Also published in TC Daily Planet.
I missed my bicultural neighbors when I moved from Eagan, Minnesota. Among them were Ukranian and Ghanaian immigrants, both two-parent families led by business owners. They didn’t speak perfect English, but were great neighbors. They brought my family home-cooked meals, sent their teens to help with chores and shared stories of their homelands geography classes don’t teach.
My move was made easier by the knowledge that City leaders there at the time seemed intolerant of diversity. I felt relief crossing border into nearby Burnsville, where productive people, regardless language or ethnicity, seemed welcome.
Perhaps Burnsville accepts what others don’t—immigrants make great leaders.
Leaving the familiarity of homeland for a foreign country requires courage, persistence and problem-solving savvy. Given the chance, immigrants often reinvest these characteristics in valuable ways in their new communities.
Troubled times innovation
Like my Eagan friends, my own family is an example. In the early 1900s, just before the Great Depression, my great-grandfather immigrated to Minnesota from Italy.
The construction company he and his cousin started was located in the Cedar Riverside area of Minneapolis, then, as now, a haven for immigrants. Lacking English, education and cultural sophistication, my relatives were disparaged as ‘dagos’ or ‘greasy wops.’
Meanwhile they imported and installed Italian terrazzo that still remains in many buildings, including at University of Minnesota and the Seattle Space Needle. Over the years, they have employed hundreds and partnered with many. When my grandfather led the company, he helped organize the tile-setters labor union.
Many of my relatives are conservative. Some are liberal. Most are active as community leaders. We all inherited a commitment to family and work. In my case, our intrepid immigrant genes benefitted my career.
During the early 1990s recession my then-boss and I left our jobs to co-found a start up. I was like an “immigrant” to the corporate world. A young woman, I wasn’t fully versed in the language of business.
Being a naïve outsider was something of an asset. I bypassed obstacles others who worked hard to the fit models of institutionalized cultures struggled against. The characteristics that led us to strike out on our own were the same ones that helped us conceive technology innovations others wouldn’t have dared try during the tough economic times.
Risk reward equation
Luckily investors and advisers sensed our potentials. The language of our generation and market was foreign to many of them, and our inexperience caused some fear. But they accepted the risk and supported us in return for future gains. Hundreds of jobs were created. One of my partners was later named Twin Cities Monthly Entrepreneur of the Year.
Had we conformed to standard methods, these outcomes would not have been possible. Other professionals with requisite pedigrees were let into corporate communities. Still stereotypes quietly steeped, undermining their cultures. Many women felt they had to adopt the look and lingo of men, many men felt women didn’t understand business etiquette. Racial diversity was scant, at best.
The homogenized environment, not unlike those conservatives are calling for in today’s political campaigns, might have seemed expedient, but wouldn’t have permitted boundary-pushing innovation.
Institutional vernaculars have struggled to evolve. More troubling, the gaps are growing. Resulting in unprecedented investments of time and money being invested in polarized reactions in civic and economic realms. One side is locking down to maintain stability. The other is countering to re-engage opportunity.
Such us v. them efforts sap precious resources of human intellectual capital the U.S. needs now more than ever to compete. The standoff squanders both hard-won experience and powerful, if nascent, potentials. The bottom line? Everyone loses.
Businessmen breaking cultural boundaries
Which brings me back to Burnsville. I’m encouraged by it’s efforts to embrace both the experience of existing citizens and the potentials of immigrants. I saw this ethic in action at a recent Burnsville Rotary meeting, where I was invited to speak.
During the discussion I asked the leaders how we could engage all citizens in co-productive efforts. One leader raised this important question:
How do we cross literal and figurative barriers to access and amplify the authentic abilities of all—be they brown, black, white, young, old, male or female?
None in attendance, mostly white businessmen, suggested a common language law.
But many were energized about innovative methods focused around boundary-breaking relationships wherein diverse citizens are engaged to work with, rather than against, one another.
I suggest these ideas echo the initiative and instincts of immigrants.
Literacy of immigrants
Think about it. Immigrants forge out of comfort zones to forge new paths. They traverse tough terrain by learning to trust their own and others’ unique intelligences. They communicate what is most critical. They avoid isolation and it’s outcome, depression, by engaging in whatever community is available. Always moving forward, not back.
Regardless if leaders are locals or imports, such momentum is stalled by exclusionary controls. By contrast momentum is catalyzed when communities see new people not as obstacles, but as agents of opportunity.
Cultural illiterates of the past—like my great-grandfather—were such agents. Their leadership has left imprints that infuse Minnesota and its people. I’ve seen similar agency in action at my YMCA, where people of all ages, ethnicities and genders are welcome.
One is a burka-wearing woman who escaped Somalia’s deadly destruction and, at age 15 obtained work in a grisly southern Minnesota chicken factory.
Basketball lessons transcend language
Her English still lags a bit two-decades later, but it is a minor barrier. She now spends her overnights working. Her days are spent parenting, while her husband goes to his job. In her spare time she studies for her Masters Degree and exercises with her four boys.
We met when she invited my son and I to play basketball. We overcame verbal and athletic illiteracy as her family taught us pick-up. My understanding of court-mores still lags. But this intrepid immigrant overlooks my deficits.
On breaks, we commiserate how to teach our children to be productive citizens. We question why prevailing culture obstructs our efforts. Why leaders can clearly communicate strategies to lure million-dollar athletes, but don’t diversify with more investments in the deeper, more authentically dimensional cultures. What we can do to give our children a broader view.
Our courtside chats amount to mutual learning. And I suspect my son is learning more than how to play hoops. I hope he’ll remember. Competition on a basketball court can accomplish unexpected lessons.
More meaningfully, I hope he’ll recognize that cultural power is communicated by the literacy of many different people. Including everyone from Muslim moms to his Italian ancestors. And someday apply his potential working with diverse others.
Knowing the biggest winners break down barriers—and their own biases’—to co-construct shared solutions.