By Brianna Gleghorn
“Welcoming in NE Ohio: Past, Present, Future” was the highlighted topic of discussion at a panel held on Sept. 18 at Youngstown State University, bringing light to welcoming immigrants to the community.
Thrive Mahoning Valley, a local nonprofit organization that works to create a well-rounded community, held the panel as part of a nationwide celebration called Welcoming Week, “bringing together immigrants and longtime residents to build community.”
Panelists included Martha Pallante, Veronica Dahlberg and Jacob Labendz discussing the past, present and future of immigration in the United States with the student body and community at YSU.
Pallante, the interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at YSU, presented the history of welcoming immigrants in Northeast Ohio, the Mahoning Valley and the Youngstown area during the panel.
“The Mahoning Valley, the Youngstown area in particular, has always been a place of transit,” Pallante said.
She said the area had nearly 1,000 residents by 1840, and after undergoing changes and a surge of immigrants that were mainly Irish and German, the population rose to about 15,500 people by 1887.
“One of the things that makes the Youngstown area unique actually is [Youngstown’s] sort of single focused employment in steel,” Pallante said.
Dahlberg, founding executive director of HOLA Ohio, spoke on the current standing of immigration in America.
HOLA Ohio, a Latinx organization based in Northeast Ohio, works to empower the Latinx community by creating opportunities through education, outreach, leadership development and economic advancement.
During the panel, Dahlberg set the scene for the audience, describing the Mexico and U.S. border atmosphere, seeing the graves of those who have tried to cross the border on foot and died as a result of heat and rough terrain.
“When you think about our country being a beacon of hope, the Statue of Liberty and all of these values that we supposedly embrace here, the reality is different,” she said.
Dahlberg talked about the raid of Corso’s Flower and Garden Center in Sandusky and Castalia, Ohio, where 114 workers were arrested for illegally settling in the U.S.
“Their whole lives revolved around their work … They raised their families,” she said. “They were undocumented but only because they didn’t have any way to become legal. These are farmers harvesting flowers who somehow were seen as a priority and something that had to be eradicated.”
The panel was sponsored by YSU’s Center for Judaic and Holocaust Studies, marking the first year the Mahoning Valley and YSU has taken part in Welcoming Week traditions.
Jacob Labendz, assistant professor of Judaic and Holocaust studies, focused on the future of not only Northeast Ohio but the nation as a whole.
“One can master the past,” Labendz said. “But you are always wrong when talking about the future.”
In Labendz’s opinion, the United States should constantly be transforming, especially “if the politics and structures of the past 30 years are no longer working.”
“If I were to come back in 100 years, I will not understand America, and that’s a good thing,” Labendz said. “Because it means we’re responding to the challenges that we face.”
Nicole Pettitt, assistant professor in the English department, organized the event for the YSU community to take part in.
According to Pettitt, the panel focused on understanding the past, knowing the present and understanding what’s at risk for the future of immigration in the Youngstown area.
“As we receive more people into our communities, and we are starting to see more people in the Mahoning Valley, it behooves us to be more welcoming,” Pettitt said.
Rebecca Banks, a YSU alumna, described the panel as “very informative and speculative.”
According to Banks, the panel allowed her to reflect on her grandfather’s past, who immigrated to Youngstown from Mexico to work in the steel mills.
“We’re still the beacon of hope to people, and I had the privilege of growing up [in Youngstown], but I wouldn’t be here if my grandfather didn’t make that trip,” Banks said.
Banks said hearing the stories of people who immigrated to the United States helps the community be more welcoming and makes her feel connected to her grandfather.
“We’re all one country,” she said.