UMBC partners with Latino Racial Justice Circle and Maryland Humanities in community-engaged research in Baltimore

Published: Sep 5, 2019

In their work with communities in Baltimore, the Latino Racial Justice Circle (LRJC) observed a recurring issue: immigrant, white American, and African American communities share faith-based spaces but rarely engage in community dialogue. As a result, members of these communities may never get to know each other – or may even live in fear of each other. 

Through a partnership with LRJC, UMBC’s Felipe Filomeno, professor of political science and global studies, a member of LRJC, and Tania Lizarazo, assistant professor of modern languages, linguistics, and intercultural communication and global studies, worked to develop, design, execute, evaluate, and disseminate the Honest Conversations on Immigration project. Through a course of dialogue, interviews, and digital storytelling, the program aims to foster dialogue between U.S.-born citizens and immigrants.

(L to R) Lizarazo and Filomeno preparing for the first Honest Conversations public forum.
(L to R) Lizarazo and Filomeno preparing for the first Honest Conversations public forum.

“Our goal as researchers was to use dialogue and digital stories as two ways to bring different communities together around religion, race, and immigration,” explains Filomeno, “and through that process create the potential to change the relationships within individuals, and between communities and society for the better.”

Community intersections

The Latino Racial Justice Circle (LJRC) is a volunteer, faith-based, immigrant support group based in Baltimore. It funds legal services, scholarships, and advocacy for federal immigration reform on behalf of Latino communities. This new project – similar to one addressing racism that has been implemented in more than 18 Catholic parishes in Baltimore – aims to bring faith-based groups from different backgrounds together to reveal their commonalities and build on shared strengths.

“We fear what we don’t know. And what we need to learn is vast,” shares Ryan Settler, president of the Maryland Chapter of Call To Action (CTA), a progressive social justice organization that created the Racial Justice Circle (RJC ) five years ago. “Immigrant and refugee stories in the media leave us confused, concerned, and even fearful.  Honest Conversations begins to address those concerns.”

Through the Honest Conversations projects, volunteers from the LRJC, immigrants, and U.S.-born citizens in faith communities agree to engage in dialogue about perceptions of immigration and race. These initial steps towards understanding highly politicized issues can lead to collective action for racial justice and immigrant rights. 

“Our project crosses boundaries between the humanities and the social sciences, academia and community, between immigrants and U.S.-born citizens, inner-city and suburbs,” explains Filomeno.

Defining dialogue

The goal of the Maryland Humanities-funded project is for communities to move from confusion and anger to collaboration. For that to happen, participants first took part in two group dialogues consisting of 12-14 members from three faith-based communities. The dialogues were followed by the collection and sharing of personal experiences of religion, race, and immigration in Baltimore through digital storytelling. Both processes centered around the power of community dialogue to create respectful places in which difficult conversations might be had.

“Dialogue is a process of listening to others with the purpose of understanding. It does not aim to pass judgment, ‘just talk,’ mediate, debate, or negotiate,” explains Filomeno. He led the scientific implementation of structured dialogue and provided a framework for active listening. He also served as the facilitator at four churches in and around Baltimore: St. Ann’s Catholic Church; St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church; Church of the Annunciation; and St. Clement Mary Hofbauer Church.

Filomeno facilitating.
Filomeno facilitating a session.

“Because the dialogues happened in a familiar shared faith space the participants began with prayer, which was an entry point into a shared experience,” explains Filomeno. “I was then able to support where the participants wanted to take the conversation and guide them through clarifications,” he reflects.

Giuliana Valencia, co-chair for the LRJC, found the structured talks powerful and hopes other faith-based organizations will begin the program in their communities. “We recognize dialogue is the best way to change the human heart,” Valencia shares. “No matter how controversial the topic, you can always find common ground.”

Dialogue through digital storytelling

Digital storytelling is another key aspect of community-engaged research because it shifts the focus from the researcher creating information towards information being created by the community.

“Collaborative audiovisual pieces can share personal perspectives. These not only complement academic writing but help disrupt mainstream narratives as the only sources of knowledge,” explains Lizarazo. They can also create new ways for academics to think about primary sources. “Digital stories can serve as primary sources in different fields because they engage audiences and give access in ways writing doesn’t.” 

This type of community-based digital storytelling also addresses the issue of access. Lizarazo explains how academic journals, while useful in academic circles, also limit who shares in the knowledge. The power of digital storytelling is in its accessibility – often opening spaces for nonacademic conversations through social media networks. “These stories where the narrative and the message is controlled by the community member can be used for pedagogical and research purposes,” notes Lizarazo.

The digital stories Lizarazo helped create for Honest Conversations on Immigration present personal experiences of faith, race, and immigration in Baltimore. Some delve into the first reactions of relocation to Baltimore. Others focus on employment experiences as well as how faith-based organizations supported their transition into Baltimore.

The research also shows lived experience is linked to scholarship and the context in which it’s produced, explains Lizarazo, who brings a personal component to her work. “As a Colombian immigrant, I understand first-hand global hierarchies of passports that affects mobility. I also know how stereotypes affect people’s daily life and recognize the privilege a tourist, student, and work visa brings.”

Romi Pal ‘20, assisted Lizarazo in recording, transcribing, and producing the video testimonials along with a multimedia story for the overall project. Pal appreciated the opportunity to see the theories about race and immigration, learned through her global studies and political science majors, play out first-hand in a unique and relevant project.

Similar to Lizarazo, Pal was drawn to the project because of her immigrant background. “The dialogue emphasized how immigrant communities are not a monolith,” notes Pal. “As the daughter of immigrants myself, it made me feel thankful for the sacrifices my parents made when they came to the U.S. Baltimore still has a long way to improve race relations within religious communities.” 

Lessons from Baltimore communities help others 

After the talks, Filomeno and Lizarazo presented the research results to the general public at the Enoch Pratt Southeast Anchor Library in Highlandtown. The data revealed that private structured group dialogues had great advantages.

With the support of faith leaders and in collaboration with familiar community organizations, Honest Conversations on Immigration helped facilitate critical dialogue about controversial topics in a respectful manner. Participants also developed empathy toward each other and organized a multi-parish potluck as an initial step to collaborate across differences.

This initial project serves as a foundation for organizations across the United States who are working with similar issues and need support. Filomeno has created a digital guide for communities outside of Baltimore to implement their own Honest Conversations on Immigration project.

“As xenophobic discourses become mainstream,” notes Lizarazo, “I’m committed to learning and collaborating with members of immigrant communities. I want to help produce knowledge and show the nuances of our experiences.”

Learn more about Honest Conversations on September 10, 4 – 5:30 p.m., in the Theatre Rehearsal Space of the Performance Arts and Humanities Building (PAHB 127) at UMBC.


Banner image: (L-R) Pal getting ready to record and Lizarazo storyboarding with participant.  All images and digital stories courtesy of the Honest Conversations project.

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