By Mackenzie Steinberg, Research and Development Communications VISTA, Search Institute
One of the reasons I decided to apply to be an AmeriCorps VISTA member at Search Institute is its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Here at Search Institute, our vision is that all young people have what they need to thrive. All young people. We embrace diverse perspectives, experiences, ways of learning, and forms of wisdom. We strive to understand systems of access, opportunity, justice, and power in order to eliminate barriers, recognize strengths, and meet the needs of all young people.
For us, all means all, regardless of citizenship status. That’s why I was upset to learn about recent events in Worthington, Minnesota, regarding “undocumented youth” and their relationships with adults in the community.
Search Institute’s current work focuses on developmental relationships, particularly between youth and adults. Our research shows that young people do better when they experience strong, positive relationships in all parts of their lives. Ideally, all adults in a school, from bus drivers to social studies teachers to the principal, would intentionally build developmental relationships with young people so that they have that much more access to a better quality of life.
The small town of Worthington in Southwest Minnesota has seen tremendous growth in its immigrant population over the past two decades, growing from 16 percent foreign born in 2000 to approximately one-third foreign born in 2016. This growth is substantially greater than most other non-metro areas in Minnesota, according to The Washington Post.
As with many small towns in Minnesota, this huge change evokes mixed reactions from the predominantly white long-time residents. A recent article from The Washington Post titled “Immigrant Kids Fill This Town’s School. Their Bus Driver Is Leading the Backlash” captures the range of opinions from Worthington residents. Many residents are not happy with the influx of immigrant youth because of higher taxes and overflowing public schools.
One key community member really stuck out to me. Don Brink is a 71-year-old Vietnam War veteran school bus driver who shuttles this ever-changing and diverse population to and from school. Brink has expressed his opinion to the media about the youth in his community on multiple occasions, telling the Minneapolis-based City Pages newspaper that he “hopes for another ICE raid” to “get rid of the illegals” and that he doesn’t greet the “strange kids I’ve never seen before.”
In contrast, a small handful of Spanish-speaking teachers often go above and beyond for their immigrant students by staying late, arriving early, and even purchasing much-needed groceries for their students, nurturing strong bonds between the students and adults. These teachers are nurturing relationships with these students that not only meet their needs but also welcome them into the community. Yet these teachers can only do so much to offset the harmful effects of the prejudice they experience they step on Mr. Brink’s bus each morning and afternoon.
Most immigrants in this town, many of whom are unaccompanied minors, have come to Worthington to seek oasis from extremely difficult circumstances in their home countries. Many have incredible stories of bravery and sacrifice that led them to Minnesota in hopes for a better life. They arrived with disadvantages in terms of creating developmental relationships with important adults due to language barriers, separation from family members, and a lack of opportunities due to poverty. They do not deserve those challenges to be exacerbated by hostility and prejudice from closed-minded individuals like Don Brink, who refuse to welcome them or respect their dignity.
Every child deserves to learn, grow, and develop relationships that can help them be and become their best selves. Far too often, communities fail their poor and immigrant children of color as well as others who are disenfranchised. To be sure, there are many teachers, social workers, advocates, and others who go beyond the call of duty to welcome them, support them, advocate for them, and open up possibilities for their futures. However, those efforts are undermined when others do not share those commitments to welcome and support all—really all—young people to be and become their best selves.
We can—and must—do better.