Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Town hall aims to solidify and strengthen Latino voice in the community

In February 2015, the Tacoma City Council unanimously adopted Resolution No. 39116.

It doesn’t sound exciting — or particularly noteworthy.

But the move officially put Tacoma on the growing list of cities and counties that have signed on to the Welcoming Cities and Counties Initiative movement. The goal, according to the resolution’s language, is to encourage “communities to create more welcoming, immigrant-friendly environments that maximize opportunities for economic growth and cultural vitality.” So far, across the country more than 50 cities and counties have taken a similar pledge.

On Saturday, we’ll see an example of what a statement such as Resolution No. 39116’s can inspire.

That’s when members of the city’s Hispanic and Latino community, joined by a handful of city staff and elected officials, are invited to gather at Mount Tahoma High School for what’s being billed as a Latino Town Hall, the first of its kind.

Tacoma’s Hispanic and Latino community is roughly 12 percent of the city’s population, according to the most recent census information.

We are one of the biggest minorities, but we are invisible, we are silent, we don’t participate.

Sara Irish, Latino Town Hall emcee

“We are one of the biggest minorities, but we are invisible, we are silent, we don’t participate,” says Sara Irish, the Tacoma organizer and parent engagement coordinator of Stand for Children, a national public education advocacy group. On Saturday, Irish will serve as the Latino Town Hall’s emcee.

The town hall is intended to start addressing each of the points Irish’s observation raises.

She’s not alone in her assessment.

Liesl Santkuyl, the coalition coordinator for the Northwest Leadership Foundation’s Leaders in Women’s Health and one of the local Latinos who helped organize the event, says many Latinos don’t feel connected with the city. They often feel isolated, ignored and like an afterthought. Some don’t know about the services available to them, she tells me, and not all of the services that the city or local providers offer meet their needs.

More concerning, Santkuyl says, is the fear many harbor about getting involved.

“I think when there’s fear, people lay low,” Santkuyl observes. “That effects the vibrancy of not only our Latino community, but our Tacoma community.”

It’s an understandable reservation, given the shortcomings of America’s immigration system and the fact that many Latino families have members with a mix of immigration statuses. In Tacoma, all of it comes with one of the largest privately owned, for-profit immigration detention centers in the country in our backyard.

Santkuyl tells me that if the Latino community is going to be better served and represented, it needs to step up and forge a more unified voice. Eventually, she says, she’d like to see an organization working for Latinos such as the Black Collective works for Tacoma’s African American community.

I think when there’s fear, people lay low. That effects the vibrancy of not only our Latino community, but our Tacoma community.

Liesl Santkuyl, Coordinator of the Northwest Leadership Foundation’s Leaders in Women’s Health coalition

It’s with this in mind that Latino community members have been meeting since late last year to make Saturday’s town hall a reality.

Melody Rodriguez, who by day works with the Northwest Leadership Foundation, says that after brief opening remarks from Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, town hall participants will break into three groups — one for Spanish speakers, one for those who speak Spanish and English, and one for those 24 and younger. The groups will then be asked to weigh in on some basic questions aimed at identifying goals and areas for improvement. Rodriguez and others are keeping an open mind when it comes to what they might hear.

While Diane Powers, director of the city’s Office of Equity and Human Rights, tells me that the city’s role in organizing the town hall has been intentionally limited to little things — such as providing the space and footing the bill for day care and lunch — that’s not to say city officials aren’t paying close attention. A second town hall is already being discussed for later this year.

District 4 City Councilman Marty Campbell, for instance, points to the disproportionately low number of Latinos serving on city boards and commissions, saying, “As a city we don’t always reflect the city that we serve.” He hopes a clearer line of communication between the city and its Latino residents can help fix that, and describes Saturday’s town hall as a “big listening session.”

“How do we say in our city very intentionally that we are welcoming immigrants in our community, because we want them to be part of our growth, our future and our culture?” Campbell says.

“I think it starts with dialogue and communication. It starts with a town hall that says we’re here to listen.

“It starts with this.”

Latino Town Hall

When: Saturday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.

Where: Mt. Tahoma High School, 4634 S 74th St., Tacoma

More Information: Call 253-722-0706 or email info@tacomalatinotownhall.com

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