Matt Driscoll

In Trump era, immigrants need help more than ever, says retiring director of Tacoma Community House

Liz Dunbar of Tacoma Community House talks about changes in attitudes about immirgrants

Liz Dunbar, the longtime executive director of Tacoma Community House, is retiring at the end of the month. She talks about changes in the last decade.
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Liz Dunbar, the longtime executive director of Tacoma Community House, is retiring at the end of the month. She talks about changes in the last decade.

To call it unprecedented would be to deny the ugly history that came before.

This is a country that has long grappled with ebbs and flows of anti-immigrant sentiments, and in Tacoma we have our own particularly repugnant examples of that — including a Chinese expulsion method that disgracefully bears our name.

Still, for Liz Dunbar, the outgoing executive director of Tacoma Community House, the election of Donald Trump and the blatant “Build the wall!” xenophobia that helped make it a realty felt new, different and uniquely disturbing.

Dunbar, the daughter of a U.S. serviceman and an immigrant from Japan, has led Tacoma Community House for the last 10 years. Helping immigrants and refugees, as she’s been able to do at an organization with more than a century of experience in the field, has been a calling, she says.

At the end of the month, Dunbar will retire, wrapping up a tenure that has seen Tacoma Community House grow and increase its important reach in this city and beyond.

That work, Dunbar said, has never been more important or urgent.

It’s a feeling that, thankfully, Dunbar believes goes beyond the walls of the agency she’s leading.

As an example, she harkened back to the day after Trump’s election.

Part of Tacoma Community House’s English Language Acquisition (ELA) program, “Talk Time” serves as an opportunity for participants in the program to practice conversational English.

Talk Time is one of the many programs the nonprofit offers to help immigrants and refugees adapt to their new home in the United States. It relies on community members willing to volunteer their time, providing ELA students with an informal chance to sharpen the language skills they’re learning.

Historically, the weekly events have drawn a dedicated, if not massive, contingent of volunteers.

On the day after Trump’s presidential victory, with all the fear and despair swirling within immigrant communities and amongst immigrant advocates, there was an unexpected deluge of support.

It was standing-room only.

“We had more volunteers than we’d ever had,” Dunbar recalls. “A lot of people said, ‘I just had to come and do something positive today.’

“And a lot of them have continued to volunteer ever since.”

It’s a contradiction that exemplifies the current state of things, in Tacoma and beyond. The threat to immigrants and refugees posed by the commander in chief and his supporters is real, but so too is the community resolve to refute the hate.

Tacoma Community House finds itself in the middle of this, though it’s a strange fit. The organization serves roughly 3,500 individuals each year, from more than 100 different countries. Offering things like education, employment, immigration and advocacy services, this isn’t the type of work that should be contentious or partisan.

As Dunbar says, “Immigrants and refugees want to be integrated into American society, and people who are already here want to see that integration happens, and in a successful way.”

If only things were that simple.

“I would say, certainly, it was much more a low-key topic and issue when I first started. It was not particularly controversial. There were efforts at immigration reform that got pretty far in Congress,” Dunbar says. “I would say in the last three years — since the presidential race heated up — it’s obviously been a lot more controversial.”

Knowing what’s at stake, Dunbar acknowledges now is a difficult time to leave Tacoma Community House, but she also expresses confidence that the agency, buoyed by this community, will continue to make meaningful strides

“For us, we’ve seen both really good and really bad. The bad part is there has been a lot more … negative stereotypes and labeling of people, which has led to more bullying and harassment,” Dunbar says. “On the other hand, we have had a huge outpouring of support. This community really, by and large, is a very welcoming community.

“That really encourages us to be able to keep doing this work every day.”

In stepping down, Dunbar is looking forward to doing the sorts of things most retirees profess a desire to do — namely, spending more time with her family. She also is embracing the potential positives of leadership change at Tacoma Community House, including the fresh eyes and fresh perspective her eventual successor will bring.

Most of all, she believes Tacoma Community House’s work must continue. While Dunbar has overseen immense growth — including the recent groundbreaking of a new facility and the launch of a client advocacy program, which provides support to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and trafficking — she also knows there’s plenty more to accomplish.

Because there are immigrants and refugees depending on it.

“I think there are a lot of opportunities still, and a lot of ways we can do more to serve the community,” Dunbar says.

“They are survivors, people who have often — in many cases — survived really horrific things. That gives them a lot of strength, and they inspire us every day.”

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.