Re-Imagining Migration: International Network of Educators to Harness Power of Immigrant Narratives

With support from the Ford Foundation, UCLA Ed & IS launches program to develop interdisciplinary practices for teaching empathy, recognizing all students' potential.

To paraphrase George Santayana – who immigrated from Spain to the United States at the age of eight – those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. In an age of anti-immigrant rhetoric tinged with the hysterical patina  of the early 20th Century, researchers at the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies are working to keep this from happening.

Carola Suárez-Orozco, co-founder of Re-Imagining Migration and UCLA professor of Human Development & Psychology, delineates the traumatic experiences and personal resilience of refugee and immigrant children at the program’s inaugural seminar, held at UCLA.

Re-Imagining Migration was founded in 2017 by UCLA Professor of Education Carola Suárez-Orozco, Wasserman Dean Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, and Adam Strom, former director of Scholarship and Innovation at Facing History and Ourselves. The first year was spent developing the groundwork, materials, and networks that comprise this online resource for educators and those who serve immigrant children and youth.

This month, an inaugural catalyst meeting of 50 teachers and teacher educators, museum and library personnel, foundations, and other stakeholders from across the globe was convened at UCLA. The participants were selected by Re-Imagining Migration as diverse and interdisciplinary representatives from The Smithsonian Institution, The Angel Island Immigration Station, The Tenement Museum, The New York Hall of Science, Confianza, Facing History and Ourselves, and The National Gallery of Art, as well as an international cadre of scholars from throughout UCLA, Harvard, Germany, India and elsewhere. The meeting, which was held on Aug. 12-14 at UCLA’s Luskin Conference complex, centered on finding working solutions for teaching and learning about migration through interdisciplinary methods within the arts, humanities, science, reading, and mathematics.

“All children deserve to flourish to their full potential,” said Dean Suárez-Orozco at the meeting. “At a time when the fundamental humanity of immigrants has been hijacked … we need to get this right. This is an endeavor that has great demographic urgency, economic urgency, it is a social and ethical endeavor.”

Adam Strom, formerly of Facing History and Ourselves, brings his expertise in sharing diverse narratives to his directorship of Re-Imagining Migration.

Carola Suárez-Orozco, who heads the division of Human Development & Psychology at UCLA Ed & IS, has recently co-authored an evidence brief on family separations. She shared research-based insights into the psychological effects of trauma and displacement; the resilience and drive of immigrant students; and the sense of exclusion and criminalization among immigrant youth that can undermine their academic and social success. Dean Suárez-Orozco shared extensive data on the conditions of migration, including the child majority among the world’s refugees; forced migrations due to violence, war, or climate change; the familial and financial decisions that drive migration; and the misconception around getting immigrant students “up to speed” rather than capitalizing on their strengths.

Strom, who directs Re-Imagining Migration, and Veronica Boix-Mansilla, who serves as its research director and is principal investigator for Harvard Project Zero, explored “What Unites Us? An Emerging Re-Imagining Migration Framework.” Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj, director of the Center for College Readiness at Seton Hall University presented “Mapping Learning Needs and Dilemmas of Practice.” In addition, presentations of research and interdisciplinary teaching were given by Jean-Michel Dissard, filmmaker, producer, and creator of the I LEARN AMERICA project; Azru Mistry, educator and artist at the Srishti Institute for Art Design and Technology in Bangalore; Katherine Toy, executive vice president of Partnerships and Programs, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy; and Alfredo Novoa, a Ph.D. student in the division of Human Development & Psychology at UCLA Ed & IS. During the Re-Imagining Seminar, attendees presented their ongoing or proposed new projects on language and literacy practices; improving school climates; integration human migration into socioemotional learning; and engaging immigrant students and their families in STEM learning.

Verónica Boix Mansilla serves as research director for Re-Imagining Migration and principal investigator for Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

An innovative teaching tool developed by Re-Imagining Migration is the “Moving Stories” app, which will provide educators with a means to harness the power of narrative to teach about the human facets of migration. The app provides a template of questions and a platform for a video or audio-only interview on an individual’s migration history through family stories or first-hand recollection.

Ampersand had the opportunity to speak with the Suárez-Orozcos and Strom on what Marcelo Suárez-Orozco describes as the “moral imperative” to not only educate immigrant children and youth with recognition of their potential, but to achieve empathy and understanding among non-immigrant students and educators who have the future in common with their newcomer peers.

Ampersand: What are the challenges around education for all students in the age of global migration?

Adam Strom: Part of it is reframing the challenge. So much of education around immigration has been framed through a lens of language acquisition. By focusing so exclusively on language learning, the complexity of newcomer and immigrant kids’ experience is lost and they are often segregated from peers. We also fail to grasp that migration is actually a shared experience as humans, most especially in the United States relative to other countries.

We want to help people first understand this shared experience by developing an educational framework and to rethink migration while working with educators to bring new tools into classrooms. We think that it is essential education – to not isolate the topic, but actually using it as an engaging teaching strategy bringing students together.

Carola Suárez-Orozco: The undocumented piece is the other lens that people [apply] toward immigrant-origin young people. It’s also about reframing the narrative. Instead of [immigration] being a deficit, it’s actually an asset for our society and a way to recognize our common denominators of experience.

Adam: We are trying to think about having different entry points to this conversation [that are] discipline-specific. We are trying to offer a new opportunity to think about the role that the arts can play in the conversation; the role that teaching history can play; and the role that the sciences can play, while giving people new perspectives on the migration stories over time.

Wasserman Dean Marcelo Suárez-Orozco shared data on the world’s majority populations of child refugees and their international economic and social impact on all nations.

&: Why is migration the defining issue of our times?

Marcelo Suárez-Orozco: When a quarter of all children in our country and a quarter of all children in the OECD countries – the high- and middle-income countries in the world – [are] the only sector of the child and youth population that is growing, you do the math. How will California remain the fifth largest economy in the world if we don’t have the tools, competencies, and sensibilities that every child will need to reimagine and reengineer the opportunities that our state has given to all our citizens? These are going to be the future engineers, police, doctors, lawyers, firefighters, nurses… their future is our future.

Adam: We know that change makes people uncomfortable, and anticipated demographic change makes people quite uncomfortable. One thing that can be really helpful is a reminder of our shared past, a recognition of what’s familiar in our story today, and to help people understand the differences. It will help people develop a new perspective and a new language on [migration].

&: How does the “Moving Stories” app provide these common threads for discussion and collaborative learning, as well as provide a way to build empathy among all students and others who will use it?

Carola: We know that narrative is a really effective device for people to imagine the possibilities in themselves and means to develop empathy and perspective taking. Moving Stories was developed as a way for people to explore other people’s moving and migration stories. We played with “Moving Stories” as a pun on movement.

Marcelo: It has three meanings. It’s moving in that people are moving from Point A to Point B. It’s moving in that it’s changing – the stories of immigrants in Year One, Year Five, or Year Ten are different stories. And, once you sit down and listen to the stories and read the records, you can’t help but be moved.

The app is devised with the hope that kids, students, teachers, citizens, will use it to hear the stories of others. And in the hearing of the stories of others, you can make intuitive, purposeful connections to your own story. And this is what we are discovering: everybody has an immigration story.

Katherine Toy, executive Vice President of Partnerships and Programs at the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, shared the history of San Francisco’s Angel Island, a major point of entry for Chinese immigrants in the late 19th Century.

Carola: We developed a repertoire of interview questions aimed at guiding participants to understand their own Moving Stories, whether from the first-generation perspective, the second-generation experience – when parents initiated migration – as well as those whose families have a more distant migration history.

Through the scaffolding of the app and in the process of doing the work in classrooms and other learning environments, participants will naturally be drawn in to consider their own stories as well. We are also developing curriculum to be used in classrooms to prepare teachers to talk about this topic, to lead students’ investigations, and to conduct the perspective building interviews, considering common denominators of experience while recognizing that everyone has a different story.

Adam: I’ve used this with educators in Boston, in Charlotte, in Chicago. Every time, it’s the same response: “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to listen to somebody. I never take the time to listen.” My favorite moment was in Boston, where a woman who is Irish American from many generations past, perhaps fifth-generation, and a woman from Puerto Rico were interviewing each other.

Afterwards, I was cleaning up the papers in the classroom and walking out the door. Both of these women came up and grabbed me by the arm [and said], “Thank you so much. We both had no idea we had so much in common.”

Carola: That is the point – we have so much in common that we fail to realize in this climate of uncivil discourse. We intentionally want people to have an, “Ahh, I never thought about that” moment, to take them out of their complacency about issues that are unquestioned, including their own families’ stories.

Adam: It becomes an opportunity to explore not only inequity but our country’s history in very powerful ways. And it can become uncomfortable. I [interviewed] somebody who talked about sitting on their grandparents’ knees, who were Eastern European immigrants. They talked about how foreign they looked and how afraid they were of “the other,” except “the other” was Grandpa.

Carola: When we first developed it, we envisioned it as having the potential of the It Gets Better Project or a #MeToo-type of movement. Also, because we’re researchers, we developed it as a searchable type of tool. We can search for “women from El Salvador” or “men from Mexico.” You can look at demographics or you can search for particular questions in the interview.

Marcelo: It’s an archive, a historical record of who we are at this point in our lives, and it’s also a map of how we talk about this, the defining topic in our country today; sadly, a topic that divides. We hope that this becomes a topic that unites us because we all have a Moving Story.

Narratives are typically fragmented. Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards.”  What he didn’t say was that we impose a kind of order into narratives. When we’re collecting [data], it’s amazing, the fragmentation. How little we know, and then, the instinct to rescue our own history really becomes an imperative.

Alfredo Novoa, a doctoral student in the UCLA division of Human Development & Psychology (at center), is working with a Los Angeles school on creating maps to chart immigrant’s personal trajectories.

&: What were some of the biggest takeaways from this inaugural meeting of the Re-Imagining Migration network?

Carola: One of the things we learned is, it’s complicated. We need to come up with a counter-narrative or counterstrategy for teachers who are dealing with this every single day [and] for educators of all kinds to create more inclusive learning environments that work for all.

A lot of deep thinking has had to go into everything we develop. None of the conversations are finished. We launched a deep narrative but now we need to continue to work together to develop content that is meaningful and ethically aware. To everything that we do, there might be a counteraction, and we need to think carefully through all those steps and the potentials for what could go wrong. But people need to think together on this and they shouldn’t feel alone.

Adam: We just got a few responses to our evaluation survey and the biggest takeaway from people is that they feel they are part of something. They feel supported as part of a network and they feel like they have colleagues they can turn to. During the coming year, we will be working hard to keep the network of Inaugural Seminar participants connected using digital technology [and] face-to-face work. Everybody left with an action research project. There are several dozen different ways in which people are taking away what they learned, from schoolwide projects for curriculum to museums talking about building connections with one another – really powerful examples that are starting to come through from different disciplines that we will be able to document, share, and hopefully inspire others to get involved.

&: How will the work of Re-Imagining Migration help to educate and develop empathy among non-immigration students and populations?

Marcelo: It’s a way for the non-immigrant kids to understand themselves, their lives in the current world. They’re in a world where demographic change is at the center of the experience in our schools. In our country, everyone has a migration story. Some of us came voluntarily, some of us came involuntarily. Some of us came many, many, thousands of years ago; some of us came yesterday.

One idea about citizenship is a model of shared fate: we’re in this together and we need to make it work. We’re all human beings, we all share in the narrative of the nation and the purpose of the democratic endeavor, which is how we enhance opportunities, how we enhance the common good.

&: Do you think that the current political climate has increased interest in learning about immigration?

Carola: We were already well embarked on this mission before the change in administrations. The current political climate has certainly upped the urgency. And it also has made this work so much more complicated, specifically around the vulnerability of the children. Many of these kids are citizen children; it’s their parents who are foreign-born. We have to think about every single thing we do [and] are the potential risks that the kids are going to be facing, from bullying in the classroom to their parents being taken away.

Marcelo: What I also have to also say is that it’s all over the world. We see this throughout Western Europe, Australia, South Africa, all over the world. Brexit, at the end of the day is, “We want to control our borders. We’re an island nation.” The economy was one piece [of that]. What was really driving [Brexit] was trying to control immigration.

So, I think that the U.S. is unhappy in its own way, to paraphrase Tolstoy. Other countries are likewise struggling with this issue.

Carola: What’s interesting is that in the past, there has been a correlation between downturns in the economy and anti-immigrant, xenophobic responses. They’ve been very tightly correlated. This is a blip in the usual patterns because our economy is booming. And yet, xenophobia is up. Why is that happening? I suspect it’s because of the demographic imperative. [The sentiment is], ‘Oh my goodness, who are these people? How are we going to keep them out?’ There’s no other way to account for it.

Adam: From a historical perspective, [it’s been] 50 years after the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act. In those 50 years, we’ve had a couple of generations of immigrant-origin kids who are actually making their voices heard. And I think it would be a mistake to downplay the role that they have played in making immigration an issue. They’ve made it an issue for the last administration; they’ve made an issue for this administration.

&: With having a multidisciplinary and international network of educators and their shared resources, what are the ultimate goals for Re-Imagining Migration beyond the classroom?

Marcelo: The opportunities are immense. We had an extraordinary visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art during the seminar. The senior curator for modern art gave us a tour of how the story of immigration and the story of refugees is literally hanging on the walls of our museums. You can’t understand our culture, you can’t understand our art, you can’t understand the way we talk today, the way we eat today, without understanding the last 200 years of human migration.

Carola: The work of Re-Imagining Migration is essential, in a time where so much of the narrative is around exclusion and who’s in, who’s out; who belongs, who doesn’t – “them and us.” A little of that happens at all times, but this kind of exclusionary thinking is on steroids right now.

This is a domain and topic that can be explored so richly using different disciplinary lenses. It can be looked at historically, from the science perspective, or through the lens of literature or visual imagery. There are so many ways to approach this topic. It just invites interdisciplinarity as a way to think more deeply.We need to come up with a counter-narrative or counterstrategy for teachers who are dealing with this every single day [and] for educators of all kinds to create more inclusive learning environments that work for all.

Adam: I want to form civic dialogue and empower young people who feel that they have a voice. I want kids in the classroom who don’t feel that they have to be nervous about their identities as they walk home. I want kids to understand how important their peers are to the future of their shared wealth.

Education is a long-term struggle. So, part of that is what are the skills do we want people to walk away with, for the 21st Century. I want them to get that immigration has been our shared history. But I also want them to really recognize that we’re in it together.

To explore Re-Imagining Migration, visit this link.

With reporting by John McDonald


Above: Stephanie Barron, senior curator of modern art at LACMA (at far right), led a special tour of the museum’s collections through the lens of immigrant contributions to the visual arts for the participants of the Re-Imagining Migration inaugural seminar.