"It was very obvious, it was really very visceral and very upfront what people's prejudices and stereotypes were when I was a kid growing up," Alberto Olivas told us, describing his early childhood in rural Georgia in the seventies. Alberto directs the Center for Civic Participation for the Maricopa Community College District in Phoenix, Arizona. Next month, we'll be offering one of our very special series of free Storied Sessions across the U.S. at the Greater Phoenix Urban League, and Alberto was explaining why he supports this project. All Together Now: Intergenerational Stories of Civil and Human Rights is aiming to bridge the generation gap and honor a legacy by engaging elders and young people in sharing stories of standing up for hard-won rights.
This is the second in a series of blog posts that share voices from the All Together Now civil and human rights project. To learn more about this national series of workshops, apply to take part, or find out how to sponsor a workshop, please visit our web site. Even if there's not a workshop in your town, you will be able to access the whole body of stories on our Cowbird.com All Together Now page.
The isolation engendered by prejudice is at the heart of many people's stories. We get inured to being outsiders, so that hostility becomes normalized until an awakening moment arrives. "It was very lonely because there were really no other Hispanics when we lived there, we didn't know any," Alberto continued. "And so we were not really part of the community, mainly because nobody knew what camp we were in. We weren't white, we weren't black, so we did suffer some hatred and some hostility, but it was kind of peripheral. We weren't the main concern of anybody in our community. So even though our house got egged a few times and we suspect some people intentionally poisoned our dog, and sometimes people would leave dead animals in our yard—like dead snakes on the clothesline—those kinds of incidents were spaced far apart, and we just weren't the main issue. So it was a lonely place to be a little kid, and also one where racial tension was front and center all the time. Every day getting up for school was a challenge."
Alberto was describing a kind of internal immigration. His mother had come to the U.S. from Mexico, and his journey has taken him from Georgia to Texas to Arizona. The work of Gabriela Flora, Project Voice Regional Organizer at the American Friends Service Committee in Denver, focuses on immigrant rights, assisting immigrants who’ve crossed international borders and working with their allies. Asked why her organization is partnering with StoryCenter in offering an All Together Now free Storied Session on October 5, Gabriela underscored the value of stories like Alberto's:
"When we don't have that emotional connection, we lack the ability to truly make change and to truly build a movement. Stories are central to movement-building, they're central to validating our own and other people's realities and they're critical to connecting us as human beings and folks who are working for a better world. Stories are central to the work that AFSC does on a daily basis. Really, they are central to human survival. Without our stories, we become void of a context. We lose sight of how we are all interconnected and how we do have differences, of how we all can work to bridge and embrace those differences and use them to create strong communities rather than be fearful."
Both Gabriela and Alberto see it as essential in this moment that we renew and extend the civil rights movement legacy of fifty years ago. Gabriela explained that in the popular education workshops her project offers, "We do timelines where we look historically. In an immigration timeline, we start in the 1400s and move through understanding how the civil rights movement built on the movement for independence in India and Gandhi's work and how all of these movements build upon and strengthen each other. The civil rights movement was critical in leading us to the immigrant rights movement and the struggles for justice today—not only in opening the space for change that they help create, but also in the techniques and in the ability to build on their call for justice, which wasn't fully achieved."
Alberto sees making this connection as especially important for younger generations in a moment of polarization. "It seems like over the last several years, there's been a ramping up of tolerance for hateful points of view and hateful speech, and a violent pushing back against—people use air quotes around the word 'political correctness,' as if it's the worst thing ever. It seemed like in the early 2000s, a lot of young Latinos really didn't think cultural identity was worth focusing on; they weren't joining clubs or learning about their heritage or history. And I think that's really changing rapidly. Here in Arizona, because of our own politics with immigration, with race and ethnicity, more young Latinos now see their Latino identity as important."
He's feeling encouraged by younger people's response to today's movement for rights. "I keep seeing echoes of what was happening in the sixties. Now when I'm talking to students I get a sense that they feel there's a lot of important things happening right now in this community and they want to be part of it. They're hungry for the tools and for inspiration and encouragement. They want to learn about how things happened, not just the great speeches, but the actual how-tos. How did the March on Washington happen? How did that come about? What led up to it? The more they learn about the individuals that were involved in pushing for change, that gives them encouragement and inspiration."
"It can be easy to go through life without realizing the incredible struggle for rights that others have done," Gabriela pointed out, saying that this 50th anniversary of civil rights milestones "is so exciting because not only is it a time to recognize and honor the dedication and perseverance and struggle and strife that folks went through with incredible dignity, but to see how far we've come and how much work we need to continue to do to live up to and honor the struggle. What both the leaders and the everyday people did was just incredible. During that same period, Denver was an epicenter of that Chicano movement and it had a lot of ties to the African American civil rights movement. Corky Gonzales worked in some of those same circles and saw those connections. Some of these movements have been very marginalized: the FBI tried to discredit the Chicano movement just as it did the civil rights movement. How do we also build on those lessons? Everyone knows about Martin Luther King, but what about the people who were here in Denver that remain nameless? That was happening across the country. How can we share those stories and honor them, helping us move forward for the future, because there's still a lot of work to do?"
What does the legacy of fifty years ago mean to you today? Please join StoryCenter and our great partners—The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Southern Poverty Law Center, Color of Change, the Equal Justice Society, American Friends Service Committee Denver, Greater Phoenix Urban League, The Painted Bride Arts Center, CommunisPR, Warm Cookies of the Revolution, Coloradans for Immigrant Rights, Elizabeth City Alumnae Chapter Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, AARP Pasquotank County Chapter, Elizabeth City - Pasquotank County Community Relations Commission, and Elizabeth City Hope Group—in this wonderful project. All together now!