October 2005
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Battling racism in the Four Corners: Diversity boosts economy, expert states

By Jim Mimiaga

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A vibrant city economy depends on positive community attitudes toward ethnic diversity, advised officials with the U.S. and Colorado Civil Rights commissions at a Fort Lewis College forum Sept. 23.

Communities that indicate intolerance or a predisposition towards religious, cultural or ethnic prejudice hurt their chances of attracting new industry and suffer a lower tax base, said John Dulles, the regional director for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

“When Qwest looked into moving their headquarters to Colorado Springs, the many technicians from culturally diverse backgrounds reported a cold reception when looking for homes and checking out potential neighborhoods. The result? The c o m p a n y pulled out.”

Dulles said a similar situation happened in Fort Collins when Hewlett Packard’s computer staff, many of Eastern descent, also felt unwelcome when trying to relocate there.

“When stories like these make headlines in the Wall Street Journal as they have, it creates negative publicity for these towns and cities, and that’s something prospective companies remember,” he said.

In Pueblo, said Ester Belen, a Durango High Latino educator on the forum, 47 percent of the community is Hispanic, but the courtesy of adding additional signage in Spanish was never done, creating a feeling of isolation for newcomers and locals.

“It seems so simple, but not adding that dual-language signage in public places sends a message that is not welcoming to immigrants arriving who are trying hard to adjust to a new country and become informed.”

She said racism is often the “elephant in the room that people don't talk about because it is too painful.”

“How much are you sharing your community with others? That right there says a lot about a community.”

Lack of receptiveness to Native American populations in schools hurts border towns like Cortez and Durango as well, said Art Neskahi, a Native activist working to raise awareness of racism towards A m e r i c a n Indians in the Four Corners.

“Cortez has 22 percent Native Americans but only one or two teachers who are Indians. More effort is needed to improve education for Native kids who need it, not just the exceptional ones who are going to college anyway.”

Jackie Fisher, a District Re-1 Board member, said the Montezuma-Cortez High School now has an elective class about Southwest archaeology and another native-culture class is planned for next year.

She said sections of history books in early education focus on general Indian history, but establishing an elementary class more specific to local tribes such as the Navajos, Utes, and Jicarilla, “is a good idea. Early on is when diversity needs to be promoted.”

That's because when Native American children leave the reservation to go to public schools, the cultural shift can be overwhelming. Ute leaders want a more concerted effort by public schools to teach younger students about local tribes’ history. Sharing that knowledge helps Indian children to feel more accepted in the classroom.

“I don't think teachers know how to promote diversity dialogue as well as they could,” said Navajo Ricardo Nakay, a Fort Lewis student who found success at the college following many setbacks. “When racial incidents occur, the teachers don't know how to react.”

He said law officers’ attitudes also show unwarranted suspicion. “I’ve been stopped six times by police in Durango “just for walking down the street,” said Nakay, who wears some traditional clothing daily. “When I walk into a store, I'm followed around. I would not move my family here after I graduate.”

Fort Lewis C o l l e g e President Brad Bartel said one priority of the school is to improve retention and graduation rates for Native Americans.

He said in primary schools, “the difference in reading and math scores between whites and non-whites is alarming.”

Encouraging the 700 Native American students at Fort Lewis to mentor those kids would make a big difference, he said.

Chris Paulson, a Durango schoolboard member, said the district has a “long way to go” in teaching children about local culture and history.

“How many of us know about relocation programs, the Trail of Tears, being punished for speaking Native languages, Native children being forced to have their hair cut off?” she asked. “The dominant culture does not know, and if that history is swept under the rug the kids are made to feel embarrassed and ashamed about their own culture.”

Mexican-American immigrants are prevalent in the Four Corners as well and often experience discrimination. Ryan Osbourne of Compañeros, a Durango human-rights group, reported that the Latino community feels more at ease thanks to a recent agreement by the Durango City Council establishing the town as immigrant-friendly.

The resolution, similar to one in Sante Fe, N.M., says that local police shall not actively team up with immigration enforcers to identify illegal immigrants who arrive to merely work for a living.

A study under way by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission shows that “bordertown discrimination against Native Americans is huge,” Dulles said. “It's important for reservation citizens to tell their leaders what they face off the reservation.”

A human-relations committee is badly needed in Durango and Cortez, Dulles said. Such a board helps to defuse racial tensions and acts to deal quickly with racial incidents, including working with police to prosecute offenders.

“I remember in 1974 there was a triple murder in Farmington with racial overtones , so we were dispatched to investigate,” he recalled. “It was a very tense situation and a lot of the elected officials threatened us to leave. The editorials in the newspapers were very hostile.”

Thirty years later, the New Mexico city is more accepting of cultural differences, with public officials responding more effectively to quell racially motivated crime, he noted.

“I challenge the city councils of Durango, Cortez and Bayfield to move towards establishing a human-relations committee,” he said.

A healthy economy depends on resolving racial prejudice, he said. “In order to be an economic power, you must embrace diversity. There is a tie between minorities feeling comfortable, and economic success.”


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