Investing in Cross-Cultural Leadership
Welcome to Bridgeport, a sage-scented town of 2,200 in north central Washington’s apple and cherry country. Tucked in a crook of the Columbia River, Bridgeport is just a mile west of the Chief Joseph Dam.
Bridgeport leaders are full of new ideas why their school enrollment has risen every month in the past year. Some are convinced that fact is due to the community’s goodwill toward the local Mexican residents and culture. Surely this town’s dreams come in two languages. And that detail “es muy importante” — is very important — to those who live here.
Horizons, a community leadership program sponsored by the Northwest Area Foundation, was conducted in Bridgeport in two languages. “In 18 months, we’ve moved a long way,” remarks the local school superintendent. “Prior to Horizons, many folks from both cultures were saying, ‘I just wish I could talk with my neighbor/con mi vecino.'” People were asking for conversations, so access to language was a big part of the community’s focus. “We had a conversational class with Anglo speakers who learned Espanol and Spanish speakers who learned Ingles,” continues the superintendent. “Overall, we are recognizing those personal assets and starting to turn them into community assets. Without the recent leadership investment in our community, things would likely be the same way they always were.”
Among the issues the community addressed was the need to reestablish downtown Bridgeport. Mexican residents want to open a Mercado, but many immigrants have undocumented status and therefore no access to bank loans. One town leader says, “We must embrace the legal or illegal status of our workers, not force them underground. We want people to have the courage to set up businesses. Our state and our nation need to embrace this new population.”
One Mexican immigrant in the area looks back on a part of the Horizons leadership training called LeadershipPlenty;. “I really liked it,” she says, “because I saw the community get involved. We were encouraged to be more involved in the schools. I like to be involved in my children’s school, and now I like it even more because they’re doing better, getting better grades. They are doing better because they know I’m more interested in them. I always was, but now I show it more.”
A real turning point last year came when the community saved the local swimming pool — la piscina. “The state legislature had done terrible things to our budget, and there was the likelihood of closing the city pool,” one resident explains. “Folks were saying, ‘We can’t let our kids swim in the river; we can’t have that pool closed.'” The idea of a dance came up, but people were afraid — dances in the past had been loud and problematic. This time the local school superintendent went to his school board and suggested that the Save the Pool Committee (an outgrowth of the leadership effort) rent the gym and then he encouraged them to “trust the town to behave.” The committee did rent the gym and people decorated it, brought in music and sold tamales. Anglos and Hispanics — 400 people in all — attended and no problemas. “That was a moment when the town recognized that we’d grown up,” recalls a town leader. “We had matured enough so that we could have cross-cultural events, doing something positive.”
La Mexicana recalls, “This was the first time I saw the community together. We made money and I was surprised. Last summer my children enjoyed the pool. It looks like the pool will be open again this summer. If not, we can make another event!”
Indeed, Bridgeport was able to keep the pool open all summer in 2005, and their town conversations continued. If they could save the pool together, then shouldn’t all kids get to use it? They made it so children could swim free — there’s open access at certain times. “It was a defining moment. Again, we had grown up,” continues the town leader. What’s notable is that this was a first of many more events — both cultures attend and use the school/la escuela. The superintendent explains, “It has become fashionable for the school to do community things — to merge agendas.”
Another issue the town has addressed was the need for driver’s licenses for their immigrant population. LeadershipPlenty; helped take 45 people through the traffic safety class, and a good many of them went on to get their licenses. The state of Washington allows this and has mechanisms in place, but language is an issue. One great idea was to have a high school senior student, as part of her community project, serve as the translator in the car as long as it was in the student parking lot. It became a partnership between the government, the school and the Horizons project.
Now there is a new emerging leadership culture in Bridgeport. One Mexican man has gone from working in the packing sheds five years ago to being the state advisory committee president for parent involvement in the schools. He is a recognized national leader, has spoken in Washington, D.C., for the Department of Education, and has become a visible, vocal advocate for Hispanic education.
“During the harvest season,” one leader says, “the local population from Mexico might double. The community has two Mexican groceries. I guess our message is if you can’t get back to Mexico, we’ll help bring Mexico to you. Part of the town is moving beyond ‘Who are these people?’ to ‘How can we help and how can we work together?'”
Bridgeport sits about 90 miles south of the U.S./Canada border where Highway 97 branches northward following the Okanogan River. Lately, leaders dream of making Highway 97 an alternate route to the Canadian Olympics in 2012. They imagine making their town a unique destination. “If we could develop a theme for this town, travelers might come off the highway into Bridgeport.”
But already vivid imaginations plus the investment in leadership development have led Bridgeport, to notable successes. In April of 2005, Bridgeport was recognized in San Antonio as the Washington state winner in the Civic Star program. Bridgeport’s LeadershipPlenty; was chosen as a recipient of the 2006 Washington State Association for Multicultural Education in the community category. And leaders continue to talk about their cross-cultural commitment in other national settings. “In Bridgeport,” they say, “you have to lift up everybody. Everybody has to move up, not just kids or one charismatic leader. No isolated pockets. Everybody together.”
Note that the high school generation was also a part of LeadershipPlenty; and area youth took leadership classes at Bridgeport school. Kids are now running the agendas — learning to give back to their community.
Esperanza. It’s about hope. It’s also about town pride and goodwill. People remember that just about everybody is an immigrant in Bridgeport, some just came earlier than others. One Hispanic mother states her vision for where the town will be in 10 years: “I see it with this big Mexican market, and I see my daughter working in a television program because she wants to be a reporter. And I’d like to see Bridgeport free of gangs and drugs. So let’s hope.”
Las frutas. It’s about fruit — the cherries or apples that drew people to this community as well as watching things now come to fruition. The school superintendent explains, “Horizons has a legacy now. That’s what has emerged. Community members are gaining confidence. Now the fun time begins; the action has begun. It’s working. The fruit of the tree, and it’s mighty good fruit.”
Bienvenidos. “Yes,” la Mexicana continues, “I feel more welcome. I feel more like somebody is thinking about us because of this. It looks like the community really cares.”