On April 1, the St. Olaf branch of the political science honor society Pi Sigma Alpha (PSA) hosted a panel discussion featuring Nekima Levy-Pounds, Mariano Espinoza and Sambath Ouk, three prominent Minnesotan community leaders. Each speaker offered a unique perspective on exclusionary politics, immigration and race using his or her own experience with specific social justice issues.
Levy-Pounds, a civil rights attorney who was named “Minnesota Attorney of the Year” in 2014, has been a nationally recognized expert on topics ranging from mass incarceration to the public education system. Espinoza, a social justice advocate for the Latino community, helped pass the 2013 Minnesota Dream Act and is currently pushing for new reforms to help immigrants. Ouk, the English Language (EL) Coordinator for the Faribault School District, was named one of the “40 Under 40” honorees by the Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce for his work as chair of the Faribault Diversity Coalition.
“Recent national events have made this topic especially timely,” PSA President Tyler Benning ’17 said. “The divisive rhetoric of the 2016 presidential campaign certainly influenced our decision to focus on the politics of exclusion, and it seems that some of that rhetoric is being translated into policy.”
Speakers were offered several prepared questions from PSA in addition to questions from the audience. The discussion topics were primarily concerned with the situation in Minnesota specifically, focusing on the manifestation of unfair policies and the marginalization of certain groups of people. Levy-Pounds stressed that many people often overlook exclusionary policies because they do not affect them directly, as seen in the criminal justice system. Growing up in an impoverished area in Los Angeles, she saw firsthand how police would specifically target black men for committing petty crimes. She also observed this in Minnesota, where spitting on the sidewalk was once considered a crime, thus enabling police officers to apprehend individuals for minor offenses. Levy-Pounds helped repeal the law, arguing that police used it as a means to target black individuals at a much higher rate than any other group.
The rhetoric leading up to exclusionary policies also targets immigrants and those who already feel excluded by society, according to Ouk. As a Cambodian refugee, Ouk was forced to flee his home and move to the United States at the age of two. Although he has lived here for most of his life, he stated that the rhetoric of the current federal administration has “made [him] feel like a refugee again.” This feeling of fear and uncertainty is not unique to Ouk; many people of color, immigrants and other groups currently feel persecuted by the federal government.
Espinoza echoed Ouk’s sentiment, stating that he has never seen so much fear in the Hispanic community. In the United States, a country that celebrates Hispanic food but disregards the very people whose culture it has adopted, Espinoza argued that “Latinas are loved and hated at the same time.” He also stressed the economic influence that undocumented immigrants have in Minnesota, arguing that without them the economy would collapse.
Each speaker also gave ideas regarding ways for St. Olaf students and community members to help solve these issues, including volunteering in the community, becoming involved in politics and simply having conversations with different people. The speakers also said that change at the local level can in turn bring about change at the federal level.
“Never underestimate the power of small beginnings,” Levy-Pounds said.
“I was happy with the discussion, and it was great to see so many people attend on such a beautiful day,” Benning said. “It is important for people to be aware of issues facing various communities, and I certainly gained a greater awareness of some of the struggles of those around us. I hope others did as well.”