, we’ve also provided relatively modest, flexible funding through our Unite and Prosper initiative to organizations rooted in communities that are being targeted as “alien” and “other” in today’s divisive climate.
The funding has been our means to support such groups as they fight for the rights of their community members—our neighbors—to strive, prosper, and contribute to society. And, we’re taking other action that goes beyond grantmaking.
We’re intentionally learning more about immigrants and refugees at the board level. In 2018, we welcomed several Unite and Prosper grantees to talk about their work and the challenging environment they’re facing, including groups as varied as Islamic Resource Group, Release MN 8, and The Next Door.
Also, our Foundation joined other philanthropic and nonprofit organizations last year to sign on to a statement from Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR) that denounced the chilling effect of US immigration officials’ interpretation of “public charge” rulings to deny admission or permanent resident status to immigrants and refugees.
But it’s not enough to only make grants, especially in times such as these.
As a foundation CEO, there’s more I can be doing. It starts by using my voice to spread the message and speak up for the truth.
And, it’s this: We as a nation will have greater prosperity because of immigrants and refugees. I think we need to welcome newer Americans, just like my forebears were allowed to build new lives on this land. We are in this together.
“Don’t let anyone tell you that ‘go back where you came from’ is an American idea. Greatness lies in our open hand, not a clenched fist.”
This is a core American truth. If being American has taught me anything, it’s that our country is about more than just fighting over slices of the pie.
That doesn’t mean “open borders.”
But it does require, at the very least, basic decency toward people who seek help in our country when death is stalking them and their children. And it means seeing immigrants for who they are: our past, our present, and our future. People with a hell of a lot to offer are coming here from places where they’re not safe. What would you and I do if we were in their shoes?
The United States of America is a nation of newcomers and indigenous people. That is us. Don’t let anyone tell you that “go back where you came from” is an American idea. Greatness lies in our open hand, not a clenched fist.