Student-organized event explores connections between immigration and early childhood

5.3.2016 Unspoken Realities 15When families immigrate to the United States, the journey and the experience of living in a new country play major roles in how children develop, understand the concept of family, and view themselves.

A recent panel discussion at Erikson Institute highlighted these issues and others during “Unspoken Realities: Our Work with Immigrant Families,” an event that brought together Chicago leaders who work with immigrants and refugees as well as Erikson students, staff, faculty, and alumni. Organized by Erikson Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) students Tara Lattanzi, Cynthia Arias-Cardoso, Kimberly Lopez, Ilse Acevedo, and Alyssa Maestre, the event featured three panelists engaging in an interactive discussion with the audience to provide insight into the experiences of immigrant families and the effects of immigration on family dynamics, child development, and identity. It also offered students a lesson in how to affect social change.

5.3.2016 Unspoken Realities 4b“We wanted to address the ways in which immigration impacts children and families every day but aren’t always discussed in depth,” said Maestre, who moderated the event. “These are families and children we as social workers will work with when we graduate from Erikson, and it’s important to understand the realities they face so we can help best address their needs.”

The panel featured Florence Kimondo, Ph.D., senior instructor and field education liaison at Erikson, who wove personal stories about her own journey to the United States with insights from her work with refugee populations; Chicago-based immigration activist Jorge Mena, one of the founders of Immigrant Youth Justice League; and Shawn Popma, program director at Heartland Alliance.

5.3.2016 Unspoken Realities 5“When we think of immigrants and refugees, there is the misconception that they are deficient in some way or populations at risk,” Dr. Kimondo said. “However, it is some existing systems, policies, and laws, as well as beliefs and attitudes about immigrant children and families that put them at risk. Immigrant families possess many unique strengths and greatly contribute to the American society.”

For many families, the journey to the United States can be arduous. On one hand, it can bring out the resiliency of families, but it can also be traumatic, leaving lasting psychological effects on children who experienced it. Many families also arrive in the United States from countries plagued by war or gang violence, additional traumatic experiences that social workers and other service providers must understand how to help them navigate.

Often, family members don’t make the journey to the United States together, and panelists discussed the implications of “transnational parenting.” Mena noted that his mother moved to the United States before he did, and he spent a period of his childhood raised by other relatives. The experience led him to consider the role of parent and who actually filled that role in his life.

5.3.2016 Unspoken Realities 8For the organizers, planning the event was a new experience. They had to consider not just the logistics of staging the discussion — from lining up panelists to securing a venue — but also the appropriate forum for exploring an issue as complex as immigration’s impact on children and families.

“Unspoken Realities” built upon previous panel discussions at Erikson Institute that explored the connections between early childhood and social issues, including a January 2016 event that looked at what the Black Lives Matter movement means for early childhood. It also built on work the students began in Collective Action for Social Justice, a course taught by Erikson professor Mark Nagasawa, Ph.D. that is part of Erikson’s M.S.W. program. The course focuses on helping students think about how to work with organizations to bring about change, particularly related to social justice issues.

“While field work is important in helping students develop their practice, it doesn’t offer the opportunity to organize efforts that drive change around social issues affecting the children and families they encounter,” Dr. Nagasawa said. Three other groups of students in Dr. Nagasawa’s class are exploring other societal issues and ways to not just draw attention to them but also to organize communities into action. Other topics include the Flint, Mich., water crisis and the developmental issues that stem from environmental racism; the impact of youth violence on children’s development; and school discipline’s role in the school-to-prison pipeline.

5.3.2016 Unspoken Realities 6b“Projects like these are opportunities for students to become leaders and tie what they are learning in class to real-world issues,” said Erikson professor Tonya Bibbs, Ph.D., M.S.W., who provided guidance for the students and co-moderated the panel discussion. “These are experiences that allow them to make changes in the field.”

Moving forward, the challenge for students will be finding ways to build on the momentum established by events like “Unspoken Realities.” Dr. Nagasawa said his summer course Social Policy and Advocacy will delve further into the issues students have begun exploring. The student organizers said they hope to not just continue the conversation, but create opportunities for members of the Erikson community, including students, to become directly involved in mobilizing around issues children and families face.

Lattanzi noted that in class, students have discussed “micro-level” social work, or working one-on-one with children and families, and “macro-level social work,” which reaches people on a larger scale and is aimed at impacting communities and systems.

“We cannot engage in macro-level social work without micro-level social work — and vice versa,” she said. “To serve individuals and families, we need to address larger social justice issues. Ultimately, it’s about how to give families a voice, either as individuals or as part of a community.”