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Who are "We"?

The following short essay was published in the June 2020 issue of Works in Progress.

Since the onset of COVID-19, the slogan “We are all in this together” has been heard everywhere. But who is the “we” that is meant? Who is included and who is ignored? Whose life, health and safety are prioritized? Who is allowed to sicken and die? What are the implications of relying on an “essential” workforce that is excluded from even the most basic protections and supports? What does that say about “us” as a people, as a nation?

It’s Wednesday night, and I am on-line. My co-teacher and I have a few minutes to finish planning for tonight’s ELL class. The class starts at 6:30, but students often filter in early. We are eager to see each other and check in. “How are you? (Como estás?)” How is your family? (Como está la familia?)” “Are you healthy? Are you working this week?” Although everyone is eager to learn English, we sometimes switch to Spanish—a pleasure for me, a relief for them from the pressures of communicating in their new language.

My co-teacher and I are volunteers at CIELO, “Centro Integral Latino Educativo de Olympia” (Integrated Educational Center for immigrants in Olympia.) In normal times CIELO offers classes for adults in English Language Learning, computer skills, sewing and GED preparation, and a homework club and tutoring for youth. CIELO’s centers in Olympia and Shelton offer mental health support and advocacy support services to survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and crime. CIELO is a center and community where immigrants bring their hopes, challenges and diverse cultural experiences, and where they are respected and encouraged to take their first steps to learn a new land.

The decision to teach on-line was made over several weeks as CIELO staff and volunteers struggled with the implications of being separated from our students. Today, a number of us who never used Zoom are working to become proficient at on-line teaching. Our students, many with only their phones to connect them to the outside world, are logging on twice a week, peering at their screens, determined not to lose the momentum they’ve gained.

I empathize with my students. My early experiences of schooling convinced me that I was incapable of learning a second language. What finally propelled me to try was my need to communicate with people who otherwise would have remained strangers. I had to overcome the embarrassment I felt at my slow and awkward attempts, my fear of failure. Organized classes gave me tools—grammar, vocabulary, speaking and writing practice. But fundamentally it was the determination to communicate, regardless of mistakes, that drove me. I am not fluent, and my students know it. But we can understand each other and we can move between languages as needed to support their—and my—learning.

From my early struggles with language, I learned the importance of a classroom that is supportive and welcoming. I learned to honor that moment when a student decides to step out of their comfort zone and go for it. There is risk, but also the hope that the foundation they have built will hold, that others will be there to support them and cheer them on. That shared sense of purpose has made the space of our classroom a celebratory and even a joyous one. We laugh a lot. I hope our students know how much my co-teacher and I respect their labor and willingness to take risks.

COVID-19 challenges all of us, but for our students, the impact has been total. In communities around the nation, Latinx immigrants are getting sick at higher rates than most white and non-immigrant constituencies. (African-Americans, Asian and Pacific Islanders and Native Americans are also seeing disproportionate impacts of COVID-19). According to the Washington State Department of Health, Latinx people are 13% of the population of our state—but they make up 33% of those infected by the coronavirus. Immigrant workers and families are among the most vulnerable and impacted constituencies--the least likely to have health insurance, work in jobs with protections and benefits, or be eligible for supports to help them weather the crisis. In our state immigrant workers do some of the most essential jobs: farm work, meat packing, construction—jobs that are demanding and dangerous at the best of times. They work in close quarters, often without protective gear. Often, they are not given sick days. If they are undocumented, they have only minimal access to medical care, no access to unemployment benefits and no eligibility for federal stimulus checks. Recently Georgetown University’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection sued the Trump administration for denying emergency benefits to the U.S. citizen children of “mixed status” families—families with one or more undocumented member. This is only one of the many strategies being deployed by our government to separate immigrants from the rest of the population and wall them off from support.

Our students are workers and homemakers. Some are single parents, some are members of large and loving families. Some are the main support of parents, children or siblings in El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Guatemala or Mexico. Some live in crowded apartments; others rent rooms in isolated trailers where their roommates are strangers and they must drive somewhere to find an internet “hot spot” for our class. Our students are hard workers who don’t complain. Like all of us in this time they need contact and support. They need—and deserve--to be part of the “we” that they have risked so much to join.

Our students are cheerful; they love to laugh. They thank us for giving them homework, for gently nudging them to practice their hard-won English while they are living in quarantine. At the end of each class, we wave and smile to each other. “Thank you.” “See you next week.” “Be well.” “Be safe.”

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