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‘You are welcome here:’ Gig Harbor teacher couple spread welcoming message nationally

Husband-and-wife team Heidi Steele and Doug Urner, both teachers, designed T-shirts that say “you are welcome here” in 15 different languages. Steele is a teacher with Peninsula School District, and Urner teaches in University Place.
Husband-and-wife team Heidi Steele and Doug Urner, both teachers, designed T-shirts that say “you are welcome here” in 15 different languages. Steele is a teacher with Peninsula School District, and Urner teaches in University Place. jbessex@gateline.com

Creating a learning environment that is safe and supportive for all students is part of a teacher’s job.

It’s an aspect of the profession that is taken seriously, especially for Heidi Steele and Doug Urner, Gig Harbor residents, teachers and the husband-and-wife team behind the “you are welcome here” T-shirt design, featuring the phrase written in 15 different languages.

Urner and Steele — a 12-year Peninsula School District Chinese teacher at both Gig Harbor and Peninsula High Schools — designed the shirts in response to the fear and concern they observed in many of their students following the 2016 presidential election, specifically in their students who are immigrants or children of immigrants.

“There’s an antipathy towards immigrants that seems widely spread,” Urner, a high school teacher in University Place, said. “One of the things that is happening is the immigrant kids are scared ... there’s this real fear for safety. You can’t learn if you don’t feel safe.”

The goal of the shirts, which were designed by Urner, is a demonstration of support and a way to create a welcoming environment, not only for students but also for anyone in the community who might see the shirts and see the phrase in their native language.

“It was hard to choose the languages,” Steele said. “We wanted to choose the languages of the people who have been targeted ... some of the others we just wanted to give a face to.”

The 15 languages featured on the shirts include Arabic, Bangal, French, Chinese, Spanish, Devanagari (Hindi), Korean, German, Farsi (Persian), Amharic, Japanese, Vietnamese, Hebrew and Urdu. These languages are bracketed on top and bottom with the phrase “if you are reading this ... you are welcome here” in English, which is designed to signify the inclusiveness of the English language.

“English is a valued language that can encompass all these other languages without devaluing English,” Steele said.

Urner agreed: “Different languages approach the world differently. Language is a way of looking at the world ... it’s important to me that as people come here (to the United States) that they won’t forget where they come from. It would not be the right thing for us to be a country of one language or of one place. I think that’s one of our strengths, our variety.”

Creating the T-shirt design was a collaborative process that involved a wide range of people that included fellow teachers, university professors and the Islamic Center of Tacoma, along with native speakers to ensure that the phrases correctly translated the feeling of warmth and welcome that was the goal of Steele and Urner.

As a result, the phrase is not translated exactly from English into the other languages, but represent a variety of similar phrases that convey the same meaning and would be recognized by native speakers of the language.

“I just think it’s so important that it be known how many people worked on this,” Steele said. “Every language (on the shirt) has a background of people working on them.”

The shirts are available for sale on the website Ink to the People, an apparel printing company that helps with fundraising, providing a full-service from design to payment to shipping. Funds from the shirts will be donated to different nonprofit organizations dedicated to improving communication between different groups.

“We want to focus on groups that are getting things to change,” Urner explained.

The third campaign for the shirts has just launched — the first campaign delivered Dec. 23 and the second just finished — with funds being donated to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The project has received support not only from family and friends, but also from fellow teachers and students, with purchases of the shirts spreading nationally. Urner and Steele plan to continue spreading the message from the shirts and create more opportunities for connection between different communities with plans for events and activities that will help bring people together.

Until then, the couple hope that people wearing the shirts will help create a greater sense of safety in the community.

“The goal is a core message of warmth and welcome,” Steele explained. “We hope that whenever (the shirts) happen to be out that someone who speaks a different language will see them and have a good moment.”

Andrea Haffly: 253-358-4155, @gateway_andrea

“You are welcome here” T-shirts

Shirt purchases and contact info for Urner and Steele can be found online at inktothepeople.com/you-are-welcome-here.

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