A person doesn’t have to be an immigrant to be a stranger in a strange land.
Director of Religion Robert Franklin, Gail Christopher and Heather McGhee will discuss the many factors that lead to “otherness” in America at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy.
Franklin said that the week’s theme is encapsulated by a book written by Martin Luther King Jr.
“Dr. King’s last book was titled Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” Franklin said. “For me, that sets the tone in terms of being a stranger in a strange land, wondering if you are welcome, wondering if you will be embraced, wondering and waiting for someone who is here to offer that welcome.”
For Christopher, vice president for policy and senior advisor at the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, the wait for that welcome is something all Americans can be vulnerable to as their circumstances and those of the country shift.
“I think America has an ethos that is grounded in a mythology of a hierarchy of human value based on physical characteristics and geography,” she said. “We don’t have a fundamental value or principal that sees us all as equal human beings [that] therefore should have equal access to opportunity.
“The fundamental need that we have as human beings is to belong and to be perceived as belonging. We have far too much permission in this country to create an other, and to exclude the perceived other.”
Christopher’s work at Kellogg includes a leadership role in the foundation’s America Healing initiative, which works to provide food, health, well-being and civic engagement for underprivileged persons in the United States. She said this work is largely focused on racial equity and healing.
“For people of color, these issues are often matters of life and death,” Christopher said. “I’ve had many experiences of loss that I think have compelled me to a commitment to life, and to optimizing our capacity to love one another.”
Christopher is trained as a doctor of holistic medicine and said that these issues are especially important because they often result in preventable diseases, like diabetes and obesity, for affected individuals.
“What I try to do is get people to connect the dots between the stress that comes from discrimination and exclusion and its effect on our well-being and our physical and emotional health,” she said. “Part of the urgency [around these issues] for me as a holistic physician is that we are propelling people into unnecessary illness because of this unfinished work in our country.”
McGhee, president of the research and policy center Demos, and Christopher’s daughter, said her mother’s holistic way of thinking has influenced her own work as an adult.
“I was taught early on to ask why, and to think of big solutions and ask why not, and I do credit my mother with presenting things that way,” McGhee said.
At Demos, McGhee asks “why not” on such issues as the creation of “a multi-racial, multi-origin democracy” that includes equal access to educational, economic, and political opportunities for all people. Most recently, this has included an initiative to return the United States to a system of debt-free higher education.
This work toward equal opportunities has also led McGhee to think about the treatment of immigrants to America.
“We are a nation of immigrants, and really the same spirit and desire and motivation has driven every successive generation of immigrants,” she said. “The only thing that has changed has been the laws under which those immigrants came, so what is now thought of as a crisis of undocumented immigration is a very similar story to that which brought scores of Irish people to these shores. And yet, we are not willing to understand how much privilege that we, now native-born citizens, experience [through] the people who would’ve been our grandparents and great-grandparents today.”
Recognition of this privilege will require political and economic changes for all Americans, McGhee said.
“I think we’re at a time of extreme economic anxiety among the American people, but I also think that our political system has allowed for a lot of demonizing and scapegoating of immigrants,” she said. “And really, many politicians are appealing to our baser instincts as opposed to reminding us of our rights and responsibility as Americans to extend the American Dream to all those who are willing to strive for it.”
While this particular conversation will not create any immediate change, Franklin hopes to eventually see shifts in how strangers to America are treated.
“We cannot be healthy if we remain strangers,” he said. “That’s why it must be a transitional status. We must move to something else, either we are in transit as travellers moving again or move into communities… But I hope [the tension between public and political opinion on immigration] will be resolved in the direction of greater morality, greater generosity and embrace, because the people we welcome can become neighbors, can become workers, can contribute intellectually to the future of our economy. We still haven’t figured that out.”