What does diversity mean to the people of Annandale? This was the focus of a community dialogue last night conducted by the Fairfax County Department of Neighborhood and Community Services. A cross-section of people various backgrounds discussed the issue in small groups than reported back on their feelings about diversity.
Many spoke about differences in culture, country of origin, race, language, age, sexual orientation, religion, economic status, style of dress, habits, but others dug a little deeper, delving into such issues as “assimilation versus acculturation” and feelings of isolation among new comers. As one participant put it, “I’m not from here but I’m not from there.” To another participant, diversity is about “respecting different opinions other than your own.” She blames the “fear of the unknown” for the lack of connection among people with different backgrounds.
“We all have the American dream in this county. We are all immigrants in this country,” said Patricia Arabella, who is from El Salvador and takes an English as a second language evening course at Annandale High School. One of her classmates, a woman from Cambodia, said people come here “to have a better quality of life and opportunity.”
Bringing all the strengths of diverse cultures together is what makes this country the best, said Wafika Albani, from Syria. “I’m proud of my culture, and I enjoy American culture. I’m proud to be both.”
Iris Bradshaw, a parent liaison at Kilmer Middle School, described a diverse community as “a bouquet of all kinds of roses of different colors.” When certain groups are viewed as stereotypes, it becomes a barrier to communication, she said.
“When most us grew up, we lived in a homogeneous culture,” said moderator Norma Lopez, of the Department of Neighborhood and Community Services. “Your children no longer live in a culture like that. Over 40 percent of the Fairfax County school population are immigrants.”
Diversity “enriches our lives and also presents challenges,” said Lopez, who is from Puerto Rico. “Diversity only improves our quality of life,” said Capt. Bruce Ferguson of the West Springfield police station said. “Problems come up because we don’t understand each other. A lot of times that happens out of fear.”
Mike Franklin, from Jamaica, noted that we live in a county with significant numbers of minorities, but asked “how many are in the police force? How many are dropouts?” He blamed the high murder rate in Jamaica on people who returned after being in the United States. “They carry values from a society where there is abundance to societies where there is nothing,” he said.
Henry Bonilla, president of an El Salvador business group, said everyone should feel proud that the immigrant population has contributed to Fairfax County’s strong economy. He called the meeting “a good beginning” to get people from different backgrounds to come together and meet one another.
This was the first of what might be a three or four-session dialogue on diversity in Annandale, Lopez said. The next meeting will probably occur in January. Last night’s meeting was all about getting to know one another. Future sessions will delve deeper into issues and look for solutions, she said.
When asked why Annandale was chosen for this exercise, Lopez said, Annandale is a diverse community with a mix of older residents and newcomers from a lot of different countries. “Annandale is ready to talk about diversity. People want to reach out but don’t know how to go about it.”