As a newcomer to the Bridges Network I am learning with every message about the breadth and depth of this dynamic system. I posed a series of questions to Larry Walker, a committed volunteer who provides the energy, ideas and daily effort that forge the links and build the network. Larry answered these questions so completely that I learned and want to share what I learned by forthrightly presenting a Q&A we conducted via email. Larry’s enthusiasm for the project is evident. I want to share the information and that spirit. Please note that membership in the Bridges Network is free and open to all. An email to Larry Walker (lwalkerKMI@aol.com) is all that’s required. MT
What are the roots of the Bridges project? Did it grow from some sort of grassroots push?
Larry: In 2000 or 2001 Hector Garcia attended a meeting between immigrant groups and the INS. (now the US Citizenship and Immigration Services USCIS) When it was over, he was dismayed as both sides were louder and angrier than when they started. He went to Curt Aljets, the INS Director for Minnesota, and suggested that they begin an Immigrant Community Roundtable dedicated to respectful dialogue. This was done, and the Roundtables have operated on a quarterly basis since then. They achieved the goal of smoothing the conversation between the government and the immigrants. Minnesota now has the best relationship (measured in terms of complaints to the INS) in the country.
Besides moderating the Roundtables, Hector instituted the brilliant idea of initiating Action Groups at each Roundtable. An Action Group could be started on any issue that two or more people were interested in. Over 30 Action Groups have operated with good results, and two generated national solutions. One created the Immigrant Orientation Guide which the INS adopted and created a more generic version and which is distributed in 12 languages. Another created the InfoPass system which enables immigrants to make online reservations to meet with INS officers.
In 2003, I met Hector and began attending his Roundtables. At one of these, two action groups were formed, one to address improving immigrant education and the other to address improving information flow to immigrants. They quickly realized they were addressing very similar issues, so they merged. I volunteered for this group. About 10 people met three times and conceived the Bridges Email Network as a method to proactively reach out to the immigrant communities. Being more ‘technical’ than many of them, I ended up running it.
How do you describe the reach of the Network – I know it’s very inclusive which makes it unique
Larry: Anyone can join Bridges, so it is totally open. In the beginning we had six members, only 60% of the action group joined!. From that modest beginning, we have grown to just under 500 individual members. Over 200 organizations involved with immigrants belong. All our messages come from our members. Key to this membership is that we have engaged the power players, USCIS, US ICE, IRS, SSA, United Way, Lutheran Social Services, Legal Aid, etc. At the other end we have regular citizens from any walk of life, e.g. one undocumented student has joined and shares his blog even though I warned him that I have several ICE members.
Membership grew slowly initially. One thing I would do is when I saw an email with a load of obviously immigrant names in the email list, I would copy the whole list and send an invitation to join Bridges. If the list was about 50, I would usually get 3-5 members. Then at Roundtables I would invite everyone there to join and usually got another 3-5 members. Slowly, but surely, the membership grew.
Now, I get most of my new members through referrals. For about a year now, we are ‘stuck’ at just under 500 members. We have lots of new members, but we also lose a lot on the way as people move, graduate, lose interest, or plain can no longer handle our volume.
I believe I have a ‘hard core’ of 200-300 who have now been in for a long time — and who rely on the Network for a continuous flow of good information.
In terms of ‘reach’, I am sure that some messages reach thousands of people as our members share the items with their own lists.
Do you have plans to use available social media to build more of a community about the Bridges participants?
Larry: I am aware of this option, but for now have my hands full. I spend 1-2 hours a day, seven days a week on Bridges — and still am part of two companies — supposedly working full time.
Right now, I am the ‘gatekeeper’, i.e. Bridges is not a listserv where anyone can send anything at any time. This may not be essential as the quality of the messages we get is extraordinary. I have likely rejected less than 10 in 7 years. On the other hand, we have evolved an email protocol that seems to make a difference. Some of the ‘rules’
- there is a single message in each email – to help the reader focus on that one thing.
- each email is ‘clean’, e.g. no FWD, etc.
- each email has a useful topic/subject in the subject line.to enable members to quickly delete those of no interest.
- incompatibility across email systems is acknowledged, e.g.NEVER make a phrase a hot link, use the full http:// etc. address because links often get lost across email systems.
- acknowledge who the item is from by including their name, email address.
- thank individuals who submit their first items (when I notice).
- let individuals know when an item is particularly good.
I am now hitting our members with 150+ emails a month. That appears to be near some limit that people can stand, so not sure what they would do with even more messages.
Social networking, of course, would enable subgroups to form and focus on items of particular interest. So there are advantages — but that will come at some later time.
Are there gaps in the Network you would like to fill?
Larry: Absolutely. We do well with Africans, Asians, and Latinos. We have few from Eastern Europe. There are likely entire ethnic groups that have no one at all. So more outreach and connections would be very valuable.
Funding? I’ve never even asked about that. Is this all gratis (I think)?
Larry: Basically, it is gratis. One gentleman I have done work with pays me $250/month. A better personal income would be nice, but at the same time such things usually come with strings attached. As it is, we are very independent – which carries it own rewards.
In your dreams what is the ultimate goal of the Bridge?
Larry: A nation of Bridges Networks running locally in their own communities and sharing nationally useful items with the other ‘bridges’. I feel badly that every city and/or region does not have a Bridges Network. How do they ever know what is possible and what is going on?
I have offered this to one gentleman in NYC. But as I explained the steps to him, he disappeared. I have set up a similar network here in Minnesota to address issues with abused children. It is operating, but is not as far spread as Bridges. I trained a woman with little computer experience to run it, and she is doing a good job.
At a more generic level, I believe this journey has established a robust knowledge ecology consisting of:
- The Roundtables – for face to face contact.
- Website – for an accessible repository of the more valuable items.
- The Email Network – providing pro-active outreach.
- The Action Groups – providing a process for dynamic solutions to issues.
This knowledge ecology would have a role to play with large numbers of situations where it is desirable to establish an ‘engaged community of interest’.
Do you see emerging issues on the horizon? Shifting priorities, mergers, cuts in services, impact of technology, etc.
Larry: I think I can operate a useful Network for a long time the way we are doing it. It is low key, low expense, low tech.
The emerging issue would seem to be more one of missing related opportunities, e.g. our website is now dated, and I do not have time to put into it. So the larger knowledge ecology is making little progress. The Roundtables are also struggling as Hector now has a busy job and struggles to find time to keep the Roundtables moving.
At some point then, the smaller piece we have working well may become irrelevant and obsolete — but that will take some time.
You once mentioned your vision of Minnesota as a gateway for immigrants – do you want to expand on that? I personally like the image and think it was real possibilities for sharing a narrative.
Larry: Yes, this is a very big idea. My impression is that immigrants are coming to Minnesota (in spite of the weather) because overall we have the infrastructure that supports their arrival, orientation, and integration. Our infrastructure is robust: non-profits, churches, government agencies/councils, etc.
There must be an opportunity to make all of this very explicit and a visible resource of our state. We should promote it, encourage immigrants to come, and benefit from their energy, diversity, etc.
Once they are solid here, then they become our platform to reach back into their countries for mutual trade, travel, etc. This should propel Minnesota to the forefront of globalization.
For additional information about the Bridges Network contact Larry Walker at lwalkerKMI@aol.com . With a simple email you can become a member. Membership is free and open to all concerned with providing services and a welcome to new Minnesota residents.