Growing Democracy

The sun was only just rising when 47 adult English learners from 23 different countries met at the LSS Main Street office earlier this month to take a much-anticipated annual trip to the state capitol building in Pierre.

For these learners, the trip is both eye-opening and inspiring. To be able to walk into a building, meet the people who govern a state, and be treated with respect, is a surprising, if not shocking, event. 

After all, most of the learners come from countries where it would be impossible to walk into a government building and meet those in power.

Aberdeen, Huron and Sioux Falls English Learners in front of Capitol Building

LSS students gather in front of the state capitol building on March 2.  Students from Sioux Falls met in Pierre with other refugees and immigrants from Aberdeen and Huron to witness democracy first-hand.

Diana Streleck, an English teacher who accompanied the group, said, “The image that stays with me is the impromptu photo shoot with the members from the Department of Labor and Regulation.  The members ate lunch with our students and spoke to them about the work they do to support their learning and job placement within Sioux Falls.  The students desired to have their pictures with the government officials because the contrast between the priorities of American government (working for the people) and their own country are so different.”

Laura Smith-Hill, the Education Program Coordinator for LSS who also participated in the trip, said, “A favorite moment was when Abdilatif Omar stood outside the Governor’s office and asked a friend to take his picture. He pointed to the sign that said Governor’s Office and said, ‘Dreams come true!’”

In addition to speaking with officials from the Department of Labor and Regulation (DLR), the students also toured the capitol building, met Governor Dennis Daugaard, visited both the House and the Senate chambers, and met with two state legislators.

with governor

Students meet South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard.

Diana said the trip is not only beneficial to the students, but also to state leaders who meet the refugees and immigrants each year.

“Our leaders will affect the lives of these students through the passage of bills. Their presence helps the legislators put a face instead of a number to the statistics they discuss when considering any new bills that might change the lives of our students or their families still waiting to join them,” she said.

Laura echoed the sentiment: “Some legislators may not have had meaningful interactions with people who have recently immigrated to the U.S. Some may have never met a person who came to the U.S. with the status of a refugee. This annual visit to Pierre provides our legislators with an opportunity to meet some of the proudest, most polite and hard-working South Dakota residents we could ever hope to meet. In reality, they are proud South Dakotans because of where they came from. They, like all of our ancestors, bring the spirit of innovation and determination that our country was built upon.

The trip, which has been an annual event for LSS for the past 10 years, is funded as a special project through the Department of Labor and Regulation as an English Literacy and Civics Field Trip.

Laura said that on the bus ride home, she asked the students what they thought of Pierre. 

“They replied enthusiastically, ‘Very good! We are very happy!’ I also asked the students, ‘How many of you are US citizens?’ As I peered into the dark bus, no hands were raised. Then I asked a second question, ‘How many of you want to become US citizens in the future?’ Every hand in the bus shot up in the air as students called out ‘Yes!’”

About 120 students applied to go to Pierre, but, unfortunately, there was not enough space for everyone.

“I shared in the disappointment of two students who began to cry when they were told they were not awarded seats on the bus to Pierre,” she said.

Fortunately, because the trip is made every year, those students who didn’t get to go this year will have priority next year.

Laura pointed out that when we grow up in a free country like the U.S., it is sometimes difficult to comprehend the privileges of our citizenship.

“Then I hear how our students were never allowed to vote in their native countries or how they had to wait in line for days for the privilege. If you want to be reminded of how blessed we are in this great nation, I would encourage you to consider the stories of our adult English learners and how they strive for the opportunity just to visit our state capital and daily hope to one day become U.S. citizens,” she said.

Posted by Julie Boutwell-Peterson

 

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