Nearly 40 concerned citizens spent Friday morning discussing the growing multicultural and multi-ethnic community of Herndon. No concrete solutions were agreed upon during the three-hour meeting at the Days Inn on Centreville Road, but the participants were pleased with the progress made since they last met. In the wake of last April's Multicultural Summit, five task forces were created to deal with the most pressing issues generated by Herndon's changing demographic landscape.
From affordable housing to legal rights to health care and job security, the community leaders worked on finding ways to reach out to all segments of the Herndon population. The Herndon-Dulles Chamber of Commerce and the Town of Herndon orchestrated the meeting.
The follow-up summit touched on potential solutions to problems that were highlighted in April. For the last five months, the task forces have been meeting to discuss health care, legal services, cultural assimilation, youth and employment. Friday morning, members of the respective task forces reported their progress.
"The first meeting in March touched a nerve in this community," said Francine Kemp, president of Diversity Works, Inc. and the moderator for Friday's summit. "All of us have a story, all of us have needs and rights. Our community is 42 percent ethnic and we are living next door to one another, eating each other's foods and our children are dating each other's children."
Kemp told the audience their work together will make Herndon a model community. Kemp said she is a military wife and a mother of a Marine and that she wants to see our country at peace, a process she said needs to begin locally. "We also need to have peace right next door to us, first."
<b>IN HIS ADDRESS</b> to the group, Mayor Richard Thoesen applauded the group's efforts to address multicultural concerns in the town. Thoesen stressed the importance of finding innovative, fair and, most importantly, compassionate solutions to deal with the day laborer issue. Thoesen reminded the group that "but for the grace of God, we might be in the same situation."
In an effort to reduce street corners filled with day laborers looking for work and to increase opportunities for the laborers, Thoesen said the town is in the process of finding a permanent "hiring site."
The mayor said he is approached by constituents every week about the day-laborer issue. Women, he said, have complained about catcalls, while others object to alleged public urination, intoxication and violence caused when too many laborers vie for too few jobs. "Oftentimes, the individual is frustrated and upset that we are not doing something about the fact that many are illegal immigrants, don't pay taxes and appear to be simply loitering," he said. "No one can really pin it down, but most express that it 'quote looks bad.'"
"Day laborers who come to this great country are responding to opportunities they do not have at home," the mayor said. "How we treat these folks reflects the very vision and values of who we are as a community of people."
The mayor made it clear that he is sensitive to the community's concerns, but he stressed respect and tolerance when searching for solutions. "As we work together, let us remember that the Bill of Rights is not a convenience to use when only beneficial to our personal values or purpose at the time," he said, concluding his remarks. "If we are to treat our Latino community with an unnecessary heavy hand instead of working with them for a successful solution, one must ask, 'who's next?'"
<b>EILEEN CURTIS</b>, the chamber president, identified several areas of improvement where local businesses can improve in promoting a multicultural agenda. The business and employment committee committed to helping solve the day laborers' issue, encouraging ESOL programs within companies, creating summer jobs and internships for teenagers and promoting a spirit of diversity in the workplace.
"Businesses here need to take their blinders off and realize Herndon is changing," said Judy Kordella, the chairperson for the Business and Employment Task Force.
Kerrie Wilson, the executive director of Reston Interfaith, echoed Kordella's sentiments. "We need to promote multiculturalism through community conversations," Wilson, a Herndon High alum, said. "I have seen the changes in this community over the years. We should be celebrating our differences and strengths. Multiculturalism in Herndon is a good thing."
"The priorities of our group have changed and evolved since we last met," said Kordella. "Previously, our biggest concern was finding a way solve the day laborer issue."
After discussing concerns among task force members on Friday, new priorities evolved. "Finding a link between job seekers and employers was number one," Kordella said. Better transportation options, additional ESL learning sites, and the day laborer issue were also emphasized by the business committee as priorities.
Kordella said her group liked the idea of working with the hospitality industry to provide English classes between shifts. "We also want to encourage ESL in companies," Kordella said, "On the reverse side, we need to find ways to encourage new immigrants to learn English."
In wrapping up the summit, Kemp, the moderator, stressed that more work was ahead. "Where do we go from here?" she asked Kemp the group. "What I don't want to see happen is that we produce a little book on a shelf and no one reads it. We have to listen to your community. The hard work is yet to come."