Complexities of an Immigrant Community
The December 11 issue of The New Yorker has an enlightening article by William Finnegan entitled "New in Town: The Somalis of Lewiston". The article doesn't seem to be available online, but a slide show is.
The article describes how Somalis by the thousands have moved to the relatively small city of Lewiston, Maine, and how both they and the townspeople have adjusted.
What particularly struck me is the complexity of the Lewiston Somali community. (The New Yorker is good about getting under the apparent surface unities of unfamiliar situations, as evidenced by its coverage of the Middle East.) There are in fact two disparate groups: the Somalis and the Bantus, belying the apparent homogeneity of the immigrants. In Somalia, the Bantus were slaves of the Somalis; and many of the resultant attitudes have carried over to Lewiston. Needless to say, this introduces serious complications into who speaks for the community, who can be a reliable translator or social welfare worker, who dares to speak in whose presence, etc.
The implications for public engagement are obvious: a well-meaning service-learning or community-based research project can easily step into a minefield of inter-group competition and resentment. As our colleges and universities do more of this work, they should try to build up and share with each other a sustainable infrastructure of understanding of each community's dynamics.