Monday, June 29, 2015

Start Immigrant Stories with Yourself

We are sharing this article with you and readers of all ages as a starting point for reflecting on one’s own immigrant heritage, no matter how recent or distant. This activity can enrich  classroom and dinner table conversations about immigrants and immigration while deepening understanding and context.

-- Contributed by Michael D’Innocenzo

If you want to appreciate what our new generations of immigrants will contribute to our nation, consider doing a check of your own family “roots.”

All of us in the United States are descended from immigrants. The only questions we need to ask ourselves are:

1. How long ago?

2. What awareness do we have of the journeys of our ancestors?

As a youngster, I thought, for a while, that anyone who had a name that ended in a vowel shared my Italian heritage. But then I learned that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was one of our early multi-ethnics, combining Dutch ancestry with the “de la noes” of French Huguenot background.

That both a Republican and a Democrat Roosevelt (with Dutch/Huguenot backgrounds) rose to the American presidency (in a still-prevalent “Anglo” society) should receive more emphasis than has been accorded.

FDR (like his 5th cousin Theodore Roosevelt) knew his ancestors arrived in the 1600s, even before New Netherland became New York State.

He also knew that his female ancestors could claim membership not only in the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), but also in The Colonial Dames of America.

At a time when the DAR resisted newcomers, describing their ancestors as “colonists” and all others as “immigrants,” FDR offered a striking response:

“Remember, remember always, ladies that all of us, and you and I, especially, are descended from immigrants – and revolutionists!”

John Kennedy’s father did not like to be called “Irish-American;” he asked what it took to be regarded as “American.”

But when Jack sought the presidency he learned what every ethnic person experiences in our nation: no matter how you define yourself, you need to deal with how others see you.

Jack Kennedy increasingly highlighted the heritage his father sought to transcend. If you have not seen the documentary, “Kennedy in Ireland,” it powerfully demonstrates the enormous pride of people in Ireland for one of “their kind.” On that June 1963 visit, President Kennedy said:

“When my great-grandfather left here to become a cooper in East Boston, he carried nothing with him except a strong religious faith and a strong desire for liberty. If he hadn’t left, I would be working at the Albatross Company across the road.”

As his politics moved beyond Boston, President Kennedy wrote a book, appropriately entitled, “A Nation of Immigrants.” When Robert Kennedy added a new introduction after his brother’s assassination, he emphasized: “Our attitude toward immigration reflects our faith in the American ideal. We have always believed it possible for men and women who start at the bottom to rise as far as their talent and energy allow.

Neither race nor creed nor place of birth should affect their chances.”

Frank Sinatra, bolstering FDR during World War II, was awarded a special Oscar for his film song from “The House I Live In.”

“The faces that I see
All races and religions
That’s America to me.”

As I mentioned earlier, one effective way to relish our immigration heritage of diversity with its quests for progress and inclusion is to do some family history checking.

This is not a new idea; but it could be expanded with beneficial results – because those who seek perspectives on their own families are very likely to appreciate the journeys of those who have more recently arrived.

During the 1970s, I had a fellowship at Chicago’s Newberry Library, which specializes in family history studies. As a result of that experience, I developed a college course that was one of the most satisfying I have ever taught.

I called it: “Roots and Beyond: Family and Community in American Society.” The “Chronicle of Higher Education” gave a report on the experiences of those Hofstra students.

Young undergraduates began by doing a brief autobiography of part of their life (often junior or senior high school), then did a grandparent study, followed by examining changing developments in the community to which their families migrated.

Among the many fine results cited in the CHE report was the building of connections across age divides as college students got to know their grandparents better by interviewing them, while also getting perspectives from their contemporaries and other family members. Unanimously, young people came away from their studies with high appreciations of what their elders had done, a sense of where they began, the obstacles and challenges they faced, and the efforts that were expended in order to advance.

By seeking to place their family in the context of their community they also became aware of its demographics and the nature of suburban bonding experiences.

Those young people in that first course in the 1970s achieved much of what the American Historical Association recently said is still lacking in our history classes (and in our society): 1) an ability to foster informed, critical thinking, and 2) to nurture empathetic citizenship.

Every individual and every family can be enriched by doing their own “Roots and Beyond” study. From that is bound to come a deeper appreciation of what fellow citizens have experienced and are newly experiencing as today’s immigrants.

All a teacher needs to do is assemble the stories ready to be written in their classrooms.

This is the final post of a five part series written by esteemed historian, professor, and activist Michael D’Innocenzo and published by Long Island Wins. You can read the entire series here. 

Additional Resources:

  • Interested in planning a classroom family heritage and digital storytelling project for the upcoming school year? This lesson plan for K-12 teachers uses digital storytelling to capture immigration stories and family heritage of students.  Digital storytelling on immigration is a powerful way for teachers to create opportunities for “empathetic moments” among students and shape classroom environments while building literacy and writing skills. 

We offer free lesson plans, resources, book/film reviews, and grants to #teachimmigration. Stay connected! Follow us on twitter @ThnkImmigration.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Finding Common Ground Through Music, History, and Immigration Experiences

-- Contributed by Miri Ben-Airi pictured above

In sixth grade, I asked my mother, "Why do we study history?" I couldn't understand why events and stories that happened in the past could be relevant to my life today. My mother explained that we must understand where we are coming from in order to better understand who we are in this life. It took me many years to understand what she meant.

Coincidentally, it was also around this time that my teacher asked us to create our family tree as a school project. I remember walking into my grandparent's one bedroom apartment in Tel-Aviv, holding a red notebook in my hands. They seemed to be very excited to tell me everything. My Grandma started, "There was a little girl in our town in Poland who played the violin very beautifully. When the Nazis came into town, they cut off both of her hands so she could never play the violin again." I sat down with them for many hours listening to their horror stories of pain and struggle. I will never forget that day, the only time I've seen both of my grandparents crying. The disturbing violinist story has stayed with me -- it was not a story for a sixth grader! -- especially because I had been already playing the violin for five years at that time and loved it. That day, I learned that the Holocaust was more than just a memorial ceremony in school.

It's amazing how kids process events. You may think that this experience could have helped me develop a sense of identity and encourage me to explore my past even more. In fact, the opposite happened; the memory of my grandparents' tortured souls and the notion that I had something to do with the Holocaust traumatized me. We never had another conversation about my family tree and my red notebook was put away. As a matter of fact, I made a conscious effort to avoid anything that had to do with the Holocaust and stayed away from related books and movies. The one thing I could not control was my dreams. In my recurring nightmare, I was hiding in the closet, just like Anne Frank, holding my breath so the Nazis couldn't find me. I used to wake up in the middle of the night, gasping for air and terrified.

My violin, which I continued playing very seriously, took me on a journey. After finishing my mandatory military service in Israel, I wound up in the Big Apple following my dream to become a professional musician. During my first couple of years in New York, I didn't feel comfortable sharing where I was from. I wanted to avoid it by being silent, just like my grandparents once did. I was playing and performing a lot of jazz, and then hip hop and R&B. I gravitated toward African-American culture and the community has embraced and supported my music since my very first performance at the Apollo Theatre in NYC. Although I was originally from Israel, I celebrated African-American culture along with my fellow artists and performed at many cultural and heritage-related events, tours and shows. These unique experiences helped me realize that people from different parts of the world can relate to each other through struggle. During one of my shows in Atlanta, I visited the MLK center and was inspired to compose a musical piece featuring Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's timeless "I have a dream" speech.

When you look at the history of struggle against racism, although the stories, the players and the geographic locations of the events are different, the principle is always the same: a group of people who claim superiority over another group of people. My family story of struggle was all about racism. In my opinion, racism is ignorance; people are people, and we have all been given fantastic potential to fulfill in our lifetime. Yet, this monster has been running loose, annihilating cultures, killing people and even creating a "final solution" for my people. I sometimes wonder where people get this illusion that they were born "superior"?

One of the most beautiful things about music is that it allows you to express yourself in a unique and individual way while playing with other people. In my career, I have had the privilege of playing with different artists from all over the world; it's a great experience where everyone contributes their own unique voice and style to create music together. In other words, while playing together, the differences between us are being embraced, accepted, respected and help create something extraordinary. If only life could be that way!

Music helped me to eventually break my silence and accept myself for who I am. Sharing my family story with people made me realize how much we all have in common; I grew proud of my family history and my nightmares stopped. My healing process and transformation inspired me to found a not-for-profit organization, The Gedenk Movement, to promote awareness about how ignorance, bigotry and hatred have and can ultimately result in genocide. We encourage young people to break their silence while using creative outlets as self-expression. People have so much in common no matter who they are, where they are from and what they do. Let's be proud of our differences and focus on our common ground as we do in music!

As the years passed, I have learned that my grandparents never shared their family story with anyone else, not even with my father. They kept their past silent so they could have a normal life and raise a family. They broke their silence only one time, the day I came over to do my family tree project.

This post was part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and reproduced here with the author’s permission and was originally titled “Music and The Third Metric: The Silence of the Violin.” To read the original piece, please click here.

Additional Resources:

·      About Miri Ben-Airi – Miri Ben-Ari is a Grammy Award-Winning violinist/producer/humanitarian, “UN Goodwill Ambassador of Music to the United Nations Associations of Brazil”, Global Brand Ambassador for Harman Kardon and a featured blogger for the Huffington Post. Originally from Israel, has created her own unique sound; a revolutionary fusion of classical, soul and dance music. Visit her website at:

·      About family heritage and storytelling This lesson plan for K-12 teachers uses digital storytelling to capture immigration stories and family heritage of students.  Digital storytelling on immigration is a powerful way for teachers to create opportunities for “empathetic moments” among students and shape classroom environments while building literacy and writing skills.

·      About immigration and music – Music is an exceptional way to engender appreciation of different cultures. Consider asking students what cultural influences shape their music tastes and how is U.S. music shaped by immigration?  For youth inspiration and civic engagement in music, listen to Chords of Courage, a non-profit with original songs and on people of courage with accompanying discussion guides for classroom and community usage.

We offer free lesson plans, resources, book/film reviews, and grants to #teachimmigration. We consider articles and book reviews written by teachers, students, and education stakeholders related to immigration. Stay connected! Follow us on twitter @ThnkImmigration.