I stood this morning before a room filled to capacity with members of the Democratic Party’s Ethnic Council. The council is an assembly of representatives of America’s rich and diverse ethnic immigrant communities. Members come from across the United States. They are of many backgrounds, including Irish, Italian, Polish, Eastern or Central European, Haitian, Arab, Turkish, Armenian, Iranian, South Asian, and more. Some are immigrants, while others are first, second or third generation, born in the US.
The diversity is self-evident. Not so obvious, at first glance, are the common traits we share and the ties that bind us together as a council.
We are all either immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, linked in a way to the lands of our origins and proud of — and demanding respect for — our respective heritages. As Americans, we share the experiences of our ancestors who came to this land seeking freedom and opportunity, faced down discrimination and hardships, worked hard, and became established as full partners in the American enterprise. And we are Democrats, believing in the values of the party. We know from our own life stories that government can be a force for good: lending a helping hand to those in need; providing essential services that serve the common good; fighting discrimination and protecting the rights of the most vulnerable in our midst.
For over a decade and a half, I have had the distinct honour to serve as a leader in this council, now acting as chair of the Ethnic Council’s caucus in the Party. And while I love my work in the Arab American community, nothing gives me greater satisfaction than my efforts in the council. Through the council, Arab Americans have secured a recognised role within the mainstream of American politics. We have been able to show the effectiveness of our political organisation and, in the process, we have won allies and friends. Through our political work in coalition with others, we have had the opportunity to learn from the experiences of other communities and we have been able to share our experiences and our concerns as well.
I will never forget going to my first party meeting shortly after the horror of 11 September 2001. The sessions were to be held in New York City, and with Arab Americans nationwide having been victim of hate crimes (I, myself, had received death threats), I must say that I approached both going to New York and that meeting with a degree of trepidation. As soon as I entered the room, however, my fears were allayed.
I was late, and found the meeting underway and the assembled group discussing a resolution that had been submitted by the Democratic Party chairman decrying the manifestations of hate and discrimination and expressing solidarity with Arab and Muslim Americans. I found much the same this week, where the discussions about uprisings across the Arab world were topic number one, and I and other Arab Americans who were present were deluged with questions about the region and a resolution was passed unanimously demonstrating strong support for the Arab people.
It is this sharing of experiences and knowledge and the bonds that have been formed that make ethnic politics so rewarding. My Haitian colleagues found much the same when their native land was devastated a few years back. Irish Americans, too, found that their joy with the signing of the Irish Peace Agreement was shared, as did our colleagues from Eastern and Central Europe when NATO was expanded to include their once captive lands of origin.
At times our meetings look like a mini-United Nations, with all the concerns but without the discord. I remember a meeting we held in the midst of the terrible Bosnian war. At one point I looked from the podium and noted that our representatives from the Serbian, Croatian and Albanian communities were sitting and working together. Or now, when our Armenian and Turkish colleagues are able to work together and support one another.
There are lessons to learn from these experiences. First and foremost, when people are respected and empowered they can find common ground. They may not always agree, but through engagement they can learn from one another. As Jesse Jackson used to say, it is this uniquely American experience that ought to be exported.
In this context, it is also important for political leaders to understand the valuable resource that exists in the richness of America’s diversity. Though self-evident, this lesson is too often not heeded. The groups learn from one another but are too often ignored by policymakers. With direct familial ties, cultural sensitivity, and deep and personal knowledge about the history and hopes for their ancestral lands, these communities, if tapped by policymakers, could provide valuable insight and direction. Too often, sadly, they are not.
With all of our successes and despite some frustration born of a lack of engagement in some policy matters, our Ethnic Council and our component constituent groups continue to grow and to assert themselves. We do so knowing that the role we play is vital to the wellbeing and success of our communities and the future peace and prosperity of America and the world.
JAMES ZOGBY is president of the Arab American Institute.