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Speaking out: What are you talking about?

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This question is more than an expression of frustration at not understanding. It can be an honest question. What do you talk about most? I took notes once in an airport boarding gate about what people were talking about. This past November I listened to what people were talking about at a Thanksgiving dinner. I listen to what people talk about after church on Sundays while having coffee. Sometimes I even listen to what I am talking about.

I suppose you know what is safe to talk about with certain people and what is not safe, so what you talk about with them is predictable. When you see them, you search your memory for something safe to say. In my case, my youngest daughter introduced me to her friend in Montana by what I frequently talk about. “He will be wearing blue jeans, tucked-in T-shirt and talking about cars.” When I met this lady for the first time, she apologized for buying a car other than a Subaru. She explained her decision, thinking that would be important to me.

I have been talking about immigrants coming to rural places for the last 36 years. My grandparents on my mother’s side were immigrants from Germany who settled in Indiana. As the economic development director for Gov. George Sinner, I promoted the idea of communities qualifying as “Statue of Liberty” communities. Having a community vote to accept the “tired and the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” I thought communities with consistent out-migration should be eligible for faster citizenship for immigrants to encourage people to live there.

I am still talking about immigrants in 2022. Their stories are fascinating, sometimes tragic, and often heroic. Immigrants experience North Dakota through the lens of their old country, interpreting what they are seeing to what they have seen before. North Dakota people see immigrants through a lens of social and political media. Often immigrants are prejudged based on the country they come from, the language they speak, the religious belief system or the color of their skin.

Martin Luther King Jr. quoted William Cullen Bryant’s poem “The Battlefield.” “Truth, crushed to the earth shall rise again, the eternal years of God are hers. Error, wounded writhes in pain, and dies among his worshipers.” Make no mistake what King meant -- judging people by the color of their skin is lying about them. It is crushing truth, and people, to the earth. Martin Luther King’s dream was to be judged by the content of one’s character. What is the content of a desirable character? That conversation would lead us to talk about immigrants as real people.

In judging character, I look for a person who is truthful, compassionate and unselfish. We celebrate these characteristics on Jan. 17, which is the holiday in memory of Martin Luther King. King had those characteristics.

Three people who were/are truthful, compassionate and unselfish include Gov. Arthur Link, the "Farmer’s Lawyer" Sarah Vogel and Ricardo Pierre-Louis. Art fought for the environment, Sarah for farmers, and Ricardo, a professional soccer player, is fighting for the kids of Haiti.

You may know Link and Vogel, but if you don’t know Pierre-Louis, come meet him. He is a native of Haiti, an author of “Hunger for Hope,” a soccer coach and teacher in Bismarck. He is the keynote speaker for the Martin Luther King Celebration at 7 p.m. Jan. 17 at Trinity Lutheran Church. I want people like Ricardo to come to North Dakota. Let’s talk about how to make that happen.

Bill Patrie has been recognized for his work as a cooperative developer by the National Farmers Union, the Association of Cooperative Educators and the National Cooperative Business Association.


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