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Persistence is key to agreeing on parks use for immigrants, long-time residents

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When this coming together began, I was the director of Public Conversations West, a nonprofit that helps groups address deeply divisive issues. I led a series of discussions among the various stakeholders. Funding came from the San Francisco-based Foundation for Youth Investment. We called the project “Green Access,” and it focused on linking disadvantaged young people with the outdoors and activities outside.

El Cajon’s schools have children from a wide range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. More than 40 percent of them are English-language learners and more than 60 percent are designated as “socio-economically disadvantaged.” On the school playgrounds you hear Spanish, Arabic, Chaldean, Kurdish, Tagalog, Burmese, Assyrian, Farsi, and Khmer. And you hear this variety on the blacktop and dirt playgrounds because most of the schools serving these children haven’t got much green space of their own or nearby. Efforts are underway to change that.

One of the groups most interested in Green Access is a nonprofit named YALLA, which uses the nearly universal language of soccer to motivate refugee and immigrant children to rebuild their lives through education and leadership programs. It brings kids together for drills, scrimmages, coaching – and also tutoring. But YALLA has a hard time finding places and times for them to play – and the money to fund their programs. El Cajon’s established residents also have established leagues, playing times, and rules about access. These residents are equally passionate about their needs.

Green Access brought YALLA, the city’s recreation department, and many other groups together for four sessions of dialogue. Everyone wanted the same goal of greater outdoor access for all the children of El Cajon. The various parties were not only willing, but eager to sit together and engage constructively.

The meetings helped build trust and understanding among those of differing viewpoints. Working groups were formed. Together, everyone gained a shared understanding of facts and experience. One participant depicted some facts graphically, with maps showing the distribution of schools, green spaces, and residents according to income and newcomer status. The disparities popped out.

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