December 15, 2020

GUEST ROOM | My Residence Hall Director Taught Me How To Salsa And What It Means To Be Human

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In July of 2019, my two hour visit to 1 Federal Plaza, New York City’s Asylum Court, scratched the surface in seeing the true failings of the American immigration legal machine. Unaccompanied children were scattered across the waiting room, sitting on each other’s laps, each of them waiting on their chance at a chance. Many of them were too young to understand the gravity of that day; most of them didn’t have a tight enough grasp on the English language to understand the legal jargon spoken in the ether. A six year old girl timidly filed into the courtroom alone, and with the help of a translator, asked to be deported to reunite with her parents in Honduras; the judge pounded his gavel dismissively and called the next case. As an intern who was merely shadowing an immigration lawyer, I witnessed an indelible moment in this little girl’s life that came about in five fleeting minutes. Returning to campus that August for my Sophomore year, I wanted to better understand how our own Cornell community members were affected by the brokenness of this system in the face of a pending Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Supreme Court case.  

I had no idea that what I had been searching for was someone I saw almost everyday: my freshman Residence Hall Director, Amadou Fofana. He’s the guy who makes the extra effort to exude kindness and big hellos in the dining hall and organize a host of fun community dorm activities. I even took one of his salsa classes freshman year and remembered tripping on myself in a fit of laughter as he tried to teach us how to enchufla. As I sat face to face with Amadou, the gravity of this reality set in. On a snow-covered February morning in my sophomore year, he bravely agreed to share his experience as an individual with DACA status as part of my Engaged Cornell podcast on community members who are “Shifting And Shaping” a new American paradigm. Emigrating from The Gambia as a young child, he spoke publicly so that others could reframe their narratives of immigration in our community: “I’ve realized the impact of being able to say that I’m here. I’m proud to be undocumented.” 

Since that day, for the past 10 months, Amadou has worked closely with me on the podcast that will launch in January of 2021. He is one of the most inspirational people that I have the pleasure of calling my friend. Amadou is a testament to the hope, perseverance, balance and positivity that we should strive to find in ourselves. 

If I had not gone to Asylum Court that summer day in 2019, it is possible that I would have never found myself at Amadou’s office, slipping a note under his door to request a meeting. Through the podcast production process, I’ve begun to learn a lot about the communities that I belong to, in both troubling and beautiful ways. When I conducted my interview with Amadou this past February, he was under immense psychological stress, awaiting a terrifying Supreme Court verdict that had the power to derail his entire life. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court upheld the DACA program, but in the aftermath of this close decision, Amadou feels that “the fight for larger systemic change is not over.” In many ways we all live part of our lives in solitude, and having critical conversations with our neighbors is the only way to foster connection and empathy, tapping into the greater narrative of the human experience in which all people have a seat at the table. 

To do honest social justice work, we ought to create time and space to reflect. I realized the truth began to reveal itself when I ventured into my own shadow biases and privileges, deeply examining how and why I am primed to interpret our world. Before going to Asylum Court, I had no concept of what the failings of the immigration system looked like on our Cornell campus. Objectivity is the path to truth, and it is important to actively pry ourselves from the subjectivity of our own wilderness.

Allyship should be viewed as a transforming and interconnected part of society in which we all can find occupancy and come to know on a personal level. Thinking of allyship as an undefined, unconventional space allowed me to better understand Amadou’s perspective, widening my window into his life, even if by a tiny margin. This is the discomforting nature of true allyship of which I only had a small taste. Without it, we’re kidding ourselves, upholding white privilege and the status quo after a long day of playing dress-up as social justice advocates. We ought to bridge the chasm of inequality in our country and create an equitable and inclusive future with community engagement, empathy and curiosity as our compass. 

Amadou puts it simply, “You have to be willing to say, ‘I am willing to do whatever to support you in making sure that your humanity is well-respected.’ If we’re not showing up for each other, then what do we have?” 

Natalie Breitkopf is a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences in pursuit of an American studies major, a double minor in media studies and urban regional studies, and a certificate in community-engaged leadership. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester.