John Colson: Hit and Run
October 22, 2010
I’m a guy who feels much more comfortable with a keyboard between me and the rest of the world, than I do standing up in front of a group of eyes and trying to reach the minds behind those eyes.
I think part of this particular affliction is in my genetic code, since my dad was much the same way, at least from my point of view. A librarian by training and education, a college professor for parts of his life, and a rabble-rousing progressive by nature, he spent so much time sitting at a typewriter while I was growing up that it seemed to be an extension of his hands.
Anyway, I’ve been stuck in that same rut ever since I took a typing class in high school as a way to get a grade and get out, but discovered an unexpected affinity for the action of a keyboard that could be felt in my bones.
It’s gotten so bad that I can’t hand-write a letter now, partly because it takes longer and partly because my penmanship has deteriorated to a form of shorthand, which is a side-effect of being a journalist dependent on note-taking.
But every now and then I get asked to moderate forums on different topics, including political forums where candidates air their views, and events where people gather to share ideas on one issue or another.
It happened recently when Jim Coombs of Club Rotario, a Latino-oriented offshoot of the Rotary International organization, asked me to be the moderator at a showing of the film, “Welcome to Shelbyville.”
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It’s a documentary about how a small town in Tennessee deals with a handful of problems related to racism, immigration and fairness.
Shelbyville, close to the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan and a hidebound town of bigots and rednecks for much of its history, has had to deal with its treatment of African Americans, Latinos and, most recently, an influx of Muslim Somalian refugees who have arrived in town to work at a local chicken-processing plant.
There’s a lot more to it than that, but you’ll have to see the film and form your own conclusions.
Here in Colorado, and in the Roaring Fork Valley in particular, our immigration issues are mostly focused on wave after wave of immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and other Latin American nations. We don’t have a lot of Somalis here, nor many other representatives of “races of color.” What we have, essentially, is a kind of split personality, geographically and culturally speaking.
The film showing, hosted by the local Ramada Inn and sponsored by the local branch of the Welcoming Colorado organization and Club Rotario, drew a relatively small crowd of mixed Anglos and Hispanics.
When the lights came up after the film, it was my task to draw out this small, self-conscious group in a conversation about what we’d seen, what we thought about it, and how it translated from Tennessee to the Western Slope.
Using a blend of chuckleheadedness and pleading, I did manage, after a frightening stretch of minutes when nobody said anything, to get them going. And it developed into a lively chat.
It was clear that many of those there wanted a chance to share their stories, and ask some rather pointed questions about fitting in to our once mostly-white culture here.
And it soon became clear that, in order to answer these questions, we need a lot more dialogue aimed at bridging the cultural divide.
That’s because, even among an audience predisposed toward cross-cultural thinking, much more went unsaid than was said, both because of time constraints and a persistent feeling of uncertainty, doubt and anxiety that stands like a wall between the cultures.
The people in that room, however, gave it their best shot and, I like to think, came away with a better understanding of the work to be done, and the difficulty of that work.
But, hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day, right?