A new layer of this mix came to the nation's attention in May, with nationwide demonstrations calling for immigration reform. While the media and political buzz has died down, the issue still boils just below the city's surface.
For the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center (IJPC), however, the issue is worth meeting head-on. IJPC hosts a Day of Dialogue on Immigration on Saturday.
"The idea that I have for a democracy is that different opinions are really good, and the chances that any one of us has a total and complete answer to any of the major problems are pretty slim," says Sister Alice Gerdeman, IJPC's coordinator. "Maybe from everybody's wisdom we can glean out something that will bring us a little closer to something that would work."
Through the use of a format that encourages participants to slow their rhetoric and fully understand opposing viewpoints, the Day of Dialogue seeks to move beyond confrontational debates and create an environment where the main goal is understanding, not victory over the opposition.
"We're not trying to change how (participants) feel," says Linda Davis, a volunteer helping to organize the program. "It's just trying to make it so people can appreciate that people have differing opinions and that's OK."
The Day of Dialogue is a three-part event. First, guest panel members representing different viewpoints speak on immigration reform. Before each panelist can speak, he or she must restate the point made by the previous panelist, who has the opportunity to clarify any misunderstanding.
"You're trying to ensure everyone has a correct understanding of what was said," Davis says.
Participants then split into small groups to discuss their reactions. Finally, each participant gets a chance to express his or her thoughts in front of the entire group. Facilitators work with each group to ensure that everyone who wishes to speak has the opportunity.
"One of the things about the process is that it's slower than your average conversation," Gerdeman says. "If you have to repeat back to me what I just said, you can't be planning your next question. People can listen and not just react."
The idea behind the format came from an experience IJPC staffer Kristen Barker had while completing a degree in peace studies at Xavier University. Following the 2003 Eyes Wide Open exhibit at XU, in which combat boots and civilian shoes were arranged on the mall to represent soldiers and civilians killed in Iraq, several students wrote to the university's newspaper expressing strong opposition to the demonstration.
As tensions between the two sides increased, Barker and a campus ROTC student were invited by a former professor to conduct a dialogue. Facilitated by another faculty member, the program allowed students on both sides to see past their preconceptions and understand opposing views.
"It was so energizing," Barker says. "I could understand his point of view, and hearing him re-state my point was energizing."
As the war in Iraq continued into 2006, IJPC wanted to find a new way to respond to the continued tension and controversy. Barker suggested the dialogue format. The Day of Dialogue on Iraq, held in February, was well received, she says.
"People said, 'I've been heard,' which is something that we didn't expect," Barker says.
A stream of positive feedback encouraged IJPC's planning committee to look for new topics to address with the Day of Dialogue format. After the nationwide protests in May, immigration reform was selected as the next topic.
But unlike the Iraq war, about which it was easy to find panelists to represent opposing viewpoints, immigration reform has proven to be more complex, with many different viewpoints.
"The immigrant rights groups in the area didn't know of organized groups in opposition here," Barker says.
While she was able to contact several national groups with more isolationist stances, none agreed to send a representative. One group from Toledo expressed interest in attending but didn't commit to sending a panelist.
IJPC's planning committee selected five panel members -- they hope to add a sixth -- to present diverse views on immigration reform. The panelists, ranging from a new immigrant to a low-paid American-born service worker to Butler County Commissioner Michael Fox, were selected because of their different views.
The goal is not a solution but a better understanding across all viewpoints, according to Gerdeman.
"While we respect the position everybody's in, whatever stance they've taken based on their own experience, this is another experience which we think will broaden that perspective in some way -- not necessarily make them change their perspective, but it will be an opportunity to gather more information and understand other people's positions," she says.
The Day of Dialogue on Immigration is from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday at Mt. Notre Dame High School in Reading. Admission is free. For more information, call Kristen Barker at 513-579-8547.