Lessons in civics and succession

by Jordan Green

At 10 past 6 the students are still trickling in. The tutor tells me the class started with about 20 people, but at this stage they feel lucky to pull in five. A couple minutes later the Citizenship and Cultural Orientation class begins with an attendance of four.

They’re Hispanic and Asian, female and male, divided equally by ethnicity and gender. They look somewhat tired, but attentive and, to a one, cheerful. This is the third class that has heard my presentation. The group’s small size relieves some of the intimidation of public speaking, and I figure their advanced level works in my favor by increasing the chances that I can put the material across.

It seems fitting that we’re here together after business hours on the third floor of the Old Greensborough Gateway Center in the suite leased by Church World Services. The building is designed for offices, studios and light manufacturing, nicely encapsulating the transitional breadth of the city’s economy. At the northwest corner of South Elm and Lee streets, the building is seated at the bottom of the city’s downtown corridor. Across Lee Street lies an empty expanse of land slated for redevelopment.

A gateway from Old Greensborough to the new city. A group of new North Carolinians learning to drive, speak English and practice citizenship — yes, putting down roots and establishing permanency.

I’ve accepted an invitation to speak about city government. The presentation is rudimentary, with some time set aside for questions and answers, but I don’t have much opportunity to ask the students about themselves, or for that matter what city government means to them. I start by introducing myself and holding up a copy of YES! Weekly to establish a visual representation of what I do as a news editor. The cover story is about textiles, and I mention that this industry once provided the major source of employment. Heads nod quickly in instant understanding. The main thrust of my presentation is the recent city council election, so I flip to a page showing the beaming faces of victorious candidates.

Kelly Dent, sponsorship developer for the agency, asks the students if they remember the names of any of the candidates. One of the men responds to the effect: How could you expect us to remember any of the names? We’ve only been talking about the election for two weeks.

I don’t know what the social dividend of these exchanges might turn out to be, but I hope they are useful at least on an individual level.

I explain that there are nine members on city council, which is the legislative body of the city, that the mayor is no different than any other member of the council, that the mayor and three other members run citywide and that five other members represent different districts. I explain that the city manager handles the day-to-day operations of the city and is hired and fired by the city council. Imagine what it would be like to have nine bosses, I say, adding the shopworn rule of thumb: “Every city manager learns to count to five.” Oddly enough, this little piece of color elicits murmurs of appreciation.

I explain that the heads of the various departments that impact quality of life – police, fire, parks and recreation and libraries, to name a few – answer to the city manager. Even to me, the information seems incredibly arcane.

I don’t know what, if anything, might come out of this exercise from a social standpoint. Halfway through the presentation I start to perspire, and even the thought of one of the four students deriving some individual benefit begins to seem optimistic.

It sounds clichéd, but I believe that immigrants are the future of Greensboro. Maybe my perspective has been skewed from learning the journalism trade in the Bronx, a borough shaped by successive waves of immigration –

German, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Southern black, Puerto Rican and African, to name only a few – or putting in my first year of newspaper employment in northern New Mexico, where Spanish settlement predates US statehood by more than 300 years. I’m certain that at some point the conglomeration of Hispanic and Asian communities in Greensboro will come of age politically and spark a realignment of the city’s politics, which for the time being remains entrenched in a long-running racial discourse defined in terms of black and white.

The city’s economic life in undeniably multiethnic. It should be glaringly apparent to anyone who observes a major building site or pays heed to the landscaping crew mulching the hedges at office parks and apartment complexes that a significant portion of the labor force is Latino. Stop for gas on the morning commute, and you can’t help but notice a good number of the people filling up their tanks and working the registers are Vietnamese. And the strip malls on High Point Road would be derelict were it not for the immigrant entrepreneurship.

Hispanics make up 7.5 percent of Greensboro’s population, according to the 2010 Census, while Asians comprise 4 percent of the population. Yet each group is represented by only about 1 percent of the electorate.

Whites make up less than half of the population but more than 50 percent of registered voters. Blacks are about 40 percent of the population, with a share of voter registration slightly higher.

Although I’m sure the professional staff of the city of Greensboro would argue otherwise, I believe that immigrants need to be politically engaged to ensure that they receive equitable services, particularly in the realm of public safety. No less importantly, I’m thinking as I scan the classroom, in 30 years maybe the child of one of these immigrants will help us figure out some way to maintain our crumbling infrastructure and how to pay for it without straining taxpayers beyond what they can bear. We can only hope.